Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

BIMCC Newsletter no 13 • May 2002 (abstract)

Fascinating 3 D maps of the 17th century

From its origins, map making has been driven by the desire to discover new territories, to conquer and to control them. On the European theatre of operations, maps have been a key element in poliorcetics, the art of besieging cities.

With the progress of artillery and the advent of cannon firing metal balls, city fortification developed from the simple set of vertical walls and towers of the Middle Ages, into complex architectural systems comprising low profile bastions, demi-lunes, courtines, etc. surrounded and/or separated by moats which could be flooded at will through an elaborate hydraulic system. Precise plans became indispensable to design, build and operate them.

When the young king of France, Louis XIV came to the throne in 1659, he undertook to expand his kingdom towards the North and the East, particularly at the expense of the Spanish Low Countries. The subsequent wars consisted mostly of a series of sieges of cities.

Sébastien de Vauban, who personally led 42 successful sieges, was entrusted (1678) to improve the conquered places. He developed two strong continuous lines of fortified places to protect the newly conquered territories of Louis XIV, involving some forty cities from the North Sea to the Rhine. Scarcely anything remains to day of this formidable work since most of the fortifications were dismantled a century ago to allow for cities expansion (1); however their memory lives on in the form of models in three dimensions.

It was the Marquis de Louvois, Minister of War of Louis XIV who proposed to build plans in relief of these cities, so that Vauban, working in the field, could correspond with the King in Paris and have detailed discussions on new, costly fortification work (several thousands of men were busy for many years), pointing out the weak points of the defence system and how it could be improved.

The plans were also useful to conduct military operations to defend the city in case of siege. Sometimes they were also useful to take it over again, as was the case for Ath, which Vauban besieged in 1697, some 30 years after he had himself enhanced its fortification (in the meantime the city had been given back to the Spaniards during the negotiations for the treaty of Nijmegen)!

The first plan in relief was completed in 1668 for the city of Ath (now in Belgium). Sometimes several models were produced for the same city (up to 5 for Dunkirk) to show the successive phases of the fortification work.

The plans in relief were built at a scale of 1/600 and represented not only the fortifications, but also the city and the details of its monuments and even the individual houses whose characteristics were recorded accurately in special drawing books. In addition the plans represented surrounding countryside, allowing a clear perception of the terrain configuration and in particular of high grounds where artillery could be positioned to bomb the city, and of low ground which could be flooded to prevent ground attack. This was a clear advantage compared to conventional paper maps, particularly as contemporary cartography had no effective means of representing the third dimension, such as contour lines.

The collection of models was originally housed in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The Sun King showed them to visiting diplomats, as works of art and symbols of France's grandeur, but only briefly because of their strategic significance. The collection was transferred to the Grande Galerie of the Louvre Palace in the early 18th century, and later to the Hotel des Invalides, where new models were added in the 19th century.

However these large dimension models (each one takes more than 10 m2) were not easy to store and many have deteriorated over the years. Others have been taken away to Berlin because of their strategic value, when the Prussians occupied Paris in 1815; some would even have been taken from Berlin to Moscow during World War II.

The remaining collection is still visible in the Invalides' Musée des Plans Reliefs, but part of it has been transferred to Lille's Museum of Fine Arts. An exhibition was organized there last summer (Portraits de villes - Plans-Reliefs), highlighting its latest acquisition: the newly restored model of Ath. The series of models, which has become part of the permanent display of the Museum, covers 15 cities now located in France (Aire, Avesnes, Bergues, Bouchain, Calais, Gravelines, Lille), in Belgium (Ath, Charleroi, Ieper, Menin, Namur, Oudenaarde, Tournai) and in the Netherlands (Maastricht).

This collection of plans in relief is well worth a visit. For more information, consult or call the Museum at 00 33 320 06 78 00. 1 Notable exceptions are the little towns of Bergues and Le Quesnoy in northern France: they retain their complete set of fortifications and the cities intra muros have hardly changed since the 18th century.

(1) Notable exceptions are the little towns of Bergues and Le Quesnoy in northern France: they retain their complete set of fortifications and the cities intra muros have hardly changed since the 18th century.

by Jean-Louis Renteux