Chart hits

In-demand Leo Belgicus maps are stars of leading antiques fair.

Art lovers and history buffs will have the chance to view a collection of rare maps at Europe’s leading art and antiques fair this month. The 16th- and 17th-century Leo Belgicus series, depicting the 17 provinces of the Low Countries in the shape of a lion, is one of the most famous and sought-after cartographic curiosities in the world. Daniel Crouch Rare Books, based in London, will be exhibiting nine of these unique maps at TEFAF in the Dutch city of Maastricht, just over the Flemish border.

The significance of this collection, says Crouch, is threefold. First, as objects of artistic merit, they are “graphically very beautiful” and represent some of the earliest attempts to depict maps in an animal form. Second, they have great historic interest, as they were “intimately connected with the Dutch struggle for independence”. And third, they are superb examples of the Golden Age of Dutch Cartography. This is a term used to describe the period in the 17th century when the growth of Amsterdam as a commercial centre and of the Netherlands as a trading nation “coincided with these great and rather beautiful maps that were expressions of newfound Dutch confidence, humanism and global power,” says Crouch.

Emerging nations

An Austrian cartographer named Michael Aitzinger created the first Leo Belgicus map in 1583 as a celebration of Dutch unity and strength during the Eighty Years’ War against Spain (1568-1648). William of Orange led a coalition of the provinces of the Low Countries, which included all of present-day Belgium, in a struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire.

After centuries of foreign rule, first under the Dukes of Burgundy and then under the Habsburgs, the Netherlands finally became a political, military and economic power unto themselves. Aitzinger chose to depict the Low Countries in the shape of a lion because several of the provinces incorporated a heraldic lion in their coat of arms, including Brabant, Flanders, Guelders, Hainaut, Holland, Limburg and Zeeland. To this day, of course, the lion is associated with Flanders and appears on the regional flag, as well as on the flags of the provinces of Limburg, East Flanders and Flemish Brabant.

Although the Latin name Leo Belgicus would seem to refer to Belgium, both the modern country and the antiquarian map were named after the Roman province Gallia Belgica. Before the Southern Netherlands gained independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 19th century – and was subsequently named Belgium – the Latin name Belgica referred to all the lands of the Low Countries, including present-day Netherlands, parts of Belgium and northern France, and the Duchy of Luxembourg.

There were several versions of the Leo Belgicus created between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. Daniel Crouch Rare Books is in possession of the most famous example of the earliest version, depicting a lion with its head in the northeast and its tail in the southwest. The “Peaceful Lion” by Claes Janszoon Visscher dates from 1609 and commemorates the Twelve Years’ Truce. A second version reverses the position of the lion, and the latest version shows the reduced territory of the Netherlands at the end of the Eighty Years’ War.

TEFAF Open to everyone

TEFAF Maastricht ( formerly The European Fine Arts Fair) brings together 260 dealers from 20 countries for one of the world’s most prestigious art markets. The rare and valuable pieces on display range from Old Master paintings and works on paper to contemporary art and design. Every item is vetted by a team of 175 experts in 29 categories to ensure authenticity, quality and condition. And everything is for sale.

Daniel Crouch Rare Books specialises in antique atlases, maps, sea charts and travel accounts dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. In addition to the Leo Belgicus collection, valued at €400,000, they will be exhibiting Johannes Blaeu’s Atlas Major of 1665, an 11-volume set that is the largest atlas ever published, as well as a pair of oversized Willem Blaeu globes from 1645-48. These will form part of a larger display on the Golden Age of Cartography.

Even if you’re not in the market for a 17th-century map, it’s worth a trip to TEFAF Maastricht to see these and other rare works. Members of the public are welcome to visit and browse without buying. It may be your last chance to see these masterpieces before they become part of a private collection and disappear from public view.