Ortelius (or Oertel), Abraham

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(b. Antwerp, Brabant [now Belgium], 14 April 1527; d. Antwerp, 4 July 1598), cartography, geography.

With the exception of his friend Mercator, Ortelius was the principal cartographer of the sixteenth century. He was born to a Catholic family whose origins were in Augsburg. At the age of twenty he was admitted as an illuminator of maps into the guild of St. Luke in his native town. Soon he was able to earn his living by buying, coloring, and selling maps produced by map makers in various countries. Ortelius traveled widely in his profession; he went regularly to the Frankfurt Fair and visited Italy several times before 1558. In the period 1559-1560 he traveled through Lorraine and Poitou in the company of Mercator, who encouraged him to become a cartographer and to draw his own maps. The first product of this new activity was an eight-sheet map of the world published in 1564. In 1565 he published a map of Egypt (two sheets), in 1567 a map of Asia (two sheets), and in 1570 a map of Spain (six sheets).

The growing demand for maps of distant countries, caused by the rapidly expanding colonization and the development of commerce, had already led to the production of large collections of maps of various size and provenance, for instance, Lafreri’s atlas published ca. 1553. At the suggestion of the Dutch merchant and map collector Hooftman, and of his friend Radermacher, Ortelius undertook the publication of a comprehensive atlas of the world. It appeared in May 1570 in the form of a single volume, in folio, entitled Theatrum orbis terrarum, published by Egidius Coppens Diesth and printed by Plantin in Antwerp. It contained fifty-three sheets with a total of seventy copperplate maps, most of them engraved by Frans Hoogenberg, and thirty-five leaves of text.

The atlas clearly reveals that Ortelius was more an editor of maps than an original mathematical cartographer. Unlike Mercator, Ortelius never devised new projections; but acquiring the rights to utilize maps produced by others, he reduced them to a uniform size and brought their geographic contents up-to-date. To cite a single example, his map of Denmark, entitled Daniae regni typus, had as its immediate prototype a map with the same title made in 1552 by Marcus Jordan. But Ortelius’ map also included a number of features taken from Caerte van oostland, drawn ca. 1543 by Cornelis Anthoniszoon, and from Niccolò Zeno’s map published in 1558. The map was, however, an unmistakable improvement on previous maps of the region, which was also true for most of his other maps, although Ortelius still relied to a certain extent on material later shown to be legendary, for example the travels of Prester John.

A unique feature of the Theatrum was the Catalogus cartographorum, in which Ortelius listed eighty-seven map makers as authorities for his own work. Much of what we know of the minor cartographers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries derives from this catalog.

The Theatrum was an immediate success and the Plantin press published a long series of editions and epitomes in Latin between 1570 and 1624. In 1625 the copyright was acquired by Willem Blaeu, who in 1631 published an appendix to the work and then edited his own Theatrum orbis terrarum sive atlas novus in 1634. Ortelius’ atlas was translated into Dutch (Toonneel des aertbodems) in 1571 and 1598; German (Schawplatz des erdbodems) in 1572, 1573, 1580, 1602; French (Théátre de l’univers) in 1572, 1574, 1578, 1581, 1587, 1598; Spanish (Theatro de la tierra universal) in 1588, 1600, 1602, 1612; Italian (Theatro del mondo) in 1608 and 1612; and English (Abraham Ortelius his Epitome of the Theatre of the Worlde) in 1603 and 1606. Ortelius continually revised the new editions, adding new maps and reediting the old. In 1573 he published the first Additamentum theatri orbis terrarum. This work was later incorporated into the Theatrum (1601), which contained no fewer than 161 maps and 183 authorities.

The Theatrum won for Ortelius the title of geographer to King Philip II of Spain. (Arias Montanus vouched for Ortelius’ orthodox faith, which had been under suspicion.) It also secured for him a substantial income, enabling him to continue his travels to collect new material. In 1577 he visited England and Ireland, making the personal acquaintance of John Dee, Camden, Hakluyt, and other British geographers. The report of a similar journey in 1575 appeared as Itinerarium per nonnullas Galliae Belgicae partes, written in collaboration with J. Vivianus and published in 1584 by Plantin.

During the later part of his life, Ortelius spent much time on classical studies. His large collection of ancient coins and other antiquities was described in the Deorum dearumque capita ex vetustis numismatibus… effigiata et edita ex museo A. Ortelii, published by P. Gallaeus in 1573 (later editions are 1582, 1602, 1680, 1683, 1699). An edition of C. J. Caesaris omnia quae extant (1593) appeared in Leiden and Aurei saeculi imago, sive Germanorum veterum vita, mores, ritus et religio iconibus delineata (1596) was published in Antwerp. Of particular interest are Ortelius’ works on ancient geography, which began with his Synonymia geographica, published by Plantin in 1578 and later revised as Thesaurus geographicus (1587, 1596). In 1584 he published Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, which dealt with place names in Ptolemy’s geography, and Parergon, a collection of maps illustrating ancient history, printed by Plantin. The Nomenclator and the Parergon were incorporated into several of the later editions of the Theatrum; thus the 1601 edition contained forty maps from the Parergon. Ortelius also collaborated with Marcus Welser on his edition of the Tabula Peutingeriana (Venice, 1591), a fourth-century Roman military itinerary map.


On Ortelius and his work, see L. Bagrow, Abrahami Ortelii Catalogus Cartographorum (Gotha, 1928–1930); J. Denucé, Oud-Nederlandsche Kaartmakers in betrekking met Plantin, II (Antwerp 1913), 1–252, which contains a good biography of Ortelius and a complete bibliography of the Theatrum; J. H. Hessels, “Abrahami Ortelii … et virorum eruditorum… epistolae,” in J. H. Hessels,Ecclesiae Londino-Batavae archivum,I (Cambridge, 1887); and H. E. Wauermans, Histoire de l’école cartographique belge et anversoise du XVIe Siècle (Brussels, 1895).

Olaf Pedersen

Ortelius, Abraham (1527-1598)

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Ortelius, Abraham (1527-1598)

Belgian cartographer, geographer, and archaeologist

Commercially the most successful cartographer of his time, Ortelius satisfied the ever increasing demand for more and better maps during the Age of Exploration and pushed accurate mapmaking toward the status of fine art.

Ortelius is variously known as "Oertel," "Wortel," "Wortels," "Ortel," "Ortels," "Ortello," "Ortellius," and even "Portello." Born on either April 14 or 4, 1527, in Antwerp, Belgium, the son of a rich merchant from Augsburg, Germany, he began selling maps as a young boy and joined the chart colorers guild of St. Luke when he was 20. Some historians speculate that he may have had to work to help support his family after his father died in 1535, but there is little evidence for that speculation. It was common then for children of the merchant class to begin learning a trade at a very early age.

Ortelius's mercantile shrewdness, artistic talent, and technical mapmaking skill made him successful by the 1550s. He contracted as an engraver for one of the most important early printers, Christophe Plantin (15201589). He traveled widely, conducting business throughout Germany and the Low Countries. In 1559 and 1560, he toured France with his new friend Gerhard Mercator (15121594), who encouraged him to make original maps, rather than just copies. Inspired by Mercator and urged by map aficionado and merchant Gillis Hooftman (1520?1581) and Hooftman's protégé, Johan Radermacher de Oude (15381617), Ortelius envisioned greater works and began to create them.

In 1570, Plantin published Ortelius's major work, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the lands of the world), which contained 70 maps on 53 sheets with accompanying text. A book of maps was not called an "atlas" until 1585, when Mercator coined the term for that purpose, but the Theatrum was the first modern atlas of the world. Subsequent editions had more maps and it was in print long into the next century, edited by the Flemish engraver Joan Babtista de Vrients (15521612) after Ortelius's death. Among the most useful features of the Theatrum is Ortelius's historical synopsis of eighty-seven of his predecessors. In many cases, his words are all that is now known about these early cartographers.

In 1575, King Philip II of Spain rewarded Ortelius for the Theatrum by appointing him royal geographer, but only after the influential Spanish Benedictine monk, Benedictus Arias Montanus (15271598), had assured Philip that Ortelius was a Roman Catholic. Philip's patronage made Ortelius rich.

During Ortelius's lifetime, his atlases sold better than Mercator's. He was not an innovative mathematical cartographer like Mercator, but was a better artist, and an expert at editing, updating, and accurately presenting the data of explorers, geographers, and previous cartographers as far back as Ptolemy (fl. ca. 130). A broadly learned man, he kept company with scholars and corresponded with the Catholic humanist Justus Lipsius (15471606). In 1577, he toured the British Isles and met the most prominent British and Irish geographers. Among his other publications was the Thesaurus geographicus (Geographical treasury) in 1587. He died in Antwerp on either July 4 or June 28, 1598.

See also Cartography; History of exploration II (Age of exploration); Mapping techniques

Abraham Ortelius

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Abraham Ortelius

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Abraham Ortelius

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Abraham Ortelius


Book dealer and cartographer


Beginnings. Abraham Ortelius, or Oertel, was born in Antwerp on 14 April 1527 to an affluent Flemish merchant family. Little is known about his early life; apparently he had no university training. In 1547 Ortelius entered the guild of St. Luke as an illuminator of maps, and seven years later he and his sister established a prosperous book and antiquary business. Ortelius corresponded with many learned men, including the French printer Christophe Plantin and the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius.

Mapping the World. Some historians consider Ortelius to be second only to Gerhardus Mercator as the leading cartographer of the period, although he was actually more of a map collector who edited other people's work. Ortelius and Mercator developed a close friendship between 1559 and 1560 when the two traveled through Lorraine and Poitou in France. After receiving encouragement from Mercator, Ortelius in 1564 produced his first world map. (It showed the St. Lawrence River in North America as a gateway to the Pacific Ocean.) Over the next six years he published maps of Egypt, Asia, and Spain.

Famous Atlas. In 1570 Ortelius produced his most famous work, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Epitome of the Theater of the Worlde). A compilation of all the geographical research undertaken up to that point, the Theatrum orbis terrarum is considered by many scholars to be the first modern world atlas. Ortelius scrupulously credited eighty-seven other mapmakers for their work (an unusual attribute for a cartographer in the sixteenth century) and dedicated the atlas to Philip II of Spain. By 1612 it had been published in forty-two editions and translated into seven languages.

Royal Favorite. The exploration and colonization efforts of maritime powers during the 1500s dictated the need for the type of atlas produced by Ortelius, and he quickly became renowned throughout European scientific and government circles. In 1575 he received an appointment as the royal cosmographer to the court of King Philip II. The substantial income from this position in turn allowed him to travel extensively and make collections. In 1577 he journeyed to England and conferred with John Dee, Richard Hakluyt, and other British geographers. He spent his later life collecting insects, plants, and ancient coins. Ortelius died in Antwerp on 4 July 1598.


Marcel P. R. van den Broecke, Ortelius Atlas Maps: An Illustrated Guide (Houten, Netherlands: HES, 1996).

Cornelius Koeman, The History of Abraham Ortelius and His Theatrum orbis terrarum (New York: American Elsevier, 1964).

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