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Gunter Schilder--the Great Man of Maps.


Recently I had the rare privilege of meeting Professor Gunter Schilder. With an appointment having been duly made, I found my way to the University of Utrecht to meet the "Great Man of Maps". After nearly being bowled over by a horde of tall and noisy students in the gigantic elevator of the Van Unnick Gebouw at "De Uithof", a large precinct of the University of Utrecht, I arrive at the right floor, to find absolute silence. After identifying the office door of the legendary Professor Gunter Schilder, I scan the massive map drawers and extensive bookcases that line the corridor while I wait. I am surprised by the lack of security for the treasures on display. Then he appears. He looks young for his age, and surprisingly well dressed for an academic. In his soft spoken, pleasant Austrian accent, Schilder answers my questions concisely and underlines almost every point he makes by quickly grabbing a map or a book, some of great size or weight. The evidence builds around me: his massive oeuvre. I now know why he is the "Great Man of Maps".


Gunter Schilder, born in Vienna on 18 February 1942, studied geography and history at Vienna University, receiving a scholarship from the Netherlands Ministry of Education to carry out research in Dutch archives regarding the history of the exploration of Australia by the United East-India Company (VOC). Thus began his distinguished career in opening the world's eyes to the early exploration of Australia. The resulting dissertation Der Anteil der Niederlander an der Entdeckung von Australien (bis Abel Jansz.Tasman) und dessen Niederschlag in der Kartographie earned him his PhD in 1970. Following that, Dr. Schilder worked for a period with the Dutch publisher Theatrum Orbis Terrarum who published his PhD thesis in English as Australia unveiled: the share of the Dutch navigators in the discovery of Australia (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1976. XII). He was subsequently appointed assistant to Cornelis Koeman, Professor of Geography at Utrecht University.

As professorial assistant, Dr. Schilder wrote a series of highly influential papers, including the Organization and Evolution of the Dutch East India Company's Hydrographie Office (1976), A Continent Found by Mistake (1978), Englantilaiten ja hollantiaisten koillisvaylan etsinta 1500-ja 1600 luvulla kartografisten lahteiden valossa (Helsinki 1980) and Een Nederlands Kartografisch Meesterwerkin Sydney: Evert Gijsbrechtsz'Kaart van de Indische Oceaan, 1599 (1981). At the behest of the Netherlands Queen he was then offered a personal Chair in Historical Cartography at Utrecht University, in 1981, the first ever in this field.

The multilingual Schilder then wrote several further books related to his earlier research. Amongst these were in 1983 an exhibition catalogue Toonneel des Aerdrijcx (Theatre of the World), then, in collaboration with his student Peter van der Krogt, The Southland Explored in 1984, followed by his Voyage to the Great Southland in 1985. In 1988, in collaboration with J. van Bracht, he generated the now rare 63 page monograph, The Origins of New York, which analysed a rare map and picture of "Nieuw Amsterdam", from the Vingboons collection. He next produced Cartographica Rarissima (1993), drawing from the collection of Thomas Niewodnizanski, which also covered the life and work of cartographer Pieter van der Keere. His most remarkable and prolific career continued to bloom, and an illustrated summary of all wall maps produced in the Spanish Netherlands prior to 1607 soon followed.


It is difficult to appreciate the monumental contribution Schilder has made. He alone uncovered almost one hundred historically significant maps during his career. These now form part of a ninevolume work, eight volumes of which have been published as Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica since 1986. The Monumenta is a cartographers' delight, reproducing and analysing wall-maps, sheet maps with stunning decorative margins and folio maps of the great mapmakers of the 16th to the 18th centuries. The works of cartographers such as Peter de Jode, Willem Janszoon Blaeu, Claes Janszoon Visscher, Johannes van Deutecom, Abraham Ortelius, Cornelis Claesz (including his complete Const ende Caert-Register), Jodocus Hondius, Pieter van der Keere, Hessel Gerritszoon and Joan Blaeu are but some of the offerings. Gerritszoon's 1622 map of the Pacific is of particular interest to Australians as it is the first regional map to show some part of Australia.


One of Schilder's great achievements was the creation of Explokart, a special unit at Utrecht University dedicated to researching cartographic documents from previous centuries, exploring the relationships between exploratory voyages, and the people and crafts involved in the preparation of the resultant maps.

In addition to this research, Schilder gave an annual series of fourteen lectures, which included five exciting excursions to rare map collections inside and outside the Netherlands. In addition to enrolled students, enthusiasts from all walks of life were admitted to this special series. They included archivists, curators, map collectors, retired mariners, physicians, pharmacists, hydrographers, geography teachers, even a retired 747 pilot, as well as many others with a strong interest in maritime or cartographic history, all hungry to learn the skills needed to interpret old maps. Many of these individuals wanted to do more than listen however; they wanted to research and publish too. This gave rise to the foundation Stichting Cartographiae Historicae Cathedra with Schilder as its Executive Officer and an active committee of high profile people, being the fundraising body of Explokart that now became a structure where amateurs or volunteers as well academic researchers could research, write and publish under academic guidance, a unique situation indeed.

To his credit, Professor Schilder encouraged many of his higher-degree students to concentrate on their own specializations, thereby creating a range of experts in the field, many of whom went on to earn their Doctorates. In this way Explokart's publications were able to cover a wide area of historic cartography. Researchers like Dr. Peter van der Krogt, Dr. Paul van den Brink, Dr. Marco van Egmond, Dr Piet Broeders, and so forth, are all from the Schilder stable, all producing high quality research and fine publications through Explokart: Globi Neerlandici (1993); an analysis of 2093 advertisements in Amsterdam newspapers from between 1612 and 1811; a book about the maps and atlases of the 18th century publishers Covens and Mortier; and a comprehensive bibliography of the history of cartography of the Netherlands covering all the charts produced in the republic; these were just some of the works to see the light of day. As well, as this the Atlantes Neerlandici, originally by Professor Koeman, a former geography professor at Utrecht, was re-issued with review suggestions from 1500 libraries around the world. The Explokart enclave also prepared for publication a richly illustrated and annotated six-volume catalogue of the famous Atlas Blaeu--Van Der Hem. The original 46-part collection, held in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, was in 2004 placed on UNESCO's world heritage list. Amongst other treasures it contains the oldest known copy of the first chart the Australian coast, based on the information gathered by Willem Janszoon in 1606. Included in the output of Explokart was the colourful masterpiece The Van Keulen Cartography Amsterdam 1680-1885, published in 2005, which Schilder produced in collaboration with Dirk de Vries, Willem MOrzer Bruyns, Peter van Iterson, Irene Jacobs, Nils Persson and Ton Vermeulen. In 2005 Explokart also helped to complete the history of the iconic Bos Atlas, used by generations of Dutch families and students and many others around the world since 1877.


One of the other major achievements of Explokart was a reprint of the eleven-part 1665 Atlas Maior of Joan Blaeu. This work, published by Taschen, contained 594 maps and weighed 7 kg. It was based on the hand-coloured and gold inlaid version owned by the Austrian National Library, and which was the biggest and most expensive book to be produced in the 17th century. Then there was Explokart's recent Harmonia Macrocosmica, a 240-page work based on a collection of celestial maps, including 29 coloured double-folios by Andreas Cellarius. This was followed by a re-issue of the famous Isaac de Graaff Atlas, a 12 kilogram corpus covering 180 large maps with 14 000 place names, with their modern incarnations included.


Under Schilder's guidance Explokart volunteers also produced a magnificently illustrated corpus of over 100 maps of the old County of Holland Hollandia Comitatus, and the Guiciardini Illustratus consisting of all the maps of Guiciardini's Description of the Netherlands dating from 1567 to 1662. In addition to this they collated yet another seminal work, Petermann Maps, containing a description and indexing of the 3500 maps published by the German Petermann Geographische Miettheilungen from 1855 to 1945, as well as compiling Frisia Dominium a collection of all old printed maps of Friesland. The remarkable output of Explokart so far has consisted of 19 000 pages, 15 000 illustrations and weighing 150 kilograms in total.


With age creeping upon him Professor Schilder recently announced his retirement. The decoration of Ridder (Knight) in the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands was bestowed on the esteemed Professor by Royal decree on the day he turned 65, marking his magnificent contribution to Dutch historical cartography. The Royal Netherlands Geographical Association then presented him with the prestigious Plancius Medal for extra-ordinary service and achievement in history and geography. At the same time he received a 'festschrift' with contributions by 54 authors from 16 countries.

On reflection one notable fact about Schilder is that he is Austrian. This has made him immune from suspicion of national bias regarding his subject: it was not a Dutchman who documented those magnificent things in Dutch history but an Austrian. And though he is now formally retired we have not heard the last of the man who almost single-handedly helped generate such a level of interest in the field of historical cartography all over the world and foster so much new expertise.


SCHILDER, Gunter (2006), interview with author.

UNIVERSITEIT UTRECHT, (n.d.), Leerstoel Historische Cartografie, brochure.

VAN DER KROGT, Peter (2008), "Universiteit Utrecht, Section Cartography, Prof.dr. Gunter Schilder, "Publicaties en Lezingen Publications & Papers", last updated 17 January 2008, accessed 4 December 2009.

VAN GESTEL-VAN HET SCHIP, Paula, 2007, Geschiedenis van Explokart, unpublished.

Peter Reynders [1]

[1] Peter Reynders, Secretary, History Division, Australasian Hydrographic Society. Co-founder & national president "Australia on the Map 1606-2006". Email: ANODE
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Author:Reynders, Peter
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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