Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Atlas of the Whole World ) by Abraham Ortelius, 1571

This was a landmark in cartography and is known as the first modern atlas containing a comprehensive collection of the best available maps of the time.

3 Ortelieus Title Page

Abraham Ortelius, (1527–1598) was born in Antwerp.  By 1570 Ortelius had placed a large collection of selected maps into one volume and thus created the first atlas -the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum - which gave a comprehensive and detailed picture of the world as known at that time. Previously, collections of maps were haphazardly arranged with no particular order or consistency of size or scale when sold.

In its first form published in 1570 the Theatrum contained seventy maps on fifty-three sheets, many engraved by Frans Hogenberg (1540-1590) a close friend of Ortelius and distinguished artist and engraver. The contents included a map of the world, four maps of the continents, fifty-six maps of Europe (countries, regions and islands), six of Asia and three of Africa.  Nothing like this had ever been seen before and the Theatrum was a great success and marked an epoch in the history of cartography as it contained a selection of the best maps available at the time with authorities cited for each map. Ortelius was able to do this from his knowledge gained trading and travelling in many countries and the contacts he had made.

As a measure of its success sales of Theatrum were outstanding and three hundred and twenty-five copies were printed in the first Latin edition of 1570 and of these Christophe Plantin (bookseller and close friend of Ortelius) sold 159 in six months. A second edition came out also in Latin that same year and another the next year. The year 1571 saw the publication of the Theatrum in Dutch, Ortelius's own language, which had an initial print run of 275 copies - the first of three runs. The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia owns one of these copies.

Abraham Ortelius, (1527–1598) was born in Antwerp, the City on the Scheldt, considered to be the "richest city in the world" at the time, visited by 2,500 ships annually and handling 250,000 tons of goods.

Ortelius is thought to have started out around 1561 as a collector, dealer and colourist of maps rather than a cartographer. He travelled around Europe buying and selling maps and visiting book fairs where maps were traded and sold. As a result he developed a large group of friends and contacts with similar interests and became very knowledgeable about cartography and geography in Europe and England at the time. He was a close friend of Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) whom he met at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1554 and whose own atlas was published some 20 years later.

In 1578 Ortelius published his Synonymia geographica a dictionary of place names, which gave thousands of places their contemporary names, ancient names and vernacular (slang) names. This greatly clarified geographical references and reduced the confusion resulting from several names being used for the same place.

In 1596 Abraham Ortelius, suggested that the Americas were "torn away from Europe and 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 carefully considers the coasts of the three [continents]."

This notion of tectonic plate theory was not revisited until the 1910s!

Rare Book Room (RGS) 912.19 O.77C++

Binding, Paul, Imagined corners: exploring the world's first atla,s Review, London, 2003.

Crone G R, Maps and their makers, Hutchinson &Co., 3rd edition 1966

Tooley R V, Maps and map-makers, Crown New York, 2nd edition 1953

Ortelius Denmark
Ortelius Denmark
Ortelius sample text
Ortelius sample text