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Ortelius’ Map of the Iberian Peninsula from the World’s First Modern Atlas

Old color example of Abraham Ortelius' map of the Iberian Peninsula, from his influential Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first modern atlas of the world.

The map is closely centered around the peninsula itself, with a sliver of Northern Africa included to the south. The Balearic Islands are also present, in the Mediterranean to the east. The interiors of Portugal and Spain are littered with place names; each settlement is noted with a building symbol. Rivers and mountains are also detailed.

Ortelius’ characteristic strapwork design ornaments the title cartouche, which is in the bottom right corner. In the lower left is a scale, which is topped with a large pair of dividers. A huge swordfish guards (or menaces?) the Balearic Islands, while another sea monster approaches the Strait of Gibraltar from the west. In the upper left corner is a ship in full sail, with another to the right side of the map.

Ortelius was famous for his wide consultation of sources with which he made his own representations. This map is closely related to map of the botanist Carolus Clusius, also known as Charles de l'Escluse, who published a six-sheet map of Spain, Hispaniae nova descriptio (1569-1571).

This map appeared in four states, although it was altered relatively little over the course of its publishing history, which lasted from 1570 to 1612 with regard to Ortelius’ atlas.  

  1. The first state appeared in the first of Ortelius’ atlases in 1570.
  2. The second state, used from 1573 onward, replaces the name Paracuelos with Martimuñoz.
  3. The third state, from 1589, added several place names and changed “Fretum Herculeum, sive Gaditanem/Estrecho de Gibraltar” to merely “Estrecho de Gibraltar.”
  4. The fourth state added stippling around the names of the seas and extended the hachuring along the coastlines. It appeared from 1595.


Condition Description
Old Color
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).