01 March 2013

Count Marsigli and the Danube

Cover of the first edition, 1726
Count Luigi Fernando Marsigli embodies a long vanished kind of people, very dear to my heart, those we simply call a polymath. During his long life, he was a military engineer, military historian, general of the Habsburg army, diplomat, cartographer, meteorologist, ornithologist, mineralogist, anatomist, archaeologist, hydrologist, historian, marine scientist, ethnographer, art collector, geographer and botanist.

His major work is the reason why I devote an entry on him on the Donauinseln blog. The Danubius Pannonico - Myscius Observationibus geographicis, astronomicis, hydrographicis, historicis, physicis perlustratus was published in Amsterdam, 1726 in six volumes, more than twenty years after it was completed.

Marsigli first came to Hungary as a member of the dragoon regiment of Savoy in 1683, and fought throughout the war which lead to Hungary’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. He fought at the liberation of Buda, and was a member of the Habsburg delegation at the Karlowitz peace treaty. In this context he worked as a cartographer drawing the new border between the two empires in southern Hungary. Together with Turkish cartographers they mapped the frontier within two hours walk on both sides of the border.

His major work consists 18 hydrographic sections of the Danube river, from Vienna, Austria down to the Wallachian Giurgiu. They have a scale 1:103061. Marsigli created these maps with the high-tech of the early XVIII. Century, he even used the results of Halley’s marine magnetic declination measurements which took place in 1702. It was only used on marine maps, and Marsigli’s work is the only known inland map which used Halley’s results. Another interesting fact is that these were the first series of Hungarian maps which were based on geographic surveys. Johann Cristoph Müller was his closest collaborator, who manufactured the first Hungarian civil maps in 1709.
The limes road near Dunaújváros, central Hungary and the islands of Vienna

The Hungarian sections are quite detailed, but on the Moesian (today: Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria) side is less accurate. This is because he had to draw secretly from a galley, the Turkish authorities forbid him to map their lands.

Marsigli’s maps are an interesting snapshot of the devastated lands of Hungary right after the Ottoman rule has ended. Many recent settlements are missing; these sections were made before the southern repopulation, and before the Rákóczi’s war for independence (1703-1711).

We can see the woody hills of the Hungarian Danube-bend, the loess walls of the Mezőföld along the Danube, the sandy hills of the Kiskunság, the ancient riverbeds plowed 200 years ago, the hundreds of those lost islands which was disappeared due to the river regulations, the roman ruins are still visible, and the thermal springs, yet without baths. Lost names of lakes, river branches and islands. Even the Danube is mentioned as Ister, on its ancient Greek name. The cartographers neatly distinguished islands from sand banks, for the vessels they have drawn the life-threatening vortexes of the Iron Gate. We see the marshlands, flood plains, connections between rivers through an eye of a late 17th century hydrologist. But enough of words, this must be seen! Let these maps talk! They can be reached through this link:

And last, but not least here is the count’s motto:

Nihil Mihi,

Which means: "nothing for me"

  • Danubius Pannonico-Mysicus. Observationibus geographicis, astronomicis, hydrographicis, historicis, physicis perlustratus. Museum of Water Management, Budapest 2004, ISBN 963-217-033-4 (Reprint)
  • John Stoye: Marsigli's Europe. The life and times of Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, soldier and virtuoso. Yale University Press, New Haven, N.J. 1994, ISBN 0-300-05542-0

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