Janez Vajkard Valvasor

Encyclopedian and Pioneer of Enlightenment

Janez Vajkard Valvasor (1641-1693) was born in Ljubljana in 1641, probably in No.4 Stari trg.

His early life was typical of any well-to-do young man of the period. After completing his secondary schooling at the Jesuit grammar school, he did not continue to university but followed the custom of the time in improving his knowledge and broadening his horizons by travel and by serving in the army. He joined the army to fight in the Austro-Turkish war and later served in a Franco-Swiss infantry regiment and travelled extensively on the continent for 14 years.

It was not the conventional tour undertaken by young men of the time. Valvasor gained valuable experience and knowledge and became a cosmopolitan gentleman of the 17th century.

He was an extraordinary man of his time or indeed any time. His talents and achievements are unique and for his scientific investigations he was made member of the prestigious Royal Society of London. He is known as polymath, in his case, a historiographer, geographer, ethnographer, topographer, cartographer, naturalist and technician. Also a collector, draughtsman, publisher, and finally officer and commander.

All his talents and skills are demonstrated, incorporated and integrated in his life’s work In Praise of the Duchy of Carniola – a monument to his life’s work and his love of the country.

Valvasor spent 14 years travelling. It is not known how he occupied himself on his extensive journeys, that took him to England, France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Spain, Italy and Africa. There are only brief references and fragmentary notes from these journeys. Valvasor kept a diary, for which he developed a secret code, but it was lost. We do know that he was intensely interested in nature and all its phenomena, that he dealt with mathematics and physics, since he acquired a number of mathematical devices, which he later used for his research into cartography and topography.

In common with his contemporaries he was also interested in magic, alchemy and psychic phenomena.

In 1672 Janez Vajkard Valvasor returned to Ljubljana, married Ana Rosina Graffenweger von Grafenau and bought the castles and domains of Bogenšperk, Črni potok, Lichtenberg for 20,000 florins of Carniolan currency. He settled down to his studies and first of all began to collection for his library. After a few years the library contained several thousand volumes and a great collection of engravings, comprising 8,000 prints. Another collection contained about 2,000 coat’o’arms. Both collections were unique in Carniola.

In 1678 he also established his own printing shop in Bogenšperk in order to be able to do the kind of topographical painting that he wanted, and was the first one in the country. It seems that initially he planned to develop a publishing house for cartographical, historical and naturalist publications. When he began to devote himself for his encyclopedic work In Praise of the Duchy Carniola, that took up all his energy, as it grew in scope beyond the initial intention of publishing copperplate engravings of places.

To undertake the planned work, he assembled a team of draughtsmen and coppersmiths, native, German and Dutch artisans, and provided for them at his own expense at Bogenšperk until the book was published.

During the 11 years of his publishing activities, he managed to write and publish 6 topographical, and 3 art books illustrated with copperplates. Valvasor also produced and published maps of Carniola, Carinthia and Croatia. He carried out the surveying and drew them himself. They matched the achievements of leading European cartographers of that time, and were a great step forward for the country.

The graphic output of Valvasor’s workshop was important for Slovenian history and culture. These topographical depictions are especially valuable for their display of places, castles and monasteries as they were at the end of the 17th century – rich pictorial sources of the 17th century.

After 1680 Valvasor’s activities underwent a significant change, due to the influence of his friendship with the theological and historical writer Janez Ludvik Schoenleben. He had published Carniolia antiqua et nova, a chronicle of events up to the year 1000, in the form of annals. He asked Valvasor to collaborate on the projected Volume II, who began exploring and travelling through Slovenian territories, making enquiries and notes and surveys, climbing mountains and exploring caves. When Schoenleben died, Valvasor made it his own project for the honour of the Duchy Carniola. He began researching in earnest. In the meantime he managed to design a tunnel through Ljubelj on the border between Carniola and Carinthia. Due to circumstances, plague in 1679, the project came to nothing. However he was far ahead of his time. The tunnel was finally built and opened to traffic in 1964.

Valvasor published a number of works, which are all valuable records of 17th century Carniola. However the book in Praise of the Duchy of Carniola was his great contribution to history and times. At that time no other country could boast of such a publication.In this work he describes Carniola, the central Slovenian region. He also investigates and describes Carinthia, Croatia, Slavonia and coastal regions along the Turkish border, thereby presenting a comprehensive description of a large part of present day Slovenia and its neighbourhood in the second part of the 17th century. Thus was the turning point between two eras when the religious struggles had ended and the Turkish danger had been averted.

The book is a veritable treasure of data of all kinds, an “encyclopedia” of Slovenia and a unique source for earlier Slovenian history. Valvasor’s work has been published in many later editions and revisions. Writers have been making use of this work for 300 years, drawing material from him according to their needs and interests. The future generations will no doubt continue to find his work valuable.

He was interested in people and society, for the past, present and future generations, in nature and natural phenomena, and in art. His work was versatile and heterogeneous. His entire work reveals that he was a polymath in the best sense of the word. He did not receive enough support in his time. The real recognition came to him only once, when he was made member of the prestigious Royal Society of London, a rare honour.

Although Valvasor was highly respected in his time, he failed to draw financial benefits from his efforts. The research and collections were extremely costly and his domains did not bring in enough to cover the costs. In 1689 he sold Črni potok, in 1690 he had to part with his library and graphic collection. This did not cover all his obligations and in 1691 he sold to Stična monastery the tithe of 39 farms in Temenica. The following year he sold the domains of Bogenšperk and Lichtenberg, and finally his house in Ljubljana. With the rest of the property he bought a house in the centre of  Krško, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1693.

Valvasor died an impoverished man, but succeeded in honouring his native country and people in a truly unprecedented way. He left a memorial of the land and the people that has remained alive for over 300 years and a source for historians, researchers and fiction writers that will continue to provide information and insights into the future. Most significantly he demonstrated by his example what it is to have love and pride in a country, a people, a tradition. A people who are comparatively few in number and whose main claim to history is to defend their own land, survive and retain their identity through language and culture. More than 300 years ago Janez Vajkard Valvasor had laid a strong  foundation for national pride. A great Slovene and an exceptional man.

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Aleksandra Ceferin
Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers’ Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.