Abraham Ortelius (/ɔːrˈtiːliəs/; also Ortels, Orthellius,
Wortels; 14 April 1527 – 28 June 1598) was a Flemish cartographer
and geographer, conventionally recognized as the creator of the first
modern atlas, the
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World).
Ortelius is often considered one of the founders of the Netherlandish
school of cartography and one of the most notable representatives of
the school in its golden age (approximately 1570s–1670s). The
publication of his atlas in 1570 is often considered as the official
beginning of the Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography. He is also
believed to be the first person to imagine that the continents were
joined together before drifting to their present positions.
2 Map publisher
2.1 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
2.2 Later maps
3 Modern use of maps
4 Imagining continental drift
6 See also
9 Further reading
11 External links
Ortelius was born in the city of Antwerp, which was then in the
Habsburg Netherlands (modern-day Belgium). The Orthellius family were
originally from Augsburg, a
Free imperial city
Free imperial city of the Holy Roman
Empire. In 1535, the family had fallen under suspicion of
Protestantism. Following the death of Ortelius' father, his uncle
Jacobus van Meteren returned from religious exile in England to take
care of Ortelius. Abraham remained close to his cousin Emanuel van
Meteren who would later move to London. In 1575 he was appointed
geographer to the king of Spain, Philip II, on the recommendation of
Arias Montanus, who vouched for his orthodoxy.
He traveled extensively in Europe, and is specifically known to have
traveled throughout the Seventeen Provinces; in southern, western,
northern, and eastern Germany (e.g., 1560, 1575–1576); France
(1559–1560); England and
Ireland (1576), and
Italy (1578, and
perhaps twice or thrice between 1550 and 1558).
Beginning as a map-engraver, in 1547 he entered the
Antwerp Guild of
Saint Luke as an illuminator of maps. He supplemented his income
trading in books, prints, and maps, and his journeys included yearly
visits to the Frankfurt book and print fair where he met Gerardus
Mercator in 1554. In 1560, however, when travelling with Mercator
to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted,
largely by Mercator’s influence, towards the career of a scientific
He died in Antwerp.
1570 Typus Orbis Terrarum
In 1564 he published his first map, Typus Orbis Terrarum, an
eight-leaved wall map of the world, on which he identified the Regio
Locach as a northward extension of the Terra Australis,
reaching as far as New Guinea. This map subsequently appeared in
reduced form in the Terrarum (the only extant copy is in now at Basel
University Library). He also published a two-sheet map of
1565, a plan of the
Brittenburg castle on the coast of the Netherlands
in 1568, an eight-sheet map of
Asia in 1567, and a six-sheet map of
Spain before the appearance of his atlas.
In England Ortelius' contacts included William Camden, Richard
Hakluyt, Thomas Penny, puritan controversialist William Charke, and
Humphrey Llwyd, who would contribute the map of
England and Wales
England and Wales to
Ortelius's 1573 edition of the Theatrum.
In 1578 he laid the basis of a critical treatment of ancient geography
by his Synonymia geographica (issued by the Plantin press at Antwerp
and republished in expanded form as Thesaurus geographicus in 1587 and
again expanded in 1596. In this last edition, Ortelius considers the
possibility of continental drift, a hypothesis proved correct only
In 1596 he received a presentation from
Antwerp city, similar to that
afterwards bestowed on Rubens. His death on 28 June 1598, and his
burial in the church of St. Michael's Abbey, Antwerp, were marked by
public mourning. Quietis cultor sine lite, uxore, prole (meaning -
“served quietly, without accusation, wife, and offspring.” ),
reads the inscription on his tombstone.
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Main article: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Map of the Persian Empire from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
On 20 May 1570, Gilles Coppens de Diest at
Antwerp issued Ortelius’
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the "first modern atlas" (of 53 maps).[Note
Latin editions of this (besides a Dutch, a French and a
German edition) appeared before the end of 1572; twenty-five editions
came out before Ortelius' death in 1598; and several others were
published subsequently, for the atlas continued to be in demand until
about 1612. Most of the maps were admittedly reproductions (a list of
87 authors is given in the first Theatrum by Ortelius himself, growing
to 183 names in the 1601
Latin edition), and many discrepancies of
delineation or nomenclature occur. Errors, of course, abound, both in
general conceptions and in detail; thus
South America is initially
very faulty in outline, but corrected in the 1587 French edition, and
Scotland the Grampians lie between the Forth and the Clyde; but,
taken as a whole, this atlas with its accompanying text was a monument
of rare erudition and industry. Its immediate precursor and prototype
was a collection of thirty-eight maps of European lands, and of Asia,
Tartary and Egypt, gathered together by the wealth and
enterprise, and through the agents, of Ortelius’ friend and patron,
Gillis Hooftman (1521–1581), lord of Cleydael and Aertselaer:
most of these were printed in Rome, eight or nine only in the Southern
In 1573 Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the
title Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. Four more Additamenta were
to follow, the last one appearing in 1597. He also had a keen interest
and formed a fine collection of coins, medals and antiques, and this
resulted in the book (also in 1573, published by Philippe Galle of
Antwerp) Deorum dearumque capita ... ex Museo Ortelii (reprinted in
1582, 1602, 1612, 1680, 1683 and finally in 1699 by Gronovius,
Thesaurus Graecarum Antiquitatum. vol. vii).
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum inspired a six volume work entitled
Civitates orbis terrarum
Civitates orbis terrarum edited by
Georg Braun and illustrated by
Frans Hogenberg with the assistance of Ortelius himself, who visited
England to see his friend
John Dee in Mortlake in 1577 and Braun tells
of Ortelius putting pebbles in cracks in Temple Church, Bristol, being
crushed by the vibration of the bells in the description on the back
of 'Brightovve' Map 2, Third Edition 1581
In 1579 Ortelius brought out his Nomenclator Ptolemaicus and started
his Parergon (a series of maps illustrating ancient history, sacred
and secular). He also published Itinerarium per nonnuilas Galliae
Belgicae partes (at the Plantin press in 1584, and reprinted in 1630,
1661 in Hegenitius, Itin. Frisio-Hoil., in 1667 by Verbiest, and
finally in 1757 in Leuven), a record of a journey in
Belgium and the
Rhineland made in 1575. In 1589 he published Maris Pacifici, the first
dedicated map of the
Pacific to be printed. Among his last works
were an edition of Caesar (C. I. Caesaris omnia quae extant, Leiden,
Raphelingen, 1593), and the Aurei saeculi imago, sive Germanorum
veterum vita, mores, ritus et religio. (Philippe Galle, Antwerp,
1596). He also aided Welser in his edition of the
Peutinger Table in
Contrary to popular belief, Abraham Ortelius, who had no children,
never lived at the Mercator-Orteliushuis (Kloosterstraat 11-17,
Antwerpen), but lived at his sister’s house (Kloosterstraat 33-35,
Modern use of maps
Originals of Ortelius' maps are popular collectors' items and often
sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Facsimiles of his maps are also
available from many retailers. A map he made of North and South
America is also included in the world's largest commercially available
jigsaw puzzle, which is of four world maps. This puzzle is made by
Ravensburger, measures 6 feet (1.8 m) × 9 feet (2.7 m), and
has over 18,000 pieces.
Imagining continental drift
Ortelius was the first to underline the geometrical similarity between
the coasts of America and Europe-Africa, and to propose continental
drift as an explanation. Kious described Ortelius' thoughts in this
Abraham Ortelius in his work Thesaurus Geographicus … suggested that
the Americas were "torn away from
Africa … by earthquakes
and floods" and went on to say: "The vestiges of the rupture reveal
themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers
carefully the coasts of the three [continents]."
Ortelius's observations of continental juxtaposition and his proposal
of rupture and separation were repeated by
Alfred Wegener who
published his hypothesis of continental drift in 1912 and in following
years. Because his publications were widely available in German
and English, and because he adduced geological support for the idea,
Wegener is credited by most geologists as the first to recognize the
possibility of continental drift. During the 1960s geophysical and
geological evidence for seafloor spreading at mid-oceanic ridges
became increasingly compelling to geologists (e.g. Hess, 1960,)
and finally established continental drift as an ongoing global
mechanism. After more than three centuries, Ortelius's supposition of
continental drift was proven correct.
Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Gedruckt zu Nuermberg durch
Johann Koler Anno MDLXXII. Mit einer Einführung und Erläuterungen
von Ute Schneider. Second unchanged edition (2. unveränd. Aufl).
Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2007.
Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography
Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography (also known as the Golden Age
of Dutch and Flemish cartography)
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World)
^ The first work that contained systematically arranged maps of
uniform size, intended to be published in a book, thus representing
the first modern atlas, was De Summa totius Orbis (1524–26) by the
16th-century Italian cartographer Pietro Coppo. Nonetheless, this
distinction is conventionally awarded to Abraham Ortelius.
^ Romm, James (February 3, 1994), "A New Forerunner for Continental
Drift", Nature, 367 (6462): 407–408, Bibcode:1994Natur.367..407R,
^ a b c d Joost Depuydt, ‘
Ortelius, Abraham (1527–1598)’, Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
^ Peter Barber, "Ortelius' great world map", National Library of
Australia, Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, Canberra,
National Library of Australia, 2013, p.95.
^ cf. Bernoulli, Ein Karteninkunabelnband, Basle, 1905, p. 5.
NOVA TOTIUS TERRARUM ORBIS IUXTA NEOTERICORUM TRADITIONES DESCRIPTIO
^ Mercator, Gerardu; Karrow, Jr., Robert W.
Atlas sive Cosmographicæ
Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (PDF). Library of
Congress. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on
^ Gillis Hooftman: Businessman and Patron (engl.)
^ Map Mogul - Antique Maps & Prints -
Ortelius, Abraham SOLD Maris
^ Het Mercator-Orteliushuis te Antwerpen
^ "JigsawGallery.com's World Map - The Worlds Largest Puzzle".
Archived from the original on April 12, 2007. Retrieved
2009-05-21. CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
^ Kious, W.J.; Tilling, R.I. (2001) . "Historical perspective".
This Dynamic Earth: the Story of Plate Tectonics (Online ed.). U.S.
Geological Survey. ISBN 0-16-048220-8. Retrieved
2008-01-29. ; Ortelius, Thesaurus Geographicus (Antwerp,
(Belgium): Officina Plantiniana [Plantin Press] 1596), entry:
^ Wegener, Alfred (July 1912), Wegener, Alfred (1966)
^ Hess, H.H. (1960)
Meganck Tine, Erudite Eyes: Friendship, Art and Erudition in the
Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), 2017,
Emanuel van Meteren, Historia Belgica (Amsterdam, 1670);
H. E. Wauwermans, Histoire de l’école cartographique belge et
anversoise (Antwerp, 1895), and article "Ortelius" in Biographie
nationale (Belgian), vol. xvi. (Brussels, 1901);
J. H. Hessels, Abrahami Ortelii epistulae (Cambridge, England, 1887);
Max Rooses, Ortelius et Plantin (1880);
Génard, "Généalogie d’Ortelius," in the Bulletin de la Soc. roy.
de Géog. d’Anvers (1880 and 1881), Marcel van den Broecke (1996)
Atlas Maps (HeS Publishers, 't Goy-Houten, 1996) and Abraham
Ortelius and the first atlas;
Essays commemorating the Quadricentennial of his Death, 1598–1998
Eds. Marcel van den Broecke, Peter van der Krogt and Peter Meurer (HeS
Publishers, 't Goy-Houten, 1998).
Binding, Paul. Imagined Corners: Exploring the World's First Atlas.
Review Books: London, 2003.
Charles Wehrenberg, Before New York, Solo Zone, San Francisco
1995/2001, ISBN 1-886163-16-2
Robert J. Karrow, Jr., Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and their
Maps: Rio-bibliographies of the cartographers of Abraham Ortelius
(Chicago, Speculum Orbis Press, 1992)
Wegener, Alfred (July 1912). "Die Entstehung der Kontinente".
Geologische Rundschau (in German) 3 (4): 276–292.
Bibcode: 1912GeoRu...3..276W. doi:10.1007/BF02202896.
Wegener, Alfred (1966). The Origin of Continents and Oceans. New York:
Dover. ISBN 0-486-61708-4. Translated from the fourth revised
German edition by John Biram.
Hess, H.H. (1960). "Nature of great oceanic ridges". Preprints of the
1st International Oceanographic Congress (New York, August
31-September 12, 1959). Washington: American Association for the
Advancement of Science. (A). pp. 33–34.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Abraham Ortelius.
Amsterdam University Library –
Abraham Ortelius online exhibit
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570-1641). Characteristics and
development of a sample of on verso map texts
Theatrvm orbis terrarvm, at the Library of Congress.
8 Atlasses; Biblioteca Nacionale Espana
Abraham Ortelius in the Nordenskiöld Collection in the
National Library of Finland[permanent dead link]
The Correspondence of
Abraham Ortelius in EMLO
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ortelius,
Abraham". Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge
University Press. pp. 331–332.
ISNI: 0000 0001 0856 4124
BNF: cb12511995r (data)