{ subscribe_url:'/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/geography-and-maps.php' }

Nicolas de Fer:The Royal Geographer

A portrait of Nicolas de Fer.

A portrait of Nicolas de Fer from Les frontières de France et des Pais Bas, Bernard, 1743. Geography and Map Division.

The French cartographer and engraver, Nicolas de Fer, was a master at creating maps that were works of art. The maps that he published were printed during the Baroque period when the decorative arts were characterized by ornate detail. De Fer’s detailed maps and atlases were valued more for their decorative content than their geographical accuracy.

Nicolas de Fer was born in 1646. His father, Antoine de Fer, owned a mapmaking firm. At the age of twelve, Nicolas was apprenticed to a Parisian engraver named Louis Spirinx. The family business was starting to decline when his father died in 1673. Nicolas de Fer’s mother, Genevieve, took over the business after the death of her husband. In 1687 the business was passed on to Nicolas and the profits increased after he took over the firm. Nicolas de Fer was a prolific cartographer who produced atlases and hundreds of single maps. He eventually became the official geographer to King Louis XIV of France and King Philip V of Spain.

One of de Fer’s major works is an atlas titled L’atlas curieux (The curious atlas). The atlas includes descriptions of cities as well as plans of churches, palaces, and gardens. The following plans of the city of Madrid, the Monastery of El Escorial, and the city of Warsaw are from L’atlas curieux.

The map of Madrid featured below includes a list of streets, gardens, and other places of interest.

A map of Madrid, Spain.

Nicolas de Fer, Madrid ville considérable de la nouvelle Castille, séjour ordinaire des Roys d’Espagne from L’atlas curieux, ou, Le monde répresénté dans des cartes générales et particulieres du ciel et de la terre, 1705. Geography and Map Division.

The following plan is of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial in Spain. An illustration of the Royal Pantheon where Spanish monarchs are buried is shown on the left hand side of the plan.

A map of the Royal Monastery in Escorial, Spain.

Nicolas de Fer, Premier plan du Monastere Royal de St. Laurens au Bourg de L´Escurial from L’atlas curieux, ou, Le monde répresénté dans des cartes générales et particulieres du ciel et de la terre, 1705. Geography and Map Division.

The plan of Warsaw featured below includes a view of the city in the lower part of the map.

A map of Warsaw, Poland.

Nicolas de Fer, Varsovie, from L’atlas curieux, ou, Le monde répresénté dans des cartes générales et particulieres du ciel et de la terre, 1705. Geography and Map Division.

The following map of the British Isles is from Nicolas de Fer’s Petit et nouveau atlas. The maps from the Petit et nouveau atlas were simplified in comparison to the detailed maps that he usually published.

A map of England and Ireland dated 1705.

Nicolas de Fer, Les Isles Britaniques ou sont les Royaumes d’Angleterre, d’Escosse et d’Irlande, from Petit et nouveau atlas, 1705. Geography and Map Division.

The celestial chart shown below was published by Nicolas de Fer. The title translates to The artificial or oblique armillairy sphere: raised on the horizon at the latitude of Paris. The images on the chart were taken from the works of Nicolaus Copernicus, Giovanni Cassini, Gabrielle Phillipe de la Hire, and other astronomers. Maps of the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter are shown on the chart.

Nicolas de Fer died in 1720 and the family business was passed on to his sons in law, Guillaume Danet and Jacques-Francois Bernard. The firm continued to produce maps until 1760. The map below is from an atlas titled Les frontières de France et des Pais Bas. The atlas was published after de Fer’s death by his son in law, Jacques-Francois Bernard.

A map of the vicinities of Antwerp, Hulst and Axel.

Nicolas de Fer, Jacques Francois Bernard, Les Environs d’Anvers, d’ Hulst, d’ Axel, from Les frontières de France et des Pais Bas. 1743. Geography and Map Division.

I believe that the maps that Nicolas de Fer produced were not only decorative, they were also of a very high quality. He took a declining family firm and turned it into a prosperous business, and he eventually became an official geographer to royalty. The maps and plans featured in this post are a few examples of his work. My purpose in writing this post is to inform others about his contributions to cartography.



Searching for Saint Brendan’s Island

Over the years I have noticed the placement of Saint Brendan’s Island on historical maps. I became curious about the mythical island and the story behind it. Saint Brendan’s Island was placed in different locations on maps of the Atlantic Ocean. The island was often placed west of England and Ireland. It was also placed […]

“Eastern Branch of the Potomac River” or “Anacostia River”? A Cartographic Curiosity…

One of the joys involved in answering reference questions submitted to the Geography and Map Division is that some questions (the fun ones!) frequently involve extensive research in the Library’s cartographic holdings. Staff of the Geography and Map Division are also fortunate to be able to consult photocopies of maps from other institutions, early photographs […]

Verba Incognita: A Guide to Deciphering Latin on Maps

This is a guest post by Kelly Bilz, Librarian-in-Residence in the Geography and Map Division. Even though Latin had fallen out of vernacular use after the fall of Rome (and began to evolve into the modern Romance languages), it lived on in its written form, becoming the lingua franca, so to speak, of scholarship. In […]

The Exotic Animals of the Americas

European colonists were fascinated with the wildlife of the Western Hemisphere. They described fauna native to the Americas in memoirs, travel journals and poetry. Pictures of the unfamiliar animals were often printed on maps. In this post I will discuss four colonial era maps that were decorated with illustrations of animals. The two maps of […]

William Hacke: A Pirate’s Cartographer

William Hacke was one of the most prolific manuscript chart makers for his time. According to the Oxford  Dictionary of National Biography Hacke produced over 300 navigational charts from 1682 to 1702. In this post I will briefly discuss his career and his role in the pardon of the notorious pirate Bartholomew Sharp. William Hacke was […]

Hy-Brasil: The Supernatural Island

Hy-Brasil never existed, however, it was often shown on maps as a very small island west of Ireland. The name Hy-Brasil originated from Celtic mythology. According to Irish folklore an island named Hy-Brasil was visible from the west coast of Ireland for only one day every seven years, the rest of the time it was […]

The Mysterious Island

The title of this post does not refer to the science fiction novel of the same name by Jules Verne. It refers to the phantom island Frisland which was commonly shown on maps of the North Atlantic Ocean during the 16th and 17th centuries. Frisland never existed, however, cartographers believed that the island was real […]

Mappy Thanksgiving!

According to lore, the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts. The location owes its name to the English port of Plymouth where the settlers, also referred to as Pilgrims, began their transatlantic voyage. The Mayflower set sail in September 1620 and arrived near Cape Cod, Massachusetts in December 1620. After […]