Before Google Maps, there was Pieter Pourbus

Seven unique cards by the Flemish master Pieter Pourbus are brought together for the first time in a retrospective at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges.

Without navigation app, “Echo of Flanders” would not exist as your devotee would have been lost before he had even left her street. We also double our admiration for those who always find their way, with an aesthetic flair as a bonus for some.

In the sixteenth century, Pieter Pourbus was one of these geniuses, to the point of blurring the lines between cartography and painting and crystallizing his explorations of the territory into works of art.

The Groeninge Museum celebrates its magnum opus today: his monumental map of Franc de Bruges (“Brugse Vrije”), painted on canvas between 1561 and 1571, at the request of the then largest castellany in the county of Flanders. Of its original surface area of ​​23.58 m², only the upper right corner has come down to us, a large fragment which remains impressive. To observe it means to fly over the medieval Zwin, its villages, its waterways, its mills … and its places of execution, symbolized by stylized gallows. The message is clear: admire the vastness of our lands, but do not disturb the atmosphere.



If the map of Franc de Bruges is unique for its size and artistic value, it also stands out for the accuracy of the topography.

If the map of Franc de Bruges is unique for its size and artistic value, it also stands out for the accuracy of the topography. It is not your devotee who can judge, but we trust the two Westvlamingen next to us who claim to recognize “almost everything”. Exposed to postdoctoral research, the cartographic technique employed by Pourbus is nicely explained by means of a video so accessible that it deserves to be shown in “C’est pas sorcier” (this is not a criticism – what a joy to follow a scientific demonstration until the Eureka moment!).

We remember that a cartographer used to have to demonstrate precision, endurance and good legs to climb bell towers and towers, note landmarks and then draw a compass and geometric tools for repeated triangulation. vsThis method had just been refined by the Louvain mathematician Gemma Frisius, and Pourbus was one of the first to use it. hence its innovative accuracy, which also distinguishes its six other maps that have been preserved, collected for the first time in the museum.

“The Portrait of Jan van Eyewerve”, directed by Pieter Pourbus.
©LUKAS – ART IN FLANDERS vzw

Castle Hill on the horizon

Despite its modest size (only one room in the Groeningemuseum), the exhibition shows ambitions. His most stimulating proposal is to reveal different levels of reading, based on infrared reflectography, but also by comparing Pourbus’s representations with current satellite images of the region.



Each map then asserts itself as a witness of its time, before the disappearance of certain elements, sometimes fished out during archaeological excavations.

Each map then asserts itself as a witness of its time, before the disappearance of certain elements, sometimes fished out during archaeological excavations. The discoveries are more or less captivating – if we rejoice at the presence in the painting of a monastery subsequently destroyed during the 80-year war, the recognition of a castle mound in Zwankendamme fails to excite us…

We would have preferred then to learn more about the influence of Pourbus’ cartographic knowledge on the rest of his work, for example his famous portraits, which also contain their share of the Bruges landscape (“Portrait of Jan van Eyewerve”, 1551 ). Finally, one wonders how Pourbus measured himself against other cartographers of his time, such as his contemporary Mercator, who was a student of Frisius. That is the limit – and the beauty – of these kinds of exhibitions, small but well put together: It is always possible to expand one’s horizons further.

“Pieter Pourbus. Master of Maps”

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