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Fine Example of Abraham Ortelius' Map of the Americas, One of the Most Iconic Maps of the Western Hemisphere

The map, which shows both North and South America, featured in Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first modern atlas of the world. Ortelius' Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio is, without a doubt, one of the most recognized and influential maps of the Americas from the sixteenth century. It had a profound influence on contemporary cartography.

The title is decorated with the key-like geometric decorations common to the maps in Ortelius' atlas. In the ocean, a sea monster lurks. In the Pacific, ships stream through the water, their sails filled with imaginary winds.

North and South America stretch across this single hemisphere map. To the north, North America somewhat resembles the continent we know today, except the area near Alaska is undefined and the northwest bulges across the Pacific. South America is a squat landmass, and earlier editions of the map had an extension in the southwest, no longer visible.

The Straits of Magellan separate South America from a large southern continent that extends all the way to New Guinea. Tierra del Fuego, named by Magellan because he saw so many small fires burning there, is part of this continent. The name "Novae Guinea", or New Guinea, was coined by Spanish explorer Íñigo Ortíz de Retes in 1545, and it refers to his opinion that the appearance of the native peoples resembled the inhabitants of the Guinea region of Africa.

Two place names in the northwest of North America are particularly interesting. Anian derives from Ania, a Chinese province on a large gulf mentioned in Marco Polo's travels (ch. 5, book 3). The gulf Polo described was actually the Gulf of Tonkin, but the province's description was transposed from Vietnam to the northwest coast of North America. The first map to do was Giacomo Gastaldi's world map of 1562, followed by Zaltieri and Mercator in 1567. The Strait then became shorthand for a passage to China, i.e. a Northwest Passage. It appeared on maps until the mid-eighteenth century. The second name of interest is Quivira, referring to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. In 1539, Coronado wandered over what today is Arizona and New Mexico, eventually heading to what is now Kansas to find the supposedly rich city of Quivira. Although he never found the cities or the gold, the name stuck on maps of southwest North America, wandering from east to west over time.

Ortelius' ability to locate and draw upon both Spanish and Portuguese sources is apparent throughout the map, and is quite remarkable, given the manner in which each nation guarded its cartographic information. Both nations kept their geographic knowledge locked in a single institution, with all cartographic knowledge maintained on a single master map. Copies of the master map were closely monitored and pilots could be punished for not returning their charts; however, no vault is impenetrable and geographic secrets eventually leaked out.

The first appearance of the Chesapeake Bay on a map.

The inclusion of a large inlet in the eastern seaboard of North America, labeled with the Indian name "Wingandekoa", reflects the earliest unsuccessful attempts by the English to colonize the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina.

The first appearance of the Solomon Islands on a map.

While the islands were first discovered by Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1568, they did not appear on a printed map until Ortelius's third plate of Americae Sive Novi Orbis.

New toponyms have been added in California.

Ortelius adds the name "California". He also adds "Cab. Mendocino", which was discovered by Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542. "R. de los estrechos" is added.

Cartographic Sources

The primary source for the map is Gerard Mercator's 1569 wall map of the world. According to Brandmair, Ortelius's revisions for the third plate were probably spurred on by the publication of Giovanni Mazza's map of the Americas, published in Venice by Rascicotti in 1583.

Three States of the Map

Ortelius's map of the Americas first appeared in the 1570 edition of Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Over the course of the next 42 years, Ortelius created 3 editions of the map (each edition using a different copper plate), as noted in Van Den Broecke.

  • First Edition (1570):  Bulge the southwestern part of South America.  Large ship in the Pacific above 220 degrees on the Equator, is sailing to the west.  Strapwork outer border.  Large erasure area visible southeast of the Rio de La Plata
  • Second Edition (1579):  Bulge the southwestern part of South America.  Large ship in the Pacific above 220 degrees on the Equator, is sailing to the west. Single degree gradations now appear along the equator.   Strapwork outer border replaced with as series of half circles (triangular pattern used in border).  Sea monster below Rio de la Plata is not as well engraved and the waves in front of the monster are much less obvious.  The large erasure area visible southeast of the Rio de La Plata is now missing.  Winged lions atop the cartouche with more elaborate manes.
  • Third Edition (1587):  Major cartographic additions described below.  Ortelius's name and date (1587) appear in the lower right corner.  Bulge in the southwestern part of South America is gone.  

This is Ortelius's third plate, most easily recognized by the lack of a large westward bulge in the west coast of South America.

There are two recorded states of the third plate of Ortelius's map of the Americas. This is an example of the first state.

  • State 1. Standard issue, present in editions of the Theatrum from 1587 to 1612. (The second plate shows up in a few examples of the 1587 Theatrum.)
  • State 2. Present only in post-1612 atlases, probably revised circa 1628. This state adds Tierra del Fuego and Fretum le Maire, removes the date. Extremely rare; only seven examples traced by Burden.

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 Antwerp. Ortelius’ atlas outperformed later competing atlases from other cartographic luminaries like the De Jode and the Mercator family. 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 had 53 maps, and the 1612 edition having 167.

At the time of its publication, the Theatrum was the most expensive book ever produced. Ortelius created all 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.

Reference
Van Den Broecke 11, Burden 64; Schwartz & Ehrenberg 69.
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 engraver. 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 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 Basle. 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 53 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 in 1598.