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Amsterdam in its Full Glory

The tradition of city descriptions in the seventeenth century

In the seventeenth century city descriptions were very common. Nowadays we know that there existed more than fifty descriptions of smaller and bigger cities in the so-called Netherlands. Due to the enormous growth and economic prosperity, Amsterdam was depicted more than six times. Most of the city descriptions of Amsterdam concern luxurious books, full of beautiful and refined images. Most of these had the same purpose: presenting an idealized image of Amsterdam to give the city prestige.

Figure 1
Figure 1 This map shows Amsterdam in a bird’s-eye view.

Commelin’s Beschryvinge van Amsterdam (1693)

One of the famous city descriptions of Amsterdam is the so-called Beschryvinge van Amsterdam by Casparus Commelin from 1693. He was a famous bookseller, printer and publisher. In his depiction of Amsterdam, he wrote about various buildings in the city, about the history of the important Aemstel-family and he also gave lists in which he mentioned the people who hold office in several governmental functions (fig. 2). Besides the texts, he includes illustrations and maps (fig. 1).

Figure 2
Figure 2 Lists in the book with the regents of the spinning house.

Commelin did not write a totally new history of Amsterdam. His Beschryvinge is a compilation of the most renowned descriptions of Amsterdam until that point. An example is the description of his own father Isaac Commelin, which he includes in his own work.

Bulky and big

Commelin’s Beschryvinge van Amsterdam is a very large book with not less than 1223 pages, divided over two volumes (fig. 3). That’s why it is not always easy to handle. It’s more a coffee-table book which was laid down on a table, maybe opened on a beautiful engraving. Therefore the book showed the glory and prestige of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Here we can see the two bulky volumes of Commelin’s book.

A voluminous book dedicated to the city

Commelin dedicated his book to some magistrates of Amsterdam as we can see on the title-page of the book and in the dedication (fig. 4). We can safely assume that this book is so voluminous due to the fact that Commelin dedicated his book to people with important governmental roles. In its appearance, the book had to showcase the beauty the beauty and glory of Amsterdam. I would like to discuss to what extent the material aspects of the book emphasize its special status.

Figure 4
Figure 4 On this page of the book some of the people are mentioned to whom this book was dedicated. On the other side of the page, more people are mentioned.

A patent for a very special book against piracy

The first aspect that shows the book’s importance is the patent that is part of the first volume of Commelins Beschryvinge (fig. 5). Due to the professionalization of the printing profession printers very often applied for patents. The patent in this book was granted to Commelin and Aert Dircksz Oossaan (whose widow published the Beschryvinge after Commelin died) for the book. We can read in this patent that it cost a lot of money and work to publish it. Other people, however, were due to this patent not allowed to copy this book or make a pirate edition of it, which was a very common practice within the genre of city descriptions. This patent also shows that the publisher wanted the book to remain a rare commodity. Because of this, the book could gain a more special status.

Figure 5
Figure 5 Here we can see the patent that was granted for this book by Simon van Beaumont to Aert Dirckz Oossaan and Caspar Commelin.

The images of the book

A second aspect emphasizing the book’s luxurious nature is the fact that the Beschryvinge van Amsterdam contains as many as 125 images of Amsterdam, mostly engravings, but also some woodcuts. These images are often very large, for example the double-page engravings placed on a bilge sheet (fig. 6), the single-page engravings on a bilge sheet or on a single sheet (fig. 7) and smaller or larger engravings within the text (fig. 8). Not all of the images in this book are original. They were copied from the earlier city descriptions Commelin adapted, but they were all recreated and sometimes also changed a little bit. Making engravings or copies of them, as well as making woodcuts, is very time-consuming and therefore expensive. Because you couldn’t print engravings together with the text, it also took longer to print the whole book. This increases the special and above all costly status of books like this with so many images.  

Figure 6
Figure 6 On this image, we see a double-paged engraving on a bilge sheet which depicts a historical event in the history of Amsterdam.
Figure 7
Figure 7 This is an inserted leaf with a full-page engraving of the Reguliertoren in Amsterdam.
Figure 8
Figure 8 Here we see the Aemstel-family depicted in a battle. They are depicted as a very war-like family. This is an engraving within the text.

Bilge sheets: a sign of exceptionality?

Some of the engravings in this book, for example all the double-paged engravings, are placed on bilge sheets. This means that the images are placed on a small strip of paper through by which they can open up more, so that the image doesn’t disappear in the fold of the book (fig. 9). This placement on bilge sheets is a kind of ‘extra’ for a book and because of the fact that the images lay open more beautifully, it attributes to the luxurious feeling of the book. It is also more time-consuming to first glue an image to this strip of paper before binding this stroke of paper into the book than to immediately bind the image into the book.

Figure 9
Figure 9 In this image, we can see that the double-paged engraving of figure 6 is placed on a bilge sheet. You can see the small strip of paper on which the engraving is glued on.

However, it is not completely certain if these ‘bilge sheets’ are original. Janet Mente, the librarian of the KNIR, assumes that the Beschryvinge was subjected to restoration works in the 1980s. It is possible that at that time the images were glued to these strips of paper. Anyhow, the enormous amount of images are a material sign that this was a book was a luxury product which not everyone could afford.

A big city ‘wrapped up’ in two substantial volumes

The materiality of Commelin’s Beschryvinge, namely such as the sheer amount of images and the fact that the book consists of two bulky volumes, show that Commelin’s book was a book to show off the prosperity of Amsterdam. The production of this book was a costly and time-consuming enterprise. Because of its luxurious nature, the book was dedicated to important magistrates of Amsterdam. All in all, a smaller size would not do justice to the contents of the book and would also not fit the purpose of glorifying Amsterdam.

Hilde van Wanroij (1996) has a BA degree in Dutch language and culture and is currently a MA student Book Studies at the University of Amsterdam with a specialization in medieval manuscripts and the early modern printed book.

Book descriptions

KNIR SIGNATURE: Pregiato Folio D3.5c Com 1693 (v.1)

SHORT TITLE: Casparus Commelin, Beschryvinge van Amsterdam, Amsterdam: 1693

SIZE: 38 × 23 cm

TITLE: Beschryvinge van Amsterdam, desselfs eerste oorspronk uyt den Huyse der Heeren van Aemstel en Aemstellant; met een Verhaal Van haar Leven en dappere Krijgsdaden; Amsterdamse kleyne Beginselen, Oudheyt, Bemuring, en verscheyde Vergrootingen: De gelegentheyt en hoedanigheyt der Stad, de voornaamste Gebouwen, en wijze van Regeeringe. Beneffens een historisch Verhaal, vervattende ’t geene in, en om de zelve, van den beginne af, tot in den Jare 1691. toe, is voorgevallen. Uyt verscheyde oude en nieuwe Hollandsche Kronijken, Beschrijvingen, Brieven, Willekeuren. &c. by een vergadert; En op nieuw ’t geheele Werk door met verscheyde oude Brieven, Bewijsen, Aantekeningen als mede de Namen van de Heeren der Regeeringe, mitsgaders die der Kerk-en Godshuys-Meesteren, en wat voorts in Amsterdam is voorgevallen, vermeerdert. Door Casparus Commelin. Met kopere Afbeeldingen verciert, en met een algemeene Bladwijser voorsien. t’ Amsterdam. Voor Wolfgang, Waasberge, Boom, Van Someren en Goethals. M DC XCIII.

COLLATION: 2°: π4 *6 A-K6 M-N4 O-Z6 Aa-Yy6

DESCRIPTION: Bound with vellum over cardboard, blind-stamped in the centerpiece of the front and back board. Title page with woodcut, text in black and red. Engraved frontispiece. Except for the frontispiece this volume contains, outside the collation, 21 double-leaf engravings on bilge sheets, 6 full-page single-sheet engravings on bilge sheets, and 2 full-page engravings on a single sheet. This volume also contains 32 larger engravings and 2 smaller engravings inside the collation. These engravings show mostly buildings and maps of Amsterdam. There is also a gender register on a double-paged bilge sheet with woodcuts of family weapons. Handwritten notes of ownership on the board: F.G.

KNIR SIGNATURE: Pregiato Folio D3.5c Com 1693 (v.2)

SHORT TITLE: Casparus Commelin, Beschryvinge van Amsterdam, Amsterdam: 1693.

SIZE: 38 × 23 cm

TITLE: Vervolg Van de Beschryving der stadt Amsterdam, door Casparus Commelin. t’Amsterdam, voor Wolfgang, Waasberge, Boom, Van Someren en Goethals. M DC XCIII.

COLLATION: 2°: Zz6 Aaa-Zzz6 Aaaa-Eeee6 Ffff4 Gggg-Zzzz6 Aaaaa-Hhhhh6 Iiiii-Mmmmm4 A-K2

DESCRIPTION: Bound with vellum over cardboard, blind-stamped in the centerpiece of the front and back board. Title page with woodcut. This volume contains, outside the collation, 21 double-leaf engravings on bilge sheets and 3 full-page engravings on single sheets. Also 34 larger engravings and also 3 smaller engravings inside the collation. Handwritten notes of ownership on the board: F.G.


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CERL Thesaurus

Eeghen, I.H. van. De Amsterdamse boekhandel 1680-1725. Deel 4. Gegevens over de vervaardigers, hun internationale relaties en de uitgaven N-W, papierhandel, drukkerijen en boekverkopers in het algemeen, headword: ‘Oosaen (Aert Dircksz) 1657-1693’ Amsterdam 1967: 22-25.

Melle, M. van. ‘Waar vindt men uw’s gelijk, verheuglijk Amsterdam?’, in: Ons Amsterdam 49 1997: 272-276.

Molhuysen, P.C and P.J. Blok (eds.) Nieuw Nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek. Deel 6, headword: ‘Commelin, Caspar’, Leiden 1924: 324-325.

Haitsma Mulier, E. “The Image of Amsterdam in Seventeenth-Century Descriptions.” In: P. van Kessel & E. Schulte (ed.). Rome * Amsterdam. Two Growing Cities in Seventeenth-Century Europa, Amsterdam 1997: 13-23.

Haitsma Mulier, E. “De zeventiende-eeuwse stadsbeschrijvingen van Amsterdam.” In: Amstelodamum 85.4. 1998: 107-115.

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