Historians in the department of old prints and manuscripts at the Research Library in Olomouc have made a surprising discovery. While moving a safe containing rare documents to a new building, they found a seven-page nautical atlas that was hand-made in 1563. The richly coloured parchment with gold and silver linings shows the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and the northern part of the Atlantic. Made by the Catalan cartographer Jaume Olives, there are only five others in the world - in Barcelona, New York, Florence, Milan, and Valenciennes in France. I spoke to the Olomouc Library's Petra Kuncikova:
"Jaume Olives was a famous producer of portable maps in the sixteenth century and he was a member of a very famous Catalan family of cartographers. The family came from the island of Mallorca and moved to Italy from time to time. We don't know exactly why the atlas was made but it was probably commissioned by a rich or important person because only someone wealthy could pay for something so unique."
What exactly makes it so unique?
"First of all, I think it's its author, Jaume Olives. He was one of the most important map makers in the sixteenth century and also because there were only five such portable atlases from him in the world [Maritime Museum in Barcelona, Hispanic Society of America in New York, National Library in Florence, Biblioteca Ambrosiana Milan, and Biblioteque Valenciennes in France] and ours is the sixth."
How did it get to Olomouc?
"It's kind of adventurous [finding out] because we don't know exactly why the atlas was made. But there is a special sign inside the atlas called Ex Libris and it's a sign of the owner that tells us that the atlas was in the property of Wilhelm Brandt from Düsseldorf and he was a knight of the Kingdom of Hungary. But we don't know how the atlas got to him. What we do know is that - after him - it was owned by the Moravian Monastery Louka close to the town of Znojmo. This is from where it came to our library sometime after 1784."
Was the late eighteenth century the last time its existence was recorded?
"No, it was in 1931. The German scientist Bernard Brandt published an article in the Prague Geographical Volume in which he mentioned that the atlas existed. From that time on, no-one knew whether it really still existed."
Is it possible to put a price to it, to say how valuable it is?
"It's very hard to say because it's such a special work of art and we can only guess. We cannot find an offered price in auction halls or at auctions in general. We think that the insurance alone would be a matter of millions of crowns."
So I imagine exhibiting the piece would also be difficult. What is going to happen to it now?
"Our library is currently putting it into digital format and you will be able to see it on our website [www.vkol.cz] in a couple of weeks. After that, we plan to make an exact replica. But I'm not sure whether the original will be exhibited because of the insurance and safety arrangements. They are very expensive and there would be other things to solve too, including climate conditions for example. But one should never say never."
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