Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was a Flemish cartographer and map seller most famous for his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World in English), one of the Western world’s first major modern atlases. It was originally printed in 1570. This was followed by Additamenta (Atlas Supplement) in 1573. Ortelius is notable for departing from the geographic conceptions of Ptolemy and the classical world, paving the way for modern mapmaking.

Early Life

Abraham Ortelius was born Abraham Ortels of German parents in Antwerp, Belgium 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, and Ortelius made contacts with scholars and mapmakers all over Europe, particularly the English thinkers 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.


Mapmaking and Its Consequences

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.

Ortelius’s Legacy

Ortelius’s atlas was remarkably modern, not only because its maps were closer to modern conceptions but because of its uniform publishing format, critical selection from the existing mass of material, and rigorous scholarly citation of the authorities whose maps were used (87 in all). In particular, Ortelius departed substantially from the standard work on the subject, Ptolemy’s Geography, a classical masterwork well out of date by the 16th century.

The Ptolemaic influence had itself marked an advance in academic cartography. Medieval geography was defined by a split between the religious Scholastics, whose view of the world was highly abstract and shaped by theological constructs, and the practical activity of the Mediterranean chart makers, whose portolano charts provided detailed records of the coastlines actually 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 flow of new geographical information from explorers, particularly in the New World, had rendered many of Ptolemy's observations obsolete. The work of Ortelius and his peers, notably Mercator, represent early attempts to reckon with Europe’s contact with the Americas and Asia and portray the world as it actually was. 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. Ortelius died at Antwerp on July 4, 1598.


Further Reading on Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius was a key figure in the modernization of cartography in Europe. Many comprehensive studies of mapmaking include analysis of Ortelius and his work.

  • Lloyd Arnold Brown, The Story of Maps (1949)
  • Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance: 1420-1620 (1952)
  • G. R. Crone, Maps and Their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography (1953; 4th rev. ed. 1968).

Updates by Matt Salter