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Ortelius' Map of Mexico, One of the Earliest Printed Maps of New Spain

A nice example of Ortelius's map of western New Spain, showing the recently-created Spanish settlements, many rivers, and large lakes, including Lake Chapala and a mythical sea with islands in the northwest.

The map is heavily decorated, with a huge title cartouche dominating the upper right corner. The cartouche depicts interwoven pieces and is adorned with the fierce heads of creatures, somber faces, and a devil's leering visage in the top center. It surrounds the title, which translates to, "A recent and true representation of new or large Spain 1579."

Another cartouche in the lower left corner translates to, "To the reader; the beginning of the longitude on this map we have not, in the Ptolemaic fashion taken from the Canary Islands towards the East, but from the Spanish meridian in Toledo towards the West." Ortelius' atlas, the first of its kind, was also part of a new cartography that deviated from the Ptolemaic system, or rather that had to augment the Ptolemaic grid that only contained Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The lands depicted are thick with place names; there are so many, in fact, that some had to be indicated with a letter and named in lists at sea. Another list of names is in a rectangular cartouche in the bottom right corner. Two detailed ships are sailing in the western ocean. On land, cities and towns are marked with dots, a building, or a cluster of buildings according to their size and importance. Squares with a dot in the middle, most in the northeast, mark the location of Spanish barracks. A note there reads, "The encampments of the Spanish, where their armed soldiers roam."

Scholars still disagree over the sources for the map, although one suggests that Ortelius used Jean Duran's map of Mexico from 1575. What is evident is the level of detail Ortelius felt confident in including about Spain's new colony and its indigenous people. In the northeast, near a mountain range, he writes, "This is a deserted region, where people live in the woods, who highly favor rotting meat, somewhat cooked in the sun. They often fight among each other while collecting harvests and fruits." Further west, he had heard of people who practice anthropophagy, "They who live in these mountains are cannibals."

True or not, Ortelius' map was highly influential for shaping how Europeans would view New Spain. During the late-sixteenth century, Spain tightly controlled all geographic information about its overseas empire. However, written sources did circulate, and it is these travel accounts and reports that Ortelius likely used for his map. Ortelius' map was one of the first to show New Spain and it helped to shape European ideas about the Americas, in this case, that they were large, wild, full of savage peoples, and in need of European intervention. This colonial view of the Americas would persist for centuries.

Oretlius's influence stems from the popularity and dominance of his atlas in the European market. In 1570, Ortelius published the first modern atlas; that is, 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-selected and bound together on demand.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 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. This map first appeared in the 1579 Latin edition and was included in 20 editions, including the 1606 English edition.

Condition Description
Some foxing and toning. A small area of thinning on the verso.
Van den Broecke 13, 1592L7.
Translations from
Magali M. Carrera, Traveling from New Spain to Mexico: Mapping Practices of Nineteenth-Century Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
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).