Abraham Ortelius: Inventor of the Atlas

Rockoxhuis

On the day when the first Atlas was published, let's celebrate its inventor's life and work. 

Abraham Ortelius is a key figure in the history of human knowledge.

He is known as the inventor of the atlas - a book bringing maps together in one format and with the same display - and was the first person to discover continental drift.

On the anniversary of the First Atlas, two prestigious Antwerp institutions come together to celebrate the geographer’s legacy.

The Museum Plantin-Moretus, former house and workplace of of printer-publisher Christophe Plantin, which hosts some the greatest remaining publications by Ortelius...

… and the Rockoxhuis Museum, home of mayor and collector Nicolas Rockox, who was a good friend of Abraham Ortelius.

In this exhibit, the curators of the Museum Plantin-Moretus introduce you to Ortelius’ life, work and relationship with other humanists of his epoch, including printer and publisher Christophe Plantin.

Life and Work
At the heart of the humanist era 

Abraham Ortelius, or Abraham Ortels, was born in Antwerp on April 4 1527 and died there in 1598.

In the first half of the 16th century, the city of Antwerp enjoys an economic boom. There is an atmosphere of optimism and cosmopolitanism.

Alas, things take a turn for the worst.

The political situation in the Netherlands changes dramatically from the year 1560 onwards.

A revolt against the Spanish king breaks out and the Eighty Year’s War commences. As a result the Netherlands are separated once and for all. Antwerp enters a period of economic downfall.

Abraham’s family includes his parents Leonard Ortels and Anne Harrewayers, and his sisters Anne and Elisabeth. The Ortels family sympathizes with the ideas of the Reformation.

Abraham is a gifted child. He can speak Dutch, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish and also some German and English.

Abraham and his sisters become kaartafzetters: they specialize in coloring illustrations and maps.

Abraham builds a successful business as kaartafzetter.

It will remain his most important source of income for the rest of his life.

Abraham also deals in antiques, coins, maps and books.

The 16th century is a time of fundamental changes.

Journeys of exploration, revolutionary inventions and the rediscovery of classical authors lead to new insights as well as a new view of the world.

This engraving shows some of the greatest inventions and discoveries of the humanist era. In the center, for example, you can observe the printing press.

Ortelius is a humanist.

He studies classical literature and history, and keeps up with the evolution of science.

Discoveries in America, Africa and Asia fascinate him.

This map by Ortelius published in 1587 is entitled "America or the New World, a new description."

Like so many other humanists, Abraham adopts the Latin version of his surname, so that "Ortels" becomes "Ortelius".

He also is a passionate collector.

His Museum Ortelanium boasts books, prints, paintings, wall maps, coins (such as the one depicted here), scientific instruments and a cabinet of curiosities.

At a certain point the collection becomes so large that Ortelius has to move to a larger house!

Ortelius corresponds with prominent scientists from all over Europe.

His "friendship book" (Album Amicorum) reads like a Who's who of his time.

Here, an allegory celebrates Ortelius' friendship with Joris Hoefnagel, by depicting the two men's common humanist interests.

His many interests and wide network led Ortelius to travel a lot: to Italy, France, the Netherlands, England and Ireland.

On one of his travels he is accompanied by the cartographer Gerard Mercator. The journey will inspire him to start producing maps himself.

Here, we see Ortelius and his companions engraving their names on a Dolmen, during a trip to Poitiers.

Again, Joris Hoefnagel's name can be spotted. Can you find it on the stone?

The very first maps Ortelius produces are large wall maps: of the world, Egypt, the Holy Land, Asia, Spain and the Roman Empire.

From then on, maps will dominate Ortelius’ life.

The First Atlas
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or The Theatre of the World

Abraham Ortelius is the inventor of the atlas.

He creates a new kind of book that brings geographical maps together, gathering them all in the same format.

His first atlas was called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or The Theatre of the World.

During the 16th century world maps are the most appropriate instrument for showing discoveries, as well as communicating the presumed shape of the world.
At that time, maps are still a mixture of facts, speculation and pure fantasy.

The world map (Typus orbis terrarum), the first in Ortelius' atlas, is his most famous map.

This representation of the world had an enormous cultural impact, as it synthesized all the latest knowledge related to the size and shape of the continents.

The shape of the African coastline was known since the end of the 15th century.

Knowledge about the Asian inland was based on travel reports by Marco Polo from the 13th century.

As a result of the voyages by Portuguese explorers, new information became available about the coasts of South East Asia and the Indian Archipelago.

While the Spanish brought back new information about the Pacific Ocean.

Sea monsters!

Sea monsters and mythical creatures have been a subject of fascination since Antiquity. It is therefore not surprising that they appear on maps.

Furthermore, maps that were decorated with these fantasy animals sold a lot better than those without.

The end of the world

On this map, the Central Meridian runs through Cabo Verde, the Cape Verde Islands.
In ancient times people presumed that the end of the world was located precisely there!

The Central Meridian now runs through Greenwich, in the vicinity of London.

Latin America


Scientist Ortelius applied newly acquired knowledge in his maps.

On the map of 1587, which you can see here, the contours of South America are incorrect. On later maps, they were adjusted so that the Latin American coastline resembles much more the one we are used to seeing now.

The North Pole

Here, the North Pole consists of four islands that are separated by rivers.
In Ortelius' time, people were convinced that it is possible to sail to the Far East via the North Pole.

The unknown Southland: Terra Australis Nondum Cognita

Already in Antiquity, people believed that the earth was round. Because there is a continent above, it is presumed there is also land below. If that were not the case the world would be out of balance!

But in Ortelius' time the southern oceans had not yet been explored, so on this map the Southland is only a hypothesis.

New Guinea

Trading spices, the Portuguese landed in New Guinea in 1526-1527. On the map, the island is attached to the Southland.

The Latin text explains: ‘New Guinea, recently discovered. It is unsure whether this is an island or part of the Southern Continent.’

The continental drift

Abraham Ortelius is the first in history to observe the continental drift.

He writes that "the coastlines of the continents are so similar that they seem to have been torn apart at some point in time."

This is very well visible in Ortelius' atlas, when looking at the Latin American and African coasts.

The first edition of Ortelius' atlas is published in 1570 and holds 53 maps. The last edition dates from 1622 and it holds 167 maps.

See here a map of Europe, from the 1587 edition.


Everybody praises the magnificent atlas and its beautifully engraved maps, made by Frans Hogenberg.

Mercator writes: ‘I have studied your Theatrum and I can only congratulate you on the great care and elegance with which you have embellished the work of several authors (…)’.

The Theatrum is a commercial success.

During Ortelius’ life no less than 24 editions are published. After his death another 10 will follow.
The book, written in Latin, is translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, English and Italian.

Ortelius also provides an addendum (Latin Parergon) with historic maps: see here a map of the Roman Empire.

A pocket edition of the Theatrum is put on the market.

The Spieghel der Werelt (Mirror of the World) will eventually enjoy a run of thirty editions.
Many prominent and famous people carried this mini atlas with them during their journeys.

Abraham Ortelius and Christophe Plantin
The encounter between two humanist visionaries 

Christophe Plantin is known as one of the leading intellectuals and businessmen of his time.

Around 1550, he moved to Antwerp where he founded a printing office: the Officina Plantiniana.

Plantin's printing enterprise would go on to become one of the most eminent publishing firms in the world.

Plantin was famous for the extremely high standard of his work, guaranteeing high quality paper, exceptional typography, accurate texts and the very best illustrations.

In 1558, Abraham Ortelius bought a book by Vergilius from Plantin, as mentioned in Plantin's journal which you can see here.

It is the very first time that these two names occur together. They will become the best of friends.

Can you spot Abraham Ortelius' first name in this document?

Christophe Plantin's talent appeals to Ortelius' love of good craftsmanship.

Ortelius colours Gerard Mercator’s maps for him.

Plantin didn't publish the first edition of the Theatrum, though he did play a key role in the selling of the atlas.

He sells it to merchants from Augsburg, Milan and Genova, among others, as this journal testifies.

Plantin publishes a Spanish edition of the Theatrum and presents a number of coloured copies to King Philip II of Spain, who ruled the Netherlands at the time.

Plantin also publishes Ortelius’ dictionary of place names, the Synonymia Geographica.

This rich dictionary associates old and modern place names with their equivalents in the popular language of the day.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum was the home and workplace of Christophe Plantin and the Moretus family.

Many intellectuals, including Abraham Ortelius, visited it as friends and clients of Christophe Plantin.
Knowledge and ideas travelled from this house to the four corners of the world, beyond the frontiers of Europe.

For 300 years, books were the heart and soul of this place, and they remain so today.

Downstairs you can meet Christophe Plantin: family man, businessman, manager, humanist, publisher and printer.

Upstairs you can take a closer look at the beautiful books that were printed in this house, from richly illustrated bibles to simple almanacs, including the revolutionary work of Abraham Ortelius.

an exhibit curated by Museum Plantin-Moretus
Credits: Story

This exhibit was curated by the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

To know more about Abraham Ortelius, Christophe Plantin and the other men and women who shaped the Humanist era, visit the Plantin-Moretus and Rockoxhuis museums in Antwerp!

More about Plantin-Moretus Museum here.

More about Rockoxhuis Museum here.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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