The True Colours of Tavernier’s travels!

- by Thibault Ehrengardt

Tavernier's Travels.

Exploring the relation of the Middle East explorer Jean Baptiste Tavernier through an unusual copy that was published in 1810 by Lepetit’s widow.


In the early part of the year 1631, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) set his eyes on the magnificent city of Constantinople for the first time of his life—but not the last one. The son of a map seller, he grew up with a fascination for the world elsewhere. He became a tireless traveller and a pioneer in the Eastern trade. In 1676, he published a book—Les Six Voyages de Jean Baptiste Tavernier... It is a classic, and Montesquieu used it to write his Lettres Persanes. Voltaire didn’t rate this book—neither did Diderot, who once stated that Tavernier had taught him how to yawn while reading a travelling book. I was hardly interested myself. But the other day, a special copy made me change my mind.


Sometimes, you set your eyes on a book, and it’s love at first sight. There’s no explaining it. Could be the binding, the endpapers, the smell of it... This time, what did the trick was the incredible atlas of the edition of Lepetit’s widow of Tavernier’s travels (Paris, 1810)—more than 150 years after the first edition? I usually know better. As a matter of fact, the preface of the publisher will make you frown: “Let’s admit that Tavernier’s relation is often boring.” Really? “I did my best, eliminating vulgar constructions, shortening tedious descriptions, leaving aside suspicious anecdotes, and making the style as elegant as possible, to give the most accurate description of ancient and modern Persia and Indies.” This, the writer adds, to please mostly “women and children.” Oh my! I should have put it down—but it was too late. I had just caught a glance at the frontispiece— engraved by the famous Tardieu l’Aîné, and representing Tavernier in “his Persian outfit.” And guess what? It’s been hand-coloured at the time! So are the other 21 engravings of the atlas. The folding map of Asia explodes in yellow and blue—Constantinople is green with trees and blue with seawater—the Persian female outfits are gorgeous—the traditional Indian knife is scaring—the golden bas-relief from Persepolis is fascinating! I’ve been looking all over the Internet since—maybe Lepetits’ widow put out all the Atlases that way—hand-coloured? But I couldn’t find any other copy. It seems to be one of a kind copy. Could this edition show, after all, the true colours of Tavernier’s travels?


The binder who bound our copy left the half title pages out. A detail? Well, not exactly. As shown by other copies, they read: Bibliothèque portative des voyages. So this book actually comes from a 49-volume collection printed by Lepetit’s widow! The kind of thing that usually annoys me, but this time, it didn’t matter that much. I did yawn a few times reading the book, indeed; but anytime it happened, I’d take a not-so-casual look at the atlas—and here I was, happy all over again. Although not the most entertaining travel book, it made history; and it is the relation of a genuine traveller, who spent his life exploring the world elsewhere he had foreseen as a kid. He went bankrupt at 84, and left for India again! “Death caught up with him in this last travel in July 1689,” the publisher writes. “He was what we call a visionary—not in the good sense of the term.” The famous French satirist Boileau even wrote about his travels: “In front of our mesmerized eyes he brought, The rarest treasures bred by the sun, He didn’t bring anything as “rare” as himself.” Maybe—but this atlas!


T. Ehrengardt