Beautifully illustrated and staggeringly detailed, ‘Radziwiłł Atlas’ added to UNESCO list
A collection of maps dating from the 18th century and commonly known as the Radziwiłł Atlas, have been inducted into Poland’s National List of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme.
Consisting of 50 large format maps, the series gained its name for charting territory that was owned by the powerful aristocrat Hieronim Florian Radziwiłł.
Intricately illustrated and compiled by Leonard Targoński, a royal surveyor and bailiff based in the Łomża region, the maps have been hailed for their technical perfection and staggering attention to detail; among other things, roadside crosses have been defined, as have mills, farmsteads, chapels, trees, dikes and palaces.
Covering southern Podlasie, and in particular the area surrounding the town of Biała, the maps were drawn up between 1777 and 1782. Of significant cultural value, no other maps of the area are thought to exist from this time.
Providing a unique documentation of the area’s development, curiosities are in no short supply and include the castle and its adjoining farm. Built to a five-pointed star plan, and enthusiastically enlarged during the lifetime of Hieronim Florian Radziwiłł, it was eventually pulled down in 1883 after decades of dereliction.
That it exists on this map offers an intriguing glimpse into bygone times, though it is a map of the county that is considered the most valuable. Drawn to a scale of 1:93,000, its precision is such that no other map in the collection competes with it in terms of details.
In later years, the maps were reputedly bequeathed to the Płock Scientific Society by Maria Radziwiłłowa, and whilst they disappeared during the war after being looted by the Nazis, they found themselves returned to the institution in 1947.
There they have remained ever since, with the society’s Professor Arkadiusz Wagner underscoring their national importance: “In our terribly depleted domestic collections, it is difficult to find an equally beautiful and magnificent example of cartography.”
Notable for its elaborate calligraphy and beautiful drawings, the maps were cited by the committee as offering “a priceless source of geographic and historical information about the city of Biała”.
Moreover, among the Polish maps dating from this period, the Radziwiłł Atlas was hailed as being the richest in its content and the most technically accomplished.
Established by UNESCO in 1992, the Memory of the World project was created to facilitate the preservation of the planet’s documentary heritage and to increase global awareness of such documents by providing universal access to them through digital and more traditional means such as through their republication in books and CDs.
Since these early days, a number of Polish related documents have been introduced to the Memory of the World list.
Included in this number are the Stroop Report that recorded the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Nicolaus Copernicus’ magnum opus, “De revolutionibus libri sex”, and the 1569 Act of the Union of Lublin.
However, it was not until 2014 that Poland’s own National List of UNESCO’s Memory of the World was formally established to showcase documents of fundamental relevance to the country’s history, culture and national identity.