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Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)

Abraham Ortels was a Flemish cartographer and geographer, generally recognised as the creator of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World). Ortelius was the first to underline the geometrical coincidence between the coasts of America and Europe-Africa, and to propose continental drift as an explanation.

Abraham Ortelius was born as Abraham Ortels in Antwerp, Flanders (Belgium), on 4th of April 1527. Some time before he was born, his family moved from Augsburg to Antwerp, which was then in the Habsburg ruled Seventeen Provinces and the economic and cultural centre of the Low Countries.
The death of his father in 1535, who had been a wealthy merchant, seems to have placed the family in difficulties, for Ortelius began to trade or peddle geographical charts and maps while still a mere youth.

In 1547, at the age of twenty, he joined a guild as a colourer of charts. He supplemented his income trading in books, prints, and maps, and his journeys included yearly visits to the Frankfurt book and print fair where he met Gerardus Mercator in 1554. In 1560, however, when travelling with Mercator to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted, largely by Mercator's influence, towards the career of a scientific geographer.

In 1564 he published his first map, Typus Orbis Terrarum, an eight-leaved map of the world. He also published a two-sheet map of Egypt in 1565, a plan of the Brittenburg castle on the coast of the Netherlands in 1568, an eight-sheet map of Asia in 1567, and a six-sheet map of Spain before the appearance of his atlas.

sail015f_A.jpg On May 20, 1570, Gilles Coppens de Diest at Antwerp issued Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the "first modern atlas" consisting of a set of 53 maps. It's success can only be estimated from the many editions that were published in the following decades: three Latin editions (besides a Dutch, a French and a German edition) appeared before the end of 1572; twenty-five editions came out before Ortelius' death in 1598; and several others were published subsequently, as the atlas continued to be in demand until about 1612. In 1573 Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the title Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. Four more Additamenta were to follow, the last one appearing in 1597.

In his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ortelius has combined in a systematic manner all recent maps of the world and separate countries, of which he had heard during his long activity as trader and collector. Where several maps of one country were available, he chose the most modern and most reliable copy. When the name of the author was mentioned on the map, Orteius did not change a line or a name then, but, when the author's name was not given, he resolutely made such changes as appeared to him necessary.

He conscientiously gave credit to the author of maps which were published on a reduced scale by himself. Considering geography as an eye of history (historioe oculus), he usually added the ancient historical names of countries and cities to the modern ones.

To the atlas he appended a geographical dictionary which contained both the ancient and modern names. More important for us than this dictionary is the appended catalogue of maps ("Catalogus auctorum tabularum geographicarum"), in which appear the names and works of ninety-nine cartographers who lived before 1570.

As concerning many of these cartographers we have no other knowledge than that contained in this catalogue, and as Ortelius utilized but forty-six of the maps mentioned by him, this little list is to-day one of the most important sources for a history of cartography.

In 1593 there were 137, in 1612 no less than 166 maps, while the list of authors reached 183 for the time up to 1595; antiquated maps were replaced by more modern ones, or changed according to the more accurate reports forwarded for the most part by missionaries, and it soon appeared not only in the Latin language, but also in Dutch, German, Italian, and French translations.

Very numerous were the smaller editions and extracts in the various languages. As late as 1697 there appeared in Venice a "Teatro del Mondo di Abramo Orteio". As the "Theatrum" had been dedicated to the Spanish king Philip II by Ortelius, the latter was given the title of a Royal Geographer ("Geographus regius").

His contemporaries honoured him as the "Ptolemy of his century".

Separate from his atlas Ortelius published in 1587 the "Thesaurus geographicus", which possesses to this day considerable value as a dictionary of old geography. In the last edition of this work (1596), Ortelius considers the possibility of continental drift, a hypothesis proved correct only centuries later.

Ortelius died in June 1598 at the age of 71 and was buried in St Michael's church in Antwerp


Abraham Ortelius is credited with publishing the first atlas in the form of a uniform collection of maps with accompanying text, engraved specifically for this purpose, and bound as a book. He is recognized as a genius in the field of cartography. In 1570 he published the first edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum which was an instant success, being the most expensive, but also the best selling book produced in the second half of the 16th century. About 7500 editions of his atlases were published and sold.

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