MAGNUS, Olaus (1490-1557). Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome: Giovanni Maria Viotto, 1555.

$ 18,000.00

MAGNUS, Olaus (1490-1557). Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome: Giovanni Maria Viotto, 1555.

4to. (10 ¾ x 8 inches). Full title, complete index, 471 fine woodcut engravings: 1 map, 3 full page woodcuts, 6 three-quarter page woodcuts, 343 vignette headpieces, and 129 initials and tailpieces (title page washed and lower corner renewed, margins lightly cleaned, trimmed). Blind paneled calf rebacked to style, endpapers renewed, four double raised bands for five compartments (evidence of clasps and catches, shelf wear).

Provenance: With contemporary woodcut ownership stamp containing the names, in manuscript, of Theodoricus A. Groesbeec (b. 1530) and Cecillia A. Rougrave to front free endpaper. With contemporary manuscript ownership inscription “Collegii Nobilium Treviras.” With 19th-century bookplate of Marquis de Bassano to front pastedown.


First edition, an excellent copy with original boards. An impressive to-style binding for this 16th century masterwork of printing, engraving, and scholarship. Packed with images, these detailed woodcuts depict some of the strangest and inexplicable scenes imaginable. This book is still one of the most important sources of Northern customs and daily life of the time. Where does one begin? The geography, geology, biology, the culture? The depiction of the famous maelstrom, the Moskstraumen, the description of bioluminescent fungi used to light paths in the forests, the long nights of arctic winters, Viking heritage, the Saami culture, the dwarves and elves, houses built out of whale bones, runic inscriptions, a 16th century life jacket, a battle between the Danes and the Finns with the Finnish archers riding into battle on the backs of reindeer...this is a work filled to the brim with gems to dazzle the imagination.

Olaus Magnus was the last official Archbishop of Uppsala, succeeding his brother in 1544, at a time when Sweden converted to Lutheranism under King Gustav Vasa. He completed his education in Germany by 1517, then traveled through Scandinavia selling indulgences until 1520. Influenced by humanist and nationalist scholars of the Renaissance, as well as medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, Olaus took this journey as an opportunity to observe the people and geography of his beloved homeland. He left Sweden in 1524 to carry documents to Rome regarding his brother’s election as Archbishop of Uppsala, and never returned. He spent the next 10 years working closely with his brother as a diplomat for King Gustav Vasa in Denmark and the Netherlands, an experience reflected in his Carta Marina. Olaus completed his two famous works in exile, the Carta Marina and Historia de Gentibus. Before he died in 1557, he had published his brother’s history of Sweden in 1554, his own Historia in 1555, his brother’s history of the Archdiocese of Uppsala in 1557, and then Birgitta’s Revelations which were finished printing just days after his death. During the years 1555-1669 twenty-two editions of Historia de Gentibus, complete or abridged, were published in six languages: Latin, Italian, French, German, Dutch and English.

The Carta Marina, which was first published in 1539, was the first map to show a knowledgeable representation of the size and shape of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Earlier maps of Europe, such as interpretations of Ptolemy’s Geographia completely neglect to include Scandinavia altogether. The woodcut map was of a remarkable size for its time, consisting of 9 sheets for a total measurement of 67 by 49 inches. Only two copies exist today, and are kept in Munich and Uppsala, after they were rediscovered in 1889 and 1962. Every seventh chapter in Historia de Gentibus serves as commentary to the Carta Marina, referred to as Carta Gothica in the text. The magnificent detail and illustrious nature of both the Carta Marina and the Historia served to show the Catholic world what great regions have been lost to the Protestant Reformation. As Olaus Magnus explained in his autobiography, Rome’s ignorance towards the Northern peoples contributed to the Church’s downfall in Scandinavia.

Olaus Magnus prepared his illustrations over a long period of time, based on his own observations. He drew many of them himself, while some pictures can be traced to famous painters like Hans Holbein the younger. He was the first to depict historical events and contemporary day-to-day activities on a map, and 124 of the Carta Marina’s illustrations are copied in the woodcuts of Historia de Gentibus.

Dirk de Groesbeek Heer van Oreye (b. 1530) was the brother of the prince-bishop of Liège, Gerard van Groesbeeck (1517-1580). The Prince Bishop of Liege, the brother of the man who the contemporary bookplate belongs to, could have possibly met Olaus Magnus who was staying with another Bishop nearby for a time- I was still tracking down this information. The owner of this book could have been acquainted with Olaus Magnus or that his brother may have provided support in his quest to convince the Catholic Church to win back Scandinavia from the Protestants. For inquiries please contact Greg McMurray, MLS, Director, Rare Books.