Cosmographia Universalis, RīgaSebastian Munsters, 1544

It's a scene familiar to anyone with a good Latvian history book: the Riga skyline as it appeared in the mid-16th century, still instantly recognizable today:

Early-to-mid-16th century Rīga
Ship detail from woodcut

Whenever we've seen this picture in a book, we've always admired it for its artistry and—except for missing the Hotel Latvija, a Soviet era icon, now renovated and part of the Radisson hotel chain—for its uncanny similarity to the Riga of today.

This particular woodcut appears on an original leaf taken from the 1575 French edition of Sebastian Munster's epic encyclopedic work, the Cosmographia Universalis.

And it was only when we chanced upon it that we discovered it was actually more than a pretty picture. It's the lead illustration for an article about the Latvians. The article is most notable because it contains the very first published sample of the Latvian language, the Lord's Prayer. Tantalizingly, frustratingly, our single sheet ends right in the middle of it:

16th century version of modern “Mūsu Tēvs debesīs...”

Sebastian Munster (1489-1552) was born in Ingelheim, Germany, and lived for the latter part of his life in Basel, Switzerland. His interests and talents spanned mathematics, Hebrew linguistics and scholarship, and cartography. In 1544 he published the Cosmographia, the culmination of his academic career, containing more than 500 woodcut pages. The Cosmographia was published in 46 editions, in 4 languages—pre-dating its intellectual progeny, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, by more than two centuries:

  • in German between 1544 and 1628;
  • in Latin between 1550 and 1559;
  • in Italian in 1558; and
  • in French in 1575.

The plague tragically cut Munster's life short in 1552. Successors continued publishing and updating editions.

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