Revisiting the Work of Abraham Ortelius


Laura Guelle

Italiae Veteris Specimen. 1584. From Theatre de l'univers. Anvers: C. Plantin, 1587.

In 1570 Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) became the father of the modern atlas by issuing the world's first regularly produced atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the world). Combining maps of uniform size and style with comprehensive text, the innovative Theatrum set the standard for the shape and contents of future atlases. Unlike many modern atlases, it even credited the original cartographers.

The Theatrum became the best-selling atlas of the sixteenth century, overshadowing Gerard Mercator's Atlas (1585). It was translated into Dutch (1571), German (1572), French (1572), Spanish (1588), English (1606) and Italian (1608). Five supplements, the Additamenta, were produced from 1573-1597, which enlarged the Theatrum's content from 53 to 119 maps, as well as providing improved plates. Separate sheets of maps appearing in the Additamenta were printed to be inserted into previous editions.

The success of the Theatrum spawned another first of its kind, the pocket atlas, entitled the Epitome theatri Orteliani. The maps of the Theatrum were redrawn by Ortelius's collaborator, Philip Galle, and issued with text in rhyme by the translator of the Dutch Theatrum, Pieter Heyns. Galle and Christoffel Plantin published the Epitome in 1577. Like the Theatrum it was immensely popular and was translated in prose form into French (1579), Latin (1585), Italian (1593), English (1603), and German (1604). Various printing houses continued production of the Epitome until 1724.

Shortly before Ortelius's death in 1598, he produced a volume of 38 personally drawn maps and views of the classical world, the Parergon. All but three of these maps and one view were previously published in editions of his Theatrum. Ortelius decorated the text sheets with illustrations of coins. After his death, several plates were added to the Parergon and it was translated into French, Italian, German, and English.

Special Collections owns eleven Ortelian maps, dated from 1568 to 1591, which appeared in editions of the Theatrum from 1587 to 1603. Our copy of the view Tempe, which later appeared in the Parergon, is dated 1590, but was issued in the 1592 edition of the Theatrum. Also on the rare book shelves is a 1589 Latin edition of the Epitome. For those wishing to see the 1570 Theatrum orbis terrarum, R. A. Skelton's 1968 facsimile edition is available.

The Ortelian maps are housed with the other antique and historical maps in the Special Collections map cases. The antique maps collection contains works by Joan Blaeu, Willem Blaeu, Rigobert Bonne, Guillaume de L'Isle, Henricus Hondius, Jan Jansson, Jean Janvier, Gerard Mercator, Abraham Ortelius, Nicolaes Visscher, and Frederick de Wit. The historical maps (1800-1975) focus on urban areas and provide primary research material for students in the Growth and Structure of Cities Program.

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