Karol Perthées

Henryk Rutkowski

Karol Perthées (1739-1815)((Fragments of the article titled Mapy Perthéesa [Perthées’ Maps] in: Fundamenta historiae. Pisma wybrane (“Fundamenta historiae. Selected Writings”), ed. Michał Zbieranowski, Marek Słoń, Instytut Historii PAN – Polskie Towarzystwo Historyczne – Towarzystwo Miłośników Historii, Warsaw 2014. The full text can be also accessed here.))

A likely depiction of Karol Perthées taken from The View of Ujazdów and Łazienki (1776), a painting by Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto).

Perthées had two first names, Herman and Karol, but he used only the latter in his daily life. He was born in 1739 in Dresden, the capital of the Electorate of Saxony, to a family of French Huguenots who had settled in Germany. His names honoured his natural father and guardian, a Courland nobleman, Hermann Karl von Keyserling (Keyserlingk), who worked as a Russian ambassador in such towns as Dresden, and, later, at the end of his life, also Warsaw (1763-1764). Karol Perthées received a thorough education, first at the ambassador’s house and later at the military school in Berlin where he first spent five years as a cadet and stayed on for another three years to study military engineering.

In 1763, Perthées was already in Warsaw, where his work (undoubtedly cartographic in nature) was sponsored by the future king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August Poniatowski. Perthées worked for the king throughout his entire reign (1764–1795), and remained in his employment even after the king’s abdication, until the death of this last Polish monarch in 1798.

Perthées was granted the title of a royal geographer. In 1767, he received his first military commission as a lieutenant in the Crown Artillery, in 1770 (or 1771), he was already a captain, and at the end of 1783, he was made a colonel. In his case, the military ranks were only honorary titles, but the cartographer valued the prestige they brought him (as no such regard was associated with the title of a geographer). In 1768, Perthées was granted Polish nobility, and after a few years (but not before 1774), out of his own volition, began using an “ennobled” version of his surname, preceding it with the French particle “de”. Thus, there is no justification for referring to the cartographer as “de Perthées”, even though such spelling was adopted in historiography on the basis of later maps and other sources (but without evidence of it being used by the king or in the court environment).

Karol Perthées developed many maps, only a small part of which was published in print. At first, he focused mainly on copying and reworking various already existing maps. His own original works included two small maps depicting the vicinity of Cracow and Warsaw, made in 1771, which were later displayed in the royal office. They have not survived to this day, but the second edit of the map of the Warsaw area has been preserved. In 1780, Perthées compiled three atlases of the country’s new borders after the first partition of Poland (1772). Using official delimitation maps as a basis, he presented, at the scale of approx. 1:43,000, the post-partition borders – with Prussia (30 sections), Russia (43) and Austria (65), creating, together with general maps, a set of 144 sheets in total (the atlas of the Prussian border has not been preserved).

Perthées spent several dozen years working for King Stanisław August and during that period, he drew four general maps of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, taking into account a broad scope of the surrounding countries. The scale used was probably around 1: 1,800,000. The oldest of these maps was burned in the Warsaw Royal Castle in 1767, the later ones (from 1768, 1776/77 and 1797) have also been lost.

Another general map, entitled Polonia secundum legitimas proiectionis stereographicae regulas […], covered smaller area, but included much more details. It was destroyed in 1944, but its original-size photographic negatives have survived, which allowed the National Library to issue the map’s reproduction. Perthées marked the map with the date 1770, but he is known to have worked on it in the subsequent year as well. The scale of the Polonia map is approximately 1: 900,000, which is twice as large as the scale of the general maps. The manuscript consisted of 48 sheets. The maps of the Crown’s voivodeships which Franciszek Florian Czaki created at the request of Józef Aleksander Jabłonowski, an outstanding patron of sciences, were probably the most important reference materials used by Perthées for his own work. For several years, these maps remained in the king’s possession (from  1765). Later, Jabłonowski lent them to Giovanni Battista Antonio Rizzi-Zannoni, then working in Paris, who created and published (in 1772) a map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth titled Carte de la Pologne,with a scale of approximately 1: 690,000, on 25 sheets (also in the form of an atlas).

As Perthées’ Polonia and Zannoni’s map were made at the same time and referred to the same cartographic sources, they are often subject to comparative evaluations. For some areas, Perthées was able to use materials to which Zannoni did not have access, such as topographic images made along specific roads in Lithuania, at the king’s order, by Franciszek F. Czaki and his son, as well as information on the latitude of some places determined by the Jesuits. The average errors in determining geographic coordinates on both maps are the lowest in Lesser Poland. In this respect, in Mazovia and Podlasie, and to a less degree, in Pomerania and Lithuania, Polonia trumps Carte de la Pologne. The opposite is true for the areas of Greater Poland and the Ruthenian lands of the Crown – the coordinates (especially longitude) are clearly better on Zannoni’s map. Consequently, Greater Poland and Cuyavia are shifted to the east and south on the Perthées map, while the Ruthenian lands are moved to the west. There are significant disproportions in the settlement network on both maps. The settlement was dense in almost the entire area of the Crown (except for part of the Ruthenian lands) and the western part of Lithuania, but it is excessively dense on Polonia. The remaining areas are almost empty, especially in the east and north of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and in Polish Livonia. Borders (of the country and individual voivodeships) are usually depicted slightly better on the Perthées’ map than on Zannoni’s.

The only general map that has been printed on the basis of Perthées’ fair copy is the small map titled Carte générale et itinéraire de Pologne. It reduced Polonia to a scale of approximately 1: 5,200,000 and was published in 1773 in Warsaw by Michał Gröll (with reprints published in subsequent years). As Polonia remained in a manuscript form, until mid-19th century, Zannoni’s map, despite its errors and shortcomings, was the best available printed cartographic work which presented the entire pre-partition area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in a fairly detailed manner.

Cartography was not Perthées’ only passion. He was also an avid entomologist, i.e. he collected and described insects. His collection, which included about 2,700 species (805 of them butterflies), was destroyed, but his richly illustrated handwritten descriptions have been preserved. According to Jerzy Pawłowski, Perthées “began the inventory of the entomofauna of [Poland] and achieved considerable success in this field” (Wstępna ocena działalności entomologicznej Karola Perthéesa, p. 196).

Perthées’ father-in-law was Bernardo Bellotto, known as Canaletto, an Italian painter who lived in Warsaw from 1767 until his death in 1780 and worked for King Stanisław August. Perthées married his first wife, Józefa Bellotto, the eldest of Bellotto’s three daughters, at the end of 1770. After her death in 1789, the widower married her youngest sister, Teresa. The ceremony took place in 1792, in the Lutheran church in Toruń, as Perthées did not receive a dispensation to marry his sister-in-law from the Catholic Church. Three of Karol and Józefa Perthées’ children survived to adulthood: their daughter Regina (who was still alive in 1845) and two sons, Karol Edward (b. 1782) and Karol Gustaw (b. 1784). The second wife gave Perthées another daughter Marcella who later married Andrzej Towiański (not to be mistaken with the founder of the messianic sect of the same name).

In 1798, Karol Perthées moved to Vilnius where he was employed as a lecturer in cartography by the Russian army. In 1810, he went almost completely blind. In 1812, he moved to Mazuryszki near Vilnius, an estate which was leased by his son-in-law, Towiański, and died there on 2 December 1815. He was buried in the Calvinist cemetery in Vilnius (the tomb no longer exists).


Bibliographic note

The primary reference work for Karol Perthées is the publication titled: Karol Perthées (1739-1815), fizjograf Pierwszej Rzeczypospolitej. Życie oraz działalność kartograficzna i entomologiczna [Karol Perthées (1739-1815), Physiographer of the First Polish Republic: Life, cartographic and entomological activity], edited by J. Pawłowskiego, Warsaw 2003; ibidem, in particular: K. Buczek, Kartograf króla Stanisława Augusta. Życie i dzieła [Cartographer of King Stanisław August. Life and works] (annotated and edited by H. Rutkowski), pp. 21-134; W. Wernerowa, Ocena „ankiet parafialnych” jako źródła wiedzy Karola Perthéesa o fizjografii Rzeczypospolitej przedrozbiorowej [Assessment of „Parish Surveys” as a source of Karol Perthées knowledge about the physiography of the pre-partition Poland], pp. 165-192; J. Pawłowski, Wstępna ocena działalności entomologicznej Karola Perthéesa [Preliminary assessment of the entomological activity of Karol Perthées], pp. 193-260. The discussion of K. Buczek’s monograph on Perthées and its supplements can be found in: H. Rutkowski, Okres Stanisława Augusta w badaniach Karola Buczka nad kartografią dawnej Rzeczypospolitej [The period of the reign of King Stanisław August in Karol Buczek’s research on the cartography of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth], in: Karol Buczek (1902-1983), człowiek i uczony [Karol Buczek (1902-1983), Man and Scientist], edited by D. Karczewski et al., Cracow-Bydgoszcz 2004, pp. 76-102. The content of Perthées’ 1779 manuscript was provided by A.Ertman, O memoriale królewskiego kartografa Karola Perthéesa [About a manuscript by the Royal Cartographer, Karol Perthées], “Analecta. Studia i Materiały z Dziejów Nauki”, vol. 15, 2006, no. 1-2, pp. 243-254 (in all aspects other than the French text of the source and its good translation by J. Kurkowski, it is advised that the article should be read with a critical eye). Another work that ought to be mentioned here is a source publication titled: „Regestr diecezjów” Franciszka Czaykowskiego czyli właściciele ziemscy w Koronie 1783-1784 [Franciszek Czaykowski’s Register of Dioceses, i.e. Land Owners in the Crown in 1783-1784], published by S. Górzyński, and annotated and introduced by K. Chłapowski and S. Górzyński, Warsaw 2006.