The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Faire Europe: Ortelius, Mercator, and the continents

Maps, today, are ubiquitous. We have them in our phones, on our public transit, on walls and signs everywhere you turn. Many people learn to read and interpret them from an early age. Conventions that we don’t even know are conventions guide our understanding of maps.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. For people in the 16th and 17th centuries, geography and cartography were rapidly changing and expanding fields, as European knowledge of other parts of the world grew by leaps and bounds. Maps were often large, unwieldy things, designed to be hung on walls, or rolled up and stored in a traveling map cylinder.

While there had been other bound collections of maps before 1570 (notably Ptolemy’s Geographia, which was reprinted with regularity), “nobody had taken the trouble to engrave to a uniform pattern a methodically selected spread of modern maps, and to market them with minimal text as a generically novel product.”1

1513 edition of Ptolemy's Geographia
Ptolemy’s Geographia (seen here in 1513 Strasbourg edition) was frequently printed.

Nobody until an Antwerp map-colorist and seller2 named Abraham Ortelius, who is now credited as being the first to put together a modern atlas.

Rather than attempt to create maps of all different parts of the world from scratch, Ortelius crowd-sourced. He took existing maps from many known and notable cartographers and used them to fill his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which was first printed in Antwerp in 1570. He even credited all of the people whose maps were used!

The Folger has two copies of Ortelius’s Theatrum: a 1595 edition printed in Antwerp and a 1606 edition printed in London.

side by side title pages from Ortelius's atlas
Left, the title page from the 1595 Antwerp edition; right, the title page from the 1606 London edition.

These hand-colored atlases are perpetual favorites when we do rare book show’n’tell sessions, and the intrigue starts right from the title page. Readers are immediately confronted with four (well, really four and a half—we’ll get to the poor half in a minute) women in varying states of dress. They are, of course, the personifications of the continents.

Early modern readers of Ortelius would have been immediately familiar with three of them: Europe, of course, sitting at a place of prominence at the top, with her crown and scepter and orb, showing the perceived European mastery of the world; Asia, draped in rich silks and holding incense (note in the 1606 edition how the colorist has made Asia’s stomach area yellow…); and wild, dark-skinned Africa, crowned by the fiery sun.

The two figures at the bottom would have been unfamiliar to Ortelius’s readers. War-like, mysterious America, lounges at the bottom, holding a severed head, to show both barbarity and cannibalism. While the name “America” had been floating around on maps since 1507, putting it on equal footing (so to speak) with Europe, Asia, and Africa was new. The last figure, our poor half-a-woman bust was there to represent “terra australis nondum cognita” as it is labeled on the world map that follows immediately after the preliminary pages in the atlas: we know there’s land to the south of everything else, but we don’t quite know what it is yet.

While it might have been a new, bold stand to represent four and a half continents on his title page, Ortelius’s personifications clearly seem to have struck a chord in the collective psyche of early modern readers. It remained largely unchanged throughout the approximately 30 editions that were published between 1570 and 1641.

They were also closely echoed in the frontispiece of Gerhard Mercator’s atlas.

Frontispiece from the 1635 edition of Mercator's Atlas
The frontispiece from Historia mundi: or Mercator’s atlas (a href=”″>STC 17824.5), 1635.

Mercator, a close friend of Ortelius, is best known today for his projection; that is, a methodology for consistently representing a round, three-dimensional world onto a rectangular, flat piece of paper. Mercator’s world map of 1569 was an immediate success, but he, like Ortelius, wanted to create an atlas, a single bound volume that could contain more detailed maps of many locations. However, unlike Ortelius, Mercator intended to create all of the maps himself.

He never finished.

Mercator spent the final 25 years of his life working on maps for his atlas, but ran out of time. After his death in 1594, Mercator’s son and nephews worked quickly to get his dream published, and they succeeded on a technicality. Mercator’s atlas was published in 1595 and 1602, but it was lacking many major maps (such as Asia, Africa, and even Spain and Portugal!), and was not a particular success.

However, in 1604 an Amsterdam cartographer named Jodocus Hondius purchased the copper plates of Mercator’s maps, and supplementing them with additional text and maps, published Mercator’s Atlas in a form much closer to what the man himself must have wished. It was significantly more successful than the original incarnation, and 29 editions were published between 1609 and 1641.3

What I find most fascinating about the frontispiece is that, at least in two English editions that we have (1635 and 1637), there is a facing page explanatory verse, “The Meaning of the Frontispice.”

Explanation of the Frontispiece, in verse
Apparently Hondius didn’t want to count on his readers understanding what they were looking at.

The last stanza explicitly deals with the personified continents, talking about “faire Europe” and “wilde Americk.” Why was this included? What perceived lack in understanding was Hondius looking to fill? What I find so fascinating is that it is not really an explanation of the atlas or how to read maps—it is specifically an explanation of the frontispiece!

The languages of Hondius’s editions (Latin, Dutch, French, German, and English) overlap neatly with the editions of Ortelius’s Theatrum, where these sort of figures had been presented without comment, so was Hondius anticipating a different audience for his Atlas? The physical size difference could certainly have been a factor in who might have purchased the two atlases—Hondius’s is a fairly standard size for folios, measuring 30cm high. The Ortelius, on the other hand, is a monster, half again as tall (45cm) and probably twice as heavy. Not something you’d want to carry around with you, certainly!

Does anyone know of any other maps atlases from the period that include some sort of explication of the decorative/non-cartographic elements in their paratext?

  1. Nicholas Crane. Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2002). p. 218.
  2. Ortelius himself was actually not much of a cartographer. He made only a few maps himself, but he had been coloring them since he was young, and he was well aware of the business of printing maps. See further Paul Binding, Imagined Corners: Exploring the World’s First Atlas (London: Review Books, 2003).
  3. Crane, p.288-289.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)