Philippe Vandermaelen, the Mercator of young Belgium


In 1827, a young and wealthy merchant from Brussels with a great passion for geography published an Atlas Universel that was breathtaking in its ambition, boldness and innovation. The self-taught Philippe Vandermaelen became almost overnight one of the great cartographers of his time. Shortly after, on the eve of the Belgian independence, he founded the Etablissement Géographique de Bruxelles - a rich scientific and cultural institution which was unparalleled in Europe and which would attract experts from around the world.

At the institution he developed all branches of natural and social sciences, an enterprise which his inexperienced and penniless young country could not yet realize: geography, botany, zoology, anatomy, statistics, ethnography, chemistry, physics, geology, overseas expeditions, etc. The institution centralised most research initiatives and topics. Vandermaelen also trained a large number of young people chosen because of their merits instead of their pedigree.

But, above all, for many decades Philippe Vandermaelen was the quasi-official cartographer of an emerging nation that did not have the means to put into action the Dépôt de la Guerre which it had established to create its topographic map. He was also the cartographer of the economic expansion and the industrial revolution, in Belgium as well as abroad. All government departments and public bodiesused his maps, whereas the industry could tfind there an abundance of instruments and other objects to illustrate its prosperity. Various countries, sometimes far away, were equally inspired by Vandermaelen’s achievements.

Google in paper format

At the same time as surf engines were being developed for the internet, Paul Otlet (1868-1944) – "the man who wanted to classify the world" – was rediscovered with the reopening of the Mundaneum in Mons in 1998. He had attempted to centralise all of the world's knowledge and, above all, to catalogue in full the bibliographical production from throughout history, from all places, and on every subject. Due to a lack of technical means which could equal his ambitions, his "Google in paper format" fell into oblivion.

Very soon, with its aim to organise information on a world scale and to make it universally accessible and useful, Google began to tackle geographical information with its ‘Google Maps’ service in 2004. But once again, a forgotten forerunner from Brussels had opened up the way. In Brussels in 1825, Philippe Vandermaelen (1795-1869) began to publish his Atlas universel, which was the first to represent the Earth on a single and exceptionally large scale. And he provided the newly founded country of Belgium – without any official support – with complete, precise and reliable cartography, in line with the needs of an economy entering the industrial era.

Unique achievement

He accomplished all of this in Molenbeek at his Etablissement géographique de Bruxelles, an unheard of achievement in Europe so unlikely to have been accomplished by a private individual. Vandermaelen worked on his maps and atlas there, as well as providing education and making scientific collections, an exceptional library and several laboratories available, even before the founding of Université de Bruxelles, the Royal Library of Belgium and the major museums.

In 1880, when the collections of the Etablissement Géographique were liquidated, almost all of Vandermaelen's production and cartographic collections ended up at the Royal Library of Belgium. This arrival by far exceeded the institution's means in terms of inventory, cataloguing and conservation, with the result that everything was kept in the storeroom to wait for better times. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the curator of the Maps & Plans section discovered the exceptional importance of this collection and decided to restore the forgotten cartographer to favour. It was not until 1990 that funds were released in view of making a systematic inventory of these collections.

25 years of inventory

In Philippe Vandermaelen, Mercator de la jeune Belgique. Histoire de l’Établissement géographique de Bruxelles et de son fondateur Marguerite Silvestre, historian and current curator of the Maps & Plans section of the Royal Library of Belgium, provides a summary of twenty-five years of inventory and research in the Vandermaelen collection. In the 106th issue of Brussels Studies, she presents the conclusions of this book.

The book presents the life of the visionary geographer in a chronological journey centred on his cartographic production (methodology, collaborations, surveys, levelling, commercial management, etc.), ending with a passing of the baton to the Dépôt de la Guerre, the future Institut géographique national. It also opens the doors to Vandermaelen’s different institutional creations in a cross-cutting approach: the documentation centre, the natural history gallery, the lithography school and the École Normale, the museum of ethnography, and the organisation of scientific expeditions.

Universal man

When he founded his Etablissement Géographique, Philippe Vandermaelen was a universal man. It was a time, after that of the Encyclopédistes, during which it still seemed possible for all human knowledge to be manageable by a circle of scholars, a single institution, or even by just one person. But soon, changing society, scientific and technological progress and the exponential development of knowledge broke universal science apart, causing the diversification and specialisation of knowledge. Vandermaelen experienced this change.

With the advent of search engines and Wikipedia – the free collaborative encyclopaedia – as well as OpenStreetMap, which is aimed at producing copyright-free cartography (also since 2004), the ambitions of Philippe Vandermaelen and Paul Otlet are perhaps becoming a reality.


Brussels Studies published on 14 November 2016 the article from Marguerite Silvestre: Philippe Vandermaelen, Mercator de la jeune Belgique. On Thursday 17 November 2016, the book which this article is based on was the subject of an illustrated presentation at the Palace of Charles of Lorraine.


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