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Mapmaker Biography: Abraham Ortelius (1528 - 1598)



Abraham Ortelius is among the best known European cartographers of the 16th century. Indeed, he and Gerard Mercator are perhaps the most renowned of their era. Both men made significant contributions not only to cartography, but also to science and the ever-increasing store of knowledge which marked the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, but both are most widely known for their contributions in the field of mapmaking.

Interestingly, Ortelius was an early advocate of the theory of continental drift, openly writing and speaking of it, yet he is given little credit for it. The hypothesis that the continents might have 'drifted' apart was first put forward by him in 1596 as he observed that if moved toward one another, they seemed to fit quite well, making him one of the earliest known proponents of the idea which only truly came of age in the early 20th century.

The next serious proponent/defender of the idea was English philosopher and mathematician Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1620 postulated that the fit between the Americas and Europe and Africa was too close to have occurred by accident. Despite Bacon’s theorizing, few if any of his contemporaries were convinced, and Ortelius must be credited with having actually mapped out the idea some three centuries before science and academia took the idea seriously. 

Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the world’s first atlas — with notes which reflect his compendium of data, names of scientists, theories, and even sea monsters — provides a close look at his original maps, which reveal his important theory. A number of maps in the atlas, including Typus Orbis Terrarum, underline the geometrical similarity between the coasts of America alongside the coasts of Europe and Africa, and other continents as well, and he proposed continental drift as an explanation, the idea which as noted earlier, would later influence the theory of plate tectonics.

In addition to his intellectual prowess and his remarkable connections with royal houses and the entirety of European literati, Ortelius was a shrewd businessman. His acumen resulted in his obtaining Royal Privilege for an extended period of time for publishing his works, which seriously impacted the ability of his contemporaries to publish their own works. By 1568 production of maps for Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was under way. By 1569 the atlas was ready for publication, and by May of 1570 the Theatrum, one of the most expensive books published to that date, was already for sale. The first edition contained seventy maps on fifty-three sheets, all engraved by the enormously talented Franz Hogenberg. 

This highly detailed map of Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean and much of what is considered the Middle East demonstrates the quality and remarkable accuracy of the maps contained in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

Following publication of the Theatrum, Ortelius began work on his maps of the ancient world for an atlas he called Parergon, which mapped the world of antiquity. This unusual work is that of Ortelius himself, who drew the maps based on his own research. They are considered the most outstanding engravings of their day depicting the ancient world, manifesting the wide-spread interest in classical geography in the 16th century. 

The importance of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum for knowledge of the world’s geography is impossible to overemphasize, and demand for it was rather amazing, with 24 editions being published during his lifetime and an additional ten following his death. The work was translated into all major European languages and the number of maps increased from 53 in the first edition to 167 in the last edition, which was published in 1612.  This brilliant work not only illuminated the modern world at the time of its publication, but to this day impacts the ways in which the world is viewed. Peruse here one of the best known of his maps, with its famed quote from Cicero. "Quid ei potest videri magnum in rebus humanis, cui aeternitas omnis, totius que mundi nota sit magmitudo. Cicero."  "What can seem great in human affairs to him for whom all ages, and the magnitude of the entire world, is known? Cicero."




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