Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638) is regarded as the father of modern western globe-making. Not only did his firm really kick-start globes as a viable commercial enterprise, during his forty-year career his globes are amongst the very finest and most beautiful ever published.
Blaeu was the son a of a herring merchant, born in Alkmaar in the province of North Holland. Although a provincial town it had several citizens who played key roles in the development of astronomy and cartography, further strengthened by the close ties with Amsterdam. It was prominent citizen Adriaan Anthonisz, a mathematician and an enthusiast for the liberal arts, who first encouraged Blaeu to take up astronomy. Anthonisz son Adriaan Metius would later author a celestial globe for Hondius.
Over the winter of 1595/6 Blaeu stayed with the renowned Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) at his observatory in Urienborg. Brahe (whose portrait crowns the cartouche to the celestial globe) was the leading astronomer of his day and the first in the West to produce an entirely new star catalogue since Ptolemy.
Brahe attracted many astronomers and celestial cartographers of the day to his observatory including globe-makers Arnold and Hendrik van Langren whose globes benefited enormously from his influence. In fact their father Jakob Floris van Langren (1525-1610) was the first person to publish globes in the important commercial port of Amsterdam, with a pair of 32.5cm. diameter in 1586. He soon had a commercial rival in the form of Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612) who published a pair of globes in London in 1597 followed by an updated version in Amsterdam in 1597. Both would be eclipsed by Blaeu, however, both by the beauty of his own globes, and by the success and longevity of his publishing house.
Brahe was completing his star catalogue at the time of Blaeu's stay and on his return to Alkmaar, Blaeu made for Adriaan Anthonisz a 34cm. diameter terrestrial globe, engraved by Jan Pietersz. Saenredam and based on Brahe's as yet unpublished information.
In 1598/9 Blaeu settled in Amsterdam. It was here that he established his hugely successful publishing company which, thoughout the course of the seventeenth century, would issue not only globes but maps, books, atlases and planetaria. His first publication was a terrestrial globe to match the celestial he had already made. This was dated 1599. Interestingly it is signed Guilielmo Ianssonio Alcmariano, meaning "Willem Jansz of Alkmaar". This is the name that would appear on all of his initial five pairs of globes: he made a run of the 34cm. celestial dated 1603 to be sold with the terrestrial of 1599; by this time he had already produced pairs of 23cm. diameter, dated 1601; and he would go on to produce pairs of 13.5cm. (1606), 10cm. (1616) and his largest pair at 68cm. diameter in 1617. Keuning has shown that the name of Blaeu did not appear on a globe until at least 1621, adopted to avoid confusion with his nearest rival, the firm of Johannes Janssonius, and taken from his grandfather's nickname, "Blue" William; updated versions of all the pairs apart from the largest have been recorded, bearing the name of Blaeu. As well as these globes, Blaeu made a tellurian to illustrate Copernican theory; is the attributed maker of a 5.3cm. terrestrial pocket globe; and in 1634 published his celebrated globe manual Tweevoudigh Onderwijs van de Hemelsche en Aerdsche Globen.
Blaeu's 68cm. globes were made in response to the 53cm. pair issued by the Hondius firm in 1613. Their preparation was announced in 1614, and when finished in 1616 were presented to the States General, who awarded an honorarium of 50 guilders. They would remain the largest globes in production for over 70 years, until Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (1650-1717) issued his 110cm. pair in 1688.
Republished three times during the seventeenth century, these globes, printed by Willem's son Joan Blaeu (c. 1596-1673) date to circa 1645/48 (terrestrial) and 1630 (celestial), and incorporate important discoveries from the voyages or LeMaire, Button, William Baffin amongst others. Most of these additions were not worked into Blaeu's smaller globes: an indication that he considered this large pair his most important work. As van der Krogt states "[t]his globe pair confirmed Blaeu's reputation as the greatest globe manufacturer in the world".
After Willem's death, the company was taken over by his son Joan, who in turn ceded it to Joan II (1650-1712). Both continued to reissue Willem's globes, and this practice carried on even after the firm was sold to Jan Jansz van Ceulen (1635-1689) on 2 July 1682. The reason for the sale is not clear since by the mid seventeenth century, through the acquisition of other firms' copper plates and tools, the Blaeus had an almost complete monopoly on globe-making in the Netherlands. Despite altering nothing but the address on the terrestrial globe, van Ceulen took this monopoly even further, applying for and receiving, in 1682, a charter for the sole production of globes in Holland for the next 15 years. Van Ceulen's estate was purchased after his death by Johannes de Ram (1648-93) and following his death his widow, Maria van Zutphen, was remarried to Jacques de la Feuille (1668-1719) in 1696. De la Feuille's are the last known reissues of Blaeu's globes, and Dekker records rather sadly that "drink and abuse of his wife seem to have been de la Feuille's only recorded activities and helped to put a sad end to a glorious globe-making enterprise, renowned over Europe".
Keuning, J., 'Hulpmiddelen bij de dateering van verschillende uitgaven van W.J. Blaue'. Tijdschrift van het Kon. Ned. Aard. Gen., LVII (1940)
Peter van der Krogt, Globi Neerlandici: The production of globes in the Low Countries, Utrecht 1993, BLA V, pp. 176-187 and pp. 509-523
Peter van der Krogt, The most magnificent and largest globes of Blaeu, the world's greatest globe maker, Houten 2001.
Elly Dekker, Globes at Greenwich, Oxford 1999, GLB 0130-0131 and GLB 0104-0105., pp. 287-293, plates 27, 28, 38 and 39