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Notable Atlas Map of the British Isles, From the First Modern Atlas

Scarce, fine map of the British Isles, from Ortelius' ground-breaking atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

Oriented to the west, the British Isles are shown as if on their side. The political divisions show England, Scotland, and Ireland. In the surrounding waters are the Scilly Isles, the Hebrides, and the Orkney Islands. In the upper left corner, Ortelius lists four islands whose locations are incognite. Just a sliver of the European continent is shown, labeled as Morini, which refers to a Belgic coastal people who lived in the Pas de Calais region.

The outline of the British Isles is modern, based on Mercator’s 1564 map of the British Isles and Saxton’s 1579 map. However, much of the information included tells the history of the islands and was gathered from classical sages like Diodorus Siculus, Plinius, Appianus, Tacitus, Cæsar, Strabo and other Roman writers. For example, at the narrowest point in the English Channel, a note explains, “In this place it is thought that Caesar landed on his first sea journey.”

Settlements are shown with small building symbols; Londinum Augusta is located on the Tamesis flu. London Bridge, until 1729 the only bridge over the Thames near the city, is visible here. Farther north, Hadrian’s Wall separates Scotland from England.

In the stippled waters surrounding the British Isles are several small craft with their sails unfurled. Toward the bottom of the map, in the English Channel, are fine, larger ships, including one (to the right) that is on the cutting edge of Dutch shipbuilding technology for the late-sixteenth century.

Three strapwork cartouches are also set into the seas. The two in the upper center and upper right corner include the title and Ortelius’ name, respectively. The most elaborate is in the lower right, which carries the following dedication:

Abraham Ortelius, pleased to be the geographer of his majesty the king dedicates this map, intended as instruction and learning for the people, to George of Austria, servant to the most serene lord, cardinal and archduke of Harlebeck.

This map first appeared in the Theatrum in 1595. The map was accompanied by one of the longest texts in the atlas, a testament to Ortelius’ interest in the history of the British Isles. There is only one known state of the map.

The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (or "Theater of the World") is widely considered to be the first modern atlas, meaning that this was the first published set of uniform maps with supporting text gathered in book form. Previous bound map collections exist, for example the Italian Lafreri atlases, but these were sets of maps selected and bound together on demand. The Theatrum, in contrast, was the best available summary of sixteenth-century cartographic knowledge, covering much of the exploration of the world in the century following the discovery of America. 

The atlas was first published in 1570 in Antwerp. Ortelius’ atlas outperformed later competing atlases from other cartographic luminaries like the De Jode and the Mercator families. The broad appeal of the work is demonstrated by the array of languages in which the atlas appeared: in addition to Latin, the atlas was published with text in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English. Between 1570 and 1612, at least 31 editions of the atlas were published in seven languages. The editions grew over time, with the first edition having 70 maps on 53 sheets, and the 1612 edition having 167.

At the time of its publication, the Theatrum was the most expensive book ever produced. Ortelius created all the maps personally, hand drawing the rough sketches. Those drawings were then interpreted into prints by his engravers Frans Hogenberg, Ambrosius Arsenius, and Ferdinand Arsenius. 

After Ortelius's death in 1598, the copper plates for his atlas passed to his heirs. They, in turn, sold the collection to Jan Baptist Vrients (1522-1612) in 1601. Vrients added new maps and published the atlas until his own death in 1612. Vrients's widow then sold the plates to the Moretus brothers, who were the successors of Christoffel Plantin. Recent research has unearthed examples of the atlas with maps dated to 1640.

Van den Broecke #192; Shirley, R.W. (BI to 1650) 186, pl.42. KAP
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).