Die Pasettikarte ©Virgil Widrich OeNB

From Map & Compass to Navi, Apps & GPS - Danube Cartography over the Course of Time

The Danube before Regulation: An Exhibition at the Austrian National Library


The State Hall of the Austrian National Library in Vienna is not only a highly adequate but also opulent setting for this piece of Danube history worth seeing: the so-called “Pasetti Map” as a reproduction is meanwhile enthroned among the books, stucco and marble, thus emphasising its importance of yesteryear in picturesque surroundings: on a length of 44 metres, the reproduction of the navigation map from the Danube Monarchy shows us what the Danube once was – when it was not yet regulated. Court ministerial official Florian von Pasetti, a hydro-technician by trade, was commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef to document and map half of the Danube’s flow, namely more than 2,800 kilometres between Passau and the later Iron Gate.

Die Pasettikarte ©Virgil Widrich OeNB

For the first time in the history of Danube cartography, this river map by the official and expert von Pasetti also documents the hydrographic conditions of the Danube, i.e. the river bottom and its condition were surveyed and recorded as well as the course of the river and the landscape conditions – the map was intended to provide a binding basis for the forthcoming regulation work. And a little marketing for the upcoming construction work….

As early as the beginning of the 18th century, people had thought of getting the dangers of navigation on the Danube under control by regulating the river. These plans failed due to lack of funding. Nevertheless, the Danube was the most important supply artery for the imperial capital Vienna – its navigability therefore had the highest priority under Emperor Franz Josef.

The Pasetti Map: Elaborate Cartography and the wild, unregulated Danube River of yesteryear

The Navigation Map of the Danube in the Area of the Austrian Empire, which was repeatedly expanded in the years from 1857 onwards, was finally a masterpiece and is considered as a major work of cartography. More than 150 years ago, a total of 54 maps with a total length of 36 metres were needed to depict the course of the river in the Habsburg Empire. The scale: 1:28,800.

Today, the Danube flows through 10 countries. The exhibition in the Austrian National Library is flanked by pictures of “mobile ship bridges”, historical objects and other works of art, all of which reflect the importance of the Danube of yesteryear: The Danube is and was a cultural asset, border (“Limes”), transport route, natural landscape, habitat and economic factor. That has not changed since Pasetti’s time. But the Danube is no longer as we see it today on this monstrous and meticulous map. Then full of rocks, rapids and unimagined dangers such as ice surges and floods, today regulated, built up, tamed and under constant control of its levels.

Die Pasettikarte ©Virgil Widrich OeNB
Ausschnitt aus der Pasettikarte ©OeNB
Bagger zur Donauregulierung ©OeNB


In 1870, the groundbreaking for the regulation of the Danube in the greater Vienna area – the Pasetti map gives us an overview of the initial situation at that time. It is a reminder of the time before power plants, regulations, cycle paths, flood protection and barrages – when there was still a wildly romantic floodplain at the foot of the Leopoldsberg and Porzellangasse in the 9th district was already under water.

Today, when we stand in front of this bundle of maps in the Austrian National Library, we know one thing for sure: the Danube was like it was in Pasetti’s time and long before that, wild and pristine and above all untamed – it will probably never be like that again.

Letters, Reports & Pictures or Google Maps, Route Planners and Apps

Historical travel guides, picture series and epistolary travelogues of yesteryear give us an insight into the history of the Danube. Today, however, our impressions are dominated by blog stories and online travel guides, route planners, navigation tools and social media apps for on the go. Digitalisation also comes to our aid for the exhibition at the Austrian National Library. Pasetti’s original maps were digitised and enlarged somewhat. In the original, the map work was a complicated folded volume, but for us today it has been made more readable and “reproduced in a levelled manner” so that we only have to comfortably walk along the metre-long reconstruction, read and study it – at eye level and prepared.

The old picture collections, lithographs and travel reports in the exhibition show again and again impressively how complicated navigation on the Danube (and elsewhere) used to be. A certain Adolph Kunike published four editions of a “portfolio” from 1820 onwards, which depicted the course of the Danube in 264 views in lithographs (by Jakob Alt, among others): some of these can also be seen in the current exhibition at the Austrian National Library. All the pictures can be browsed online – individual sponsorships for the pictures are also possible: such a donation can ensure the restoration of further works of art.

Fords, ferries and flying bridges

Today, the ferries in the Wachau are a tourist highlight for us on our bike tour, flying bridges no longer exist, and our bathing pontoons and river terraces would probably have been waved away 150 years ago in a decided and, above all, horrified manner: far too dangerous to voluntarily go so close to the Danube! All too often nowadays we lose our distance to these sometimes hidden but also obvious dangers: we rely too much on our “tools” and “apps”, our smartphone, our “experiences” from Facebook groups, the ever-ready sat nav and the GPS. The flood protection in the Wachau, for example at Schönbühel Aggsbach Castle, may not please some people, but it is vital.

The “new maps” of our time are called Komoot, Strava and Google Maps – they make us think we are safe, but we should never take them for granted, even in the 21st century. Neither when hiking, boating, swimming, nor on a “we’re going to look at high water” walk. If you have never learned to read a hiking map with contour lines, you will overlook gradients or river courses even when using Komoot, and you will be only too happy to rely on the unmanageable range of “online maps”. This can be fatal. Common sense and one’s own eyes – these are important “tools” that the cartographers of once knew how to use above all, it seems to me. In addition to their knowledge, experience and many years of study. Such knowledge can never be replaced by Google Maps and smartphone apps: As beautiful as the animated photos and three-dimensionally displayed tours may be… The Danube is never predictable, as much as the digital world, apps and GPS tools or navigation devices would like to tell us.

Tip for an enjoyable bike tour, the next walk or walk with your dog along the Danube: Let’s just remember how arduous it was 150 years ago to pull the boats back upstream by horses along the towpath. If they hadn’t only survived one trip anyway and had long since been turned into plywood on arrival. Whoever sits in the pop-up restaurant directly on the towpath in Kritzendorf and enjoys Thai food: What did the landscape here look like 200 years ago? Wild and untamed and above all dangerous.

And when we take a boat trip with the DDSG and enjoy a glass of wine on the sun terrace, we simply see the river through the eyes of those people who once regularly put their lives at risk because they neither knew the dangers of the Danube, nor could they even begin to plan ahead?


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