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Cartographica Helvetica


Theme: Surveying and mapping the region of Basel

Cartographica Helvetica 63 (2021)


Basel, situated in a bend of the Rhine River, is located in the northwestern corner of Switzerland. Up until the end of the 15th century, the economic, cultural and social life was shaped by its strong ties to the cities of the Upper Rhine. After joining the Confederation in 1501, there was a political re-orientation towards south. Basel established itself as an independent city-state and as an autonomous territorial state. This process is reflected graphically by the difference between the oldest manuscript map (1495/97) and the oldest printed map of Switzerland (1513). During the two decades between 1531 and 1550, and again between 1561 and 1580, Basel was the leading map-making center in Central Europe, characterized by the work of Sebastian Münster, who had the first regional map of Switzerland printed there.

The territorial demarcation of Basel entailed various surveying activities. Together with two of his sons, the artist Hans Bock the Elder mapped the territorial boundaries of Basel on behalf of the Lesser Council from 1620 to 1624. The inner region of the canton was surveyed on the basis of polygonal geometry during the second half of the 17th century by the city engineers Jakob and Georg Friedrich Meyer, from which numerous tithe maps, official maps, sketches and the large manuscript of the entire canton at the scale 1:10,000 had been preserved. Thereby, the entire territory of Basel was mapped for the first time already in 1690 using the modern methods of that time. In 1755, the physics professor Daniel Bernoulli, a laureate of various scientific academies, undertook an expedition to the Jura Mountains of Basel and was the first to determine the height of four locations. Other than that, the cartographers of the 18th century essentially limited themselves to publishing the surveys of their predecessors.

In 1765, modern cartography arrived in the region of Basel from the west with the publication of the Carte de France at the scale 1:86,400. A decade and a half later, a second survey of the regions around the city followed with the Carte géométrique de la Frontière at 1:14,400, this time by the French engineering corps. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Ingénieurs géographes militaires were also active in the Rhine Valley to the east of Basel, having gained strategic significance as the axis for displacing Napoleon’s troops against Austria, their foremost enemy. At the same time, the first French cadastral plans in the context of the Code civil were developed in the vicinity of Basel.

These numerous French surveying activities did not remain unnoticed by the scientists and authorities of Basel and rather inspired them. Between 1813 and 1824, the mathematics professor Daniel Huber attempted a trigonometric survey of the Canton. Beginning in 1820, the agricultural commission had numerous municipalities mapped, based on this geodetic groundwork. However, this revolutionary surveying project came to a complete stop after three years of political confusion, which ended up in the separation of Canton Basel into two half-cantons. Shortly thereafter, when the Topographische Karte der Schweiz at the scale 1:100,000 was tackled under the command of General Dufour, the roads inspector Friedrich Baader was able, under his name, to efficiently compile the already existing large-scaled maps into original drawings at 1:25,000, on which only the remaining gaps had to be completed. In order to plan the line Basel-Olten of the Swiss Central Railroad the topographic bases had to be re-surveyed with contour lines since the terrain had been represented merely by hachures. For the same reason, the basis of the Topographischer Atlas der Schweiz at 1:25,000 also had to be corrected with contour lines, as of 1870. With the Dufour and Siegfried maps, the Swiss Confederation took the lead in mapping Basel at a topographic scale.

The map collection of the University Library of Basel is considered to be one of most important cartographic and historic collections of Switzerland. Its inventory includes unique treasures and various one-of-a-kind items, among them the first printed map of the city of Paris by Truschet and Hoyau from the 1550s, or the 1569 world map and the 1572 map of Europe by Gerhard Mercator. The aim of this essay is to retrace the history of the collection based on selected maps from their obscure beginnings in the 15th century up to structured activities at the beginning of the 20th century. Special emphasis is placed on the so-called Amerbach cabinet. There are many indications that the most valuable maps which are kept at the University Library of Basel today originated from the lawyer Basilius Amerbach's art gallery, a remarkably important one for Basel. Thanks to the evaluation of various inventories of Amerbach's art gallery for this essay, it was for the first time even possible to determine the provenance of several items. A further area of interest was Sebastian Münster's cartographic work in Basel. Thanks to his activities, his correspondence and his endeavors, Basel became an important center for cartography in the 16th century, and he left significant traces in the local map collection. In 1879, Jakob Melchior Ziegler, co-founder and long-time director of the cartographic firm Wurster & Cie in Winterthur, donated his impressive map collection to the university library. Due to political developments and various other donations, the map collection at the university library finally developed from a collection of rarities to a small but exquisite collection of maps in the 19th century. Its quintessence – the maps by Münster, Mercator or Ortelius – have made the University Library of Basel an important seat in the history of cartography, even to this day.

Translation by Christine Studer

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