On the evening of July 16, 1482, the sun still shone, when Lienhart Holle smiled in his typography in Ulm. The printing of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia was finished. After all it hadn’t been long since he had learned to engrave woodcut dies for decorating textiles or for making playing cards. Nor since he had observed live what had been the model for his enterprise: the marvelous manuscript and parchment atlas that Nicolaus Germanus, the Benedictine cartographer, had presented to Pope Paul II in the second half of the XIV century: one of the most beautiful codes of his time.
He had been struck by it. And to be honest, in order to adhere to the quality of that extraordinary example he had spared no expense: he had bought the best and most expensive paper on the market in Italy, in the largest format available; he had bought the most precious colors – gold, lapis lazuli, malachite – used only for works of great luxury; he had melted the largest character in littera antiqua that had been seen until then; he had chosen the woodcut, devoid of the nuances of chalcography, for the design of the maps, because it lent itself better to the coloring and had hired what he considered one of the best xylographer, Johannes Schnitzer from Armsheim. Sure: someone had pointed out to him the enormity of the expense; but wasn’t that the first atlas printed in Germany and the first outside Italy? Was it not the first printed Ptolemy that contained the new European geographical knowledge, including Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland? Wasn’t it the first Tolomeo with colored xylographic maps? But above all, he thought, a few days later, in front of the first painted and bound copy: had he ever seen such a beautiful printed book? No, he had never. It is true: part of the issue had been committed to the payment of the paper in Italy, but in short: a printed book that rivaled in splendor with an illuminated and painted manuscript! Surely the other copies would have sold thanks to the beauty. Yes, thanks to beauty…
Here it is. But it didn’t work out that way. As often happens in human enterprises, something escaped the calculation: that the market was not ready to accept such precious printed works (after all it was not a manuscript!); or that there had been some mistake in estimating expenses and revenues; the fact is that the Cosmographia overwhelmed and dragged Holle to bankruptcy, despite the good economic results of another later published book; and that in 1484 he had to flee Ulm for debts. The wooden matrices of the maps and the large movable types in littera antiqua were purchased – certainly for a convenient price – by the printer Johann Reger, who promptly, in 1486, produced with them a new edition of the atlas and, given the minor expenses, probably with sales of volumes he gained. He then tried to return, as far as we know, to Ulm, a few years later: but beyond the recording of his name, in 1492, in the book of the city’s guilds, his traces are lost in the darkness of history; darkness that could not, however, hide or veil the reverberation of his Cosmographia, the most beautiful printed atlas of the fifteenth century.
Below we present some maps from the first edition of 16 July 1482