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Ortelius’ Maps of Prussia and Holstein, from the First Modern Atlas

Fine maps of Prussia and Holstein, printed on the same plate, that featured in Ortelius’ famous and groundbreaking atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

The map on the right shows Prussia and its coastline. Cities of various size are represented with buildings clustered together. A single ship sails the nearby seas, a reference to the rich trade that existed in this area. A simple cartouche in the water frames the title.

On the left, the map of Holstein emphasizes how densely wooded was the landscape. A sea monster lurks near shore. A scale is in the upper right, while a block title cartouche is in the lower right.

Ortelius consulted all available sources when compiling his maps. These included his contemporaries, like Mercator, but also other savants from across Europe. For the Holstein map, Ortelius based his work on an earlier map by Peter Boekel. Boekel made a map of Ditmarschen called "Beschribung vom landt zu Ditmers" in 1559.

For the Prussia map, Ortelius drew on the work of Heinrich Zell, a mathematician and cosmographer from Cologne. Zell worked with Nicolas Copernicus from 1539-41 and then traveled in Prussia, producing a four-sheet map of the area that was published in Nuremberg in 1542. This map was then used as the base for other maps of Prussia. Beyond Ortelius, the Zell map was also used by Münster (1550, Cosmographia), Casper Henneberger (beginning 1576) and de Jode (1578, Speculum Orbis terrarium).

Ortelius’ double-map plate featured in the first edition of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. It continued to feature in the atlas until the 1580s.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum—the first modern atlas

In 1570, Ortelius published the first modern atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or “Theater of the World;” that is, he produced a set of uniform maps with supporting text gathered in book form. Previously, there were other bound map collections, specifically the Italian Lafreri atlases, but these were sets of maps—not necessarily uniform in size and style—selected and bound together on demand.

Ortelius’ atlas outperformed competing atlases from other cartographic luminaries like the Mercator family. Between 1570 and 1612, 31 editions of the atlas were published in seven languages. At the time of its publication, it was the most expensive book ever produced.

This is a fine map of Prussia and one of the most attainable of the maps from the first modern atlas.

Marcel Van Den Broecke, Cartographica Neerlandica, map 88; Marcel van den Broecke, “Abraham Ortelius’ Library Reconstructed,” Imago Mundi 66, no. 1 (2014): 25-50.
Abraham Ortelius Biography

Abraham Ortelius is perhaps the best known and most frequently collected of all sixteenth-century mapmakers. Ortelius started his career as a map colorist. In 1547 he entered the Antwerp guild of St Luke as afsetter van Karten. His early career was as a business man, and most of his journeys before 1560, were for commercial purposes. In 1560, while traveling with Gerard Mercator to Trier, Lorraine, and Poitiers, he seems to have been attracted, largely by Mercator’s influence, towards a career as a scientific geographer. From that point forward, he devoted himself to the compilation of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), which would become the first modern atlas.

In 1564 he completed his “mappemonde", an eight-sheet map of the world. The only extant copy of this great map is in the library of the University of Basel. Ortelius also published a map of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, prior to 1570.

On May 20, 1570, Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum first appeared in an edition of 70 maps. By the time of his death in 1598, a total of 25 editions were published including editions in Latin, Italian, German, French, and Dutch. Later editions would also be issued in Spanish and English by Ortelius’ successors, Vrients and Plantin, the former adding a number of maps to the atlas, the final edition of which was issued in 1612. Most of the maps in Ortelius' Theatrum were drawn from the works of a number of other mapmakers from around the world; a list of 87 authors is given by Ortelius himself

In 1573, Ortelius published seventeen supplementary maps under the title of Additamentum Theatri Orbis Terrarum. In 1575 he was appointed geographer to the king of Spain, Philip II, on the recommendation of Arias Montanus, who vouched for his orthodoxy (his family, as early as 1535, had fallen under suspicion of Protestantism). In 1578 he laid the basis of a critical treatment of ancient geography with his Synonymia geographica (issued by the Plantin press at Antwerp and republished as Thesaurus geographicus in 1596). In 1584 he issued his Nomenclator Ptolemaicus, a Parergon (a series of maps illustrating ancient history, sacred and secular). Late in life, he also aided Welser in his edition of the Peutinger Table (1598).