Friday, April 17, 2015



     Abraham Ortelius (1527 - 1598) was born in Antwerp to German parents.  He was trained as an engraver of maps, and in 1547 entered the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke as a map illuminator.  As a sideline, Ortelius began trading in books, maps and antiquities.  In the words of Daniel Boorstin in THE DISCOVERERS, "to support his mother and two sisters after his father died, he became a dealer. He bought maps, which his sisters mounted on linen, then he would color them to sell in Frankfurt or some other fair. As his business grew he made regular circuits through the British Isles, Germany, Italy and France, buying the maps locally produced and selling his own illuminated product. In this way he collected the best current maps from all over Europe, which he brought back to his Antwerp headquarters."  Travel brought him into contact with cartographers; in 1554 at the Frankfurt book and print fair he met the geographer Gerardus Mercator, who befriended and began traveling with him.  Under the influence of Mercator, Ortelius began first collecting and publishing maps prepared by others. Eventually Ortelius began producing his own maps. 
   The first map published by Ortelius, in 1564, was an 8-leaved wall map of the world which he entitled Typus Orbis Terrarum:

     Throughout the rest of the decade Ortelius published several more maps, but it was in 1570, after ten years of effort, that he produced his masterwork: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a compilation of 53 maps that is widely considered to be the first modern atlas.  At the time, travelers were forced to rely on a hodgepodge of separate maps, all of different sizes and shapes; the larger ones had to be unrolled in order to be used. The Theatrum compiled the best maps of the day into one uniform, portable, user-friendly book format.  It was an immediate success, and was translated into Latin, French, Dutch and German; 28 editions of it were published during Ortelius' lifetime.  He made corrections to the original in some of the later editions, and between 1573 and 1597 he published five sets of supplementary maps, as well as many other maps and scholarly works (unusual for a man like Ortelius, who had never studied at a university).  He was the first person to notice the symmetry between the east coast of the Americas and the west coasts of Europe and Africa (very visible in the Typus Orbis, shown above) and to propose the theory of continental drift: that the continents had at one time been joined together in one land mass, and had been separated by some cataclysmic event.  More than three centuries later, Ortelius was proven correct in this hypothesis.
     As a result of the popularity of the Theatrum, Ortelius became quite famous, and (after being certified by the Catholic Church for his religious orthodoxy), was appointed the official geographer of King Philip II of Spain.
     Returning to the wonderful words of Daniel Boorstin: "These pioneer cartographers, map printers and dealers brought the discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci, Balboa and Magellan, to the people, whose lives their discoveries would transform. Before the printing press there were two great traditions of cartography in Europe. Cosmographers produced grand works to ornament palaces and libraries while chart-makers furnished pilots with the portolanos they needed at sea. Now a new format, the atlas, in many sizes and prices, could inform all who wanted to learn."  Like Aldus Manutius, Abraham Ortelius was one of the pioneers in making modern knowledge accessible to the common people - the folks like you and me.


  1. Wow. When this challenge is over and life calms down a bit (it will calm down, won't it?) I'm gonna go back and read all of these posts, because they're just amazing. Not sure why, but I'm fascinated by trying to get a picture of what life was like for people in previous eras. The history books are always about wars and kings... yadda, yadda, yadda - but what I always want is to somehow get a picture of what day to day life was really like, and I think your posts are doing a remarkable job of capturing that.

  2. Hey, Cat Lady! Thank you SO much for your comment! Funny thing - I HATED history when I was in school for the same reasons you did: wars, kings, meaningless dates, yadda yadda... It took decades for me to realize that learning about the past was learning about PEOPLE, who are endlessly fascinating!

  3. I love maps! I love looking at maps. Especially very old maps, they are so much fun to browse... And I love the idea of people in the 16th century who spent their life making maps better... :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary - Epics from A to Z
    MopDog - 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

    1. I love old maps too. That's why Ortelius is one of the few people in my Challenge posts that I actually knew about before the Challenge started. Thanks for visiting. And wish me luck - I still have four posts to write for next week!