This extremely rare and highly detailed sea chart depicts Vyborg Bay, part of the Baltic Sea, in the region of Kerelia, Russia. The chart was made by Charles-Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, who was a French naval officer, cabinet minister, cartographer, scientist and a sponsor of Pacific voyages. The walled port city of Vyborg (called Viipuri by the local Finnish population) is located in the upper right quadrant, while the heavily indented bay’s features are captured by remarkably exquisite engraving. The waters feature copious hydrographic information, including bathymetric sounding, the locations of shoals and the delineation of sailing routes (distinguished by dotted lines). The surrounding topography is captured in a vibrant fashion, marking major roads and farms (featuring the names of their proprietors). The chart is certainly the most detailed and accurate map of the Vyborg area made during the Enlightenment era.
This particular example of the chart is special in that it is a rare proof state, indicated by the fact that it was printed from the copper plate before the finishing details were added. Most conspicuously, while the chart is adorned with a beautiful view of Vyborg in the upper left (based on Jan van den Aveelen’s view of the town, first published in 1709), the roundel above and to the right, which is meant to contain the title, is left entirely blank (save for the word “Karélia” written in pencil, likely in a contemporary hand), while the other rectangular vignette above the view is also left entirely blank. Elsewhere some toponymic features appear to be missing and as are details with respect to the latitude and longitude in the chart’s borders. This chart was likely printed by the engraver as a test pull during the engraving process. As such publishers’ proofs were usually intentionally destroyed, the preset example is a very rare survivor.
The present chart was issued during a period when the Baltic region, and Vyborg in particular, occupied a prominent role in global affairs. The area was a major source of timber and fish, and during the Napoleonic Wars dominance over the region was hotly contested between, on the once hand, France and its ally Sweden, against the allied powers of Britain, Russia and Prussia. Vyborg was an especially prominent port, as it was the gateway to the vast Karelian forests that contained mast timber vital for naval vessels.
Vyborg, which had been in Swedish hands from 1293 until being captured by the Russians in 1710, long sat upon the fault line between these two great northern powers. During the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-90, Vyborg Bay was the scene of the largest naval confrontation ever fought in the Baltic. At the Battle of Vyborg Bay (known in Sweden as the Viborgska gatloppet, "the Viborg Gauntlet") on July 4, 1790, massive Russian and Swedish fleets, comprising hundreds of vessels carrying over 50,000 men were engaged in an epic contest around the sandbank labeled in the lower left quadrant of the chart as the ‘Pugkava’ Shoal (Passaloda Shallows). While the Russians tactically won the battle, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory as they were left so weakened that they could no longer continue the war, so suing for peace shortly thereafter. As such the battle is seen by historians as a strategic Swedish victory. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia gained the upper hand and in 1809 assumed control over all of Finland. Vyborg was integrated into the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1811.
The Story of the Production of Fleurieu’s Baltic Charts
The circumstances under which the present proof state chart was created are most curious. Enter Charles-Pierre Claret de Fleurieu (1738-1810), who was for many years the driving force behind French naval activities and maritime exploration. A professional naval officer, he received training in hydrography and horology and from 1768 to 1769 gained great credibility in the scientific world for undertaking the sea tests of Ferdinand Berthoud’s marine chronometer. He subsequently rose through the ranks and in January 1777 was appointed to become the operational director of the French Royal Navy. In this capacity he played a key role in supporting the navy’s largely successful role in the American Revolutionary War and was the key sponsor of the important French exploring expeditions in the Pacific, notably that undertaken by the Comte de La Pérouse.
Following the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Fleurieu turned his attention to a passion project, creating a highly detailed sea atlas of the Baltic Sea. The first comprehensive atlas of the sea had been made by the Russian Admiral Alexey Nagaev, Atlas' vsego Baltiyskago morya s' Finskim' I Botnischeskim' zalivami, s' Shkager'-Rakom', Kategatom', Zundom', i Beltami (St. Petersburg, 1757). Fleurieu used Nagaev’s excellent work as the basis for his charts, but emplyed his connections with Swedish and Danish naval officers, as well as merchant mariners, to improve and update the charts.
The copper plates that were intended to be used to print the charts for the atlas were engraved by Pierre-Philippe Choffard between 1786 and 1790. Each chart was painstakingly engraved to a very high technical standard and, featured splendid artistic embellishments in a style that was somewhat reminiscent of J.F.W. Des Barres’s Atlantic Neptune (1774-84), a British sea atlas of the east coast of North America. It is highly probable that the present chart was printed as a test pull by Choffard from an unfinished plate during this period. However, the actual printing of the charts from finished plated was prevented by the advent of French Revolution (1789-94).
Fleurieu was abruptly pulled off of the project, briefly serving as the French Minister of the Marine from 1790 to 1791. In 1794, he came within a whisker of being guillotined by Jacobin revolutionaries, but returned to public office under Napoleon Bonaparte, serving variously as Minister of the Marine, a senior diplomat and as a Senator.
The emperor, in due course, agreed to sponsor the completion of Fleurieu’s Baltic atlas and work was resumed. In this endeavor, Fleurieu was ably assisted by Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré (1766-1854), who would later go on to become the chief hydrographer of the Dépôt de la Marine.
The atlas, entitled the Neptune du Cattégat et de la mer Baltique (shortened as the ‘Neptune Baltique’) was finally published in Paris in 1809. Fleurieu was very open about the fact that the atlas took a generation to come to fruition, as while the title page featured the publication date of 1809, it also noted that the plates used to print the charts had been “Gravé en 1787” (Engraved in 1787). While Fleurieu’s dream was realized it seems that, in the chaotic environment of wartime Paris, only a very small number of atlases, complete with 65 sheets of charts, were published. The finished chart of Vyborg Bay appeared as no. 55 in the collation.
While Fleurieu likely intended to ensure that further copies of the atlas were issued, his death on August 18, 1810, concluded the project, ensuring that the atlas remained a very limited edition. That being said, the Neptune Baltique was the genesis of an enviable tradition of French mapping of the Baltic, spurring the production of many excellent, regularly updated charts, and leading to the compilation of the Neptune des côtes septentrionales d'Europe (Paris, 1840).
The complete atlas and each of its constituent charts are extremely rare. We are not aware of any example of the present chart (let alone a proof state) appearing at auction or in dealers’ catalogues during the last generation, nor are we aware of an example of the atlas or any of the other charts from the work appearing on the market during the same period. Moreover, we have been able to locate only 7 institutional examples of the atlas and no separate citations for the Vyborg Bay chart.
References: OCLC (referring to the complete atlas): no. 827730430.