Biography of Abraham Ortelius, Flemish Cartographer

Portrait of Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)

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Abraham Ortelius (April 14, 1527–June 28, 1598) was a Flemish cartographer and geographer credited with creating the first modern atlas of the world: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or “Theatre of the World.” Published in 1570, Ortelius’ atlas is widely considered to have launched the Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography. He is also believed to have been the first person to propose continental drift, the theory that the Earth’s continents have moved and continue to move relative to each other over geologic time.

Fast Facts: Abraham Ortelius

  • Known For: Creator of the first modern atlas of the world
  • Born: April 14, 1527 in Antwerp, Belgium
  • Died: June 28, 1598 in Antwerp, Belgium
  • Education: Guild of Saint Luke, Antwerp, Belgium
  • Notable Work: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (“Theatre of the World”)

Early Life

Abraham Ortelius was born on April 14, 1527, in Antwerp, Habsburg Netherlands (now Belgium) to a Roman Catholic family originally from Augsburg. The young Ortelius learned the trade of map-making at a young age. In 1547, at age twenty, he entered the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke as a map illuminator and engraver. By buying valuable maps, coloring them, mounting them on canvas, and selling them, he supplemented his income and funded his early travels.

Early Cartography Career

In 1554, Ortelius traveled to a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, where he met and struck up a friendship with Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish cartography pioneer who coined the word “atlas” for a book of maps. While traveling with Mercator through Germany and France in 1560, Mercator encouraged Ortelius to draw his own maps and pursue a career as a professional geographer and cartographer. 

Ortelius’ first commercially successful map, an eight-sheet map of the world, was published in 1564. This work was followed by a two-sheet map of Egypt in 1565, a two-sheet map of Asia in 1567, and a six-sheet map of Spain in 1570.

Mercator, perhaps more than any other cartographer of the time, would prove to be the inspiration for many of Ortelius’ future maps. Indeed, at least eight map sheets in Ortelius' famed Theatrum Orbis Terrarum atlas were derived directly from Mercator’s influential 1569 map of the world.

The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

First published in May 1570, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) is considered to be the first atlas, defined by the U.S. Library of Congress as “a collection of uniform map sheets and sustaining text bound to form a book.” The original Latin edition of the Theatrum was composed of 70 maps on 53 sheets with the accompanying explanatory text. 

World map from 1570 atlas
World map from 1570 atlas "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum" by Abraham Ortelius. Apic/Getty Images

Often referred to as a summary of sixteenth-century cartography, Ortelius’ atlas was based on 53 maps by other cartographers. Ortelius cited each source a first-of-its-kind bibliographic source list, the Catalogus Auctorum. Ortelius also listed the names of contemporary cartographers whose maps were not included in the atlas. With each new edition, Ortelius added cartographers to the list.

The Theatrum started as a labor of love, but Ortelius needed money to publish the atlas. Hee turned it to a commercial venture, entering into partnerships with many scholars, engravers, printers, and merchants.

Ortelius was surprised by the popularity—and sales—of his atlas. The publication of the atlas occurred just as the Netherlands’ growing middle-class was taking a greater interest in education and science. Unlike earlier atlases that consisted of collections of loose individual map sheets, the logically arranged and bound format of Ortelius’ Theatrum proved far more convenient and popular.

Map of America or the New World in Theatrum Orbis Tearrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570.
Map of America or the New World in Theatrum Orbis Tearrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images

Though the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum proved commercially successful, it never made Ortelius a wealthy man. It did not even make him the most well-known or successful illustrative cartographer. Even as Ortelius was completing the Theatrum’s first edition, other mapmakers in Antwerp, including his old friend Gerardus Mercator, were becoming fierce competitors. In 1572, German humanist Georg Braun, another friend of Ortelius, published a popular atlas of the world’s major cities, and in 1578, Gerard de Jode, another graduate of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke, published his world atlas, the Speculum Orbis Terrarum (“Mirror of the World.").

Beyond being an innovative concept, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was celebrated as the most authoritative and comprehensive collection of maps and geographic information produced during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Because Ortelius frequently revised his Theatrum to reflect new geographical and historical details, it was widely praised and adopted by contemporary western European scholars and educators. King Philip II of Spain was so impressed by the Theatrum that he appointed Ortelius as his personal geographer in 1575. Between 1570 and 1612, a then-unheard-of 7,300 copies of Ortelius’ Theatrum were printed in thirty-one editions and seven different languages.

Ortelius continued to revise and expand his atlas until his death in 1598. From its original 70 maps, the Theatrum eventually grew to include 167 maps. Even though its accuracy was questioned after new discoveries came to light around 1610, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was regarded as the state of the art in European cartography throughout its more than four decades of publication.

Ortelius and Continental Drift

In 1596, Ortelius became the first person to suggest that the Earth’s continents had not always been located in their present positions. Noticing the similarity of the shapes of the eastern coasts of the Americas with the western coasts of Europe and Africa, Ortelius proposed that the continents had drifted apart over time.

Map of the world illustrating the theory of continental drift
The theory of continental drift. Osvaldocangaspadilla / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In his work Thesaurus Geographicus, Ortelius suggested that the Americas had been “torn away from Europe and Africa … by earthquakes and floods,” and went on to write, “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].”

In 1912, German geophysicist Alfred Wegener cited Ortelius' observations when he published his hypothesis of continental drift. By the 1960s, after more three centuries after Ortelius had proposed it, the theory of continental drift had been proven correct.

Death and Legacy

In 1596, two years before his death, Ortelius was honored by the city of Antwerp, Belgium, with a grand ceremony similar to that later bestowed on famed Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Ortelius died at age 71 in Antwerp, Belgium on June 28, 1598. His burial in Antwerp’s church of St. Michael’s Abbey was accompanied by a period of public mourning. His tombstone bears the Latin inscription "Quietis cultor sine lite, uxore, prole"—meaning “served quietly, without accusation, wife, and offspring.”

Today, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is remembered as the most popular atlas of its time. Originals of Ortelius' maps are highly sought after by collectors, often selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Facsimiles of his maps continue to be published and sold commercially. Ortelius’ maps of North and South America are the subject of the world’s largest commercially available jigsaw puzzle. The 18,000-piece puzzle, which forms a set of four maps, measures 6 feet by 9 feet.

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