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Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna

Catlenburg F.B.L. Ambthauss
Decorative view of Katlenburg-Lindau

I love engravings, particularly 17th and 18th century copper and steel landscape engravings. Works from that period have a certain quality about them that is unmistakable - they speak of the fantastic, the spiritual, and the unknown. There is a theatrical quality to the imagery, and rightly so – this was the emergent language of communication. Also – and this is one of the reasons I love this period - not only were the landscapes beautiful, you could throw Pan and Jesus into the same picture and get away with it. People in London would say, “Well, that’s how it is in Vienna. They may not get along philosophically, but Jesus and Pan both love sheep. And wine. And who doesn’t love an expansive view of the sea roiling with strange creatures?” This was the new travel brochure. This was how you expressed the Leviathan to the sailor and the devil to the convert.



Beyond the theatricality of the imagery, there is a sense of seeking the divine, that the artist could actually render the natural world as it was, and perhaps, even better than it presented itself. More idyllic. Super-natural.

If you don’t know much about the engraving process, it involves taking a small needle (a “graver”), usually with a wooden handle attached, and carving in reverse onto a metal plate, typically of copper or steel. The plate is then inked, the remaining ink wiped away and paper and plate are pressed through a roller, bringing the reverse to life as a black or brown positive. Suffice it to say, it is very difficult to make these things, and they are intense labors of love. There is no margin for error, and it takes the rare combination of visionary and craftsman to pull it off. So, when I see an engraving that works on multiple levels – line weight, composition, subject matter, surface, the lettering and process, I can’t help but be amazed, humbled, frustrated and ultimately thankful for the gift of the vision passed along.

So, who wouldn't be nuts about these things, right? Every once in while, I’ll do an ebay search for "steel engravings"; usually I find portraits of American presidents done in the late 19th century, and a smattering of European and American landscapes - all wonderful things, and I can appreciate them for their line work and fastidiousness, but I was in the mood for some far-out, Pan-and-Jesus-atop-the-same-hill-overlooking-a-battle-of-horned-women-fighting-over-garlands-of-roses thing. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m sure its out there. If you find it, or something like it, by all means, buy it and then give it to me. I will be a friend for life.

I was sure I was going to be disappointed, until I stumbled on this ebayer's shop - Antiqua Leipzig GMBH. These people are flush with copper engravings from the 17th century. Landscapes, people, gods, crests & maps. The good stuff. The fantastic stuff.

Insigne Comitatus Bottniae Occidentalis
Earldom of Västerbotten - Coat of Arms

Insigne Ducatus Helsingiae
Duchy of Hälsingland - Coat of Arms

I bid on a few, and lost all bets. Though I lost the bids, I noticed that the cityscapes I was bidding on were from a serious collection of works done by either one person or tight group of engravers from a highly disciplined school. Who was this artist and how in God’s name did he have the drive to do something like this? Google, yo.

The engravings I bid on were pages removed from a collection of works called the Suecia antiqua et hodierna, or in Swedish archivist Magdalena Gram's words, "The literary, scientific and cultural magnum opus - Suecia antiqua et hodierna - a work of distinction from Sweden's period as a great power."

Suecia antiqva et hodierna
Sweden - Past and Present
Image copyright © Kungliga biblioteket

The Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna was largely the work of a Swede named Erik Dahlbergh, and there is an excellent site devoted exclusively to the collection of works here.

“Early 1660's saw Dahlbergh begin his work on what he called "topographien", later to become Suecia antiqua et hodierna. On March 28, 1661 he was accorded royal privilege for his planned work on Sweden and its provinces. During the following decade Dahlbergh mainly depicted scenes from Stockholm and from the countryside surrounding Lake Mälaren. He visited Paris in 1667-68 to head the work of transferring his sketches, some of them for the Suecia, to engravings. On his return from Paris in 1669 he was appointed commander of Malmö and in 1674 put in charge of general quarters and the fortification. In 1678 he became commander of Kristianstad and the following year witnessed the Treaty of Lund.”
Source: http://www.kb.se/suecia/eng/default.asp

Decorative view of Drakenburg near Nienburg

Steyerberg Fürstl: Ambthauss In der Grafschafft Hoya
Decorative view of Steyerberg near Nienburg

Brom An der Ohr und Dremling
Decorative view of Brom near Goslar

I’ll let you finish the exploration and read up on the works yourself. Users can download small scans from the site for free or order massive digital scans. My thanks to the Swedes for digitizing the work and offering it back to humanity for perusal; now that is tax money well spent.

Here are a few scans from the site:

Arcus Triumphalis in Solennem adventum Serenissimae Reginae Uldaricae Eleonorae, Stockholmiae ad Pontem Borealem die 24 Novemb Anno 1680 extructa
Triumphal Arch erected at Norrbro in Stockholm on November 24, 1680 to celebrate Ulrika Eleonoras ceremonial entry
Image copyright © Kungliga biblioteket

Nicopia qua orientem spectat
Nyköping from the east
Image copyright © Kungliga biblioteket

Insigne Ducatus Waesmanniae
Duchy of Västmanland - Coat of Arms
Image copyright © Kungliga biblioteket

Insigne Comitatus Gotlandiae
Coat of Arms belonging to the county of Gotland
Image copyright © Kungliga biblioteket

There is some good information on engraving processes as well as several other printmaking processes here.


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There were no steel engravings until around 1815.

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