The Flemish map maker and map seller Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) is known for his "Theatrum orbis terrarum," one of the first major atlases. He accelerated the movement away from Ptolemaic geographical conceptions.
Abraham Ortelius was born Abraham Ortels of German parents in Antwerp on April 14, 1527. He was trained as an engraver, worked as an illuminator of maps, and by 1554 was in the business of selling maps and antiquities. This business involved extensive traveling, which enabled Ortelius to make contacts with the international community of scholars concerned with exploration and cartography and especially with English experts like Richard Hakluyt and John Dee. From these sources Ortelius obtained cartographical materials and information; he also collected and published maps by his fellow Flemish geographer Gerhardus Mercator.
Ortelius began issuing various maps in the 1560s. Among these were maps of Egypt, Asia, and the world. The Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570) consisted of 70 maps on 53 sheets. There was a world map and maps of the continents of Africa and Asia. Europe, however, was the area most completely surveyed. In 1573 an Additamenta (atlas supplement) was issued. Later editions of both atlas and supplement were revised and expanded. By 1624 the Theatrum had run through 40 editions and had grown to 166 maps. It appeared in Latin and translations into Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and English.
The collection deserves to be called an atlas because of its uniform publishing format, critical selection from the existing mass of material, and scholarly citation of authorities whose maps were used (87 in all). Greatly diminished was the influence of Ptolemy's Geography, an ancient masterpiece revived for Europeans in the 15th century.
The Ptolemaic influence had itself marked an advance in academic cartography. Medieval geography had registered a profound cleavage between the geographical notions of the Schoolmen, highly abstract and shaped by theological constructs, and the practical activity of the Mediterranean chart makers, whose portolano charts gave an amazingly accurate record of coastlines visited and surveyed by mariners. The coordinates provided by Ptolemy, from which world maps were constructed, helped to undermine the medieval academic outlook and put scholarly cartography on a more scientific basis.
Nevertheless, by the late 16th century the acceleration of the flow of new geographical information produced by the Discoveries had rendered many of Ptolemy's observations obsolete. It was time once more for the printed map to catch up with the manuscript chart, a task facilitated by the work of Ortelius and Mercator. It is significant, however, that both Europe and Southeast Asia received the most accurate rendition from Ortelius, whereas the outlines of South America remained very inadequately portrayed—perhaps a reflection of the real weight of the Discoveries with respect to their lines of economic and geographical attraction. Ortelius died at Antwerp on July 4, 1598.
Ortelius's career and contributions are examined in Lloyd Arnold Brown, The Story of Maps (1949); Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance: 1420-1620 (1952); and G. R. Crone, Maps and Their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography (1953; 4th rev. ed. 1968). □