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Separately-Published Cornerstone of Abraham Ortelius Collecting -- The Final State of Abraham Ortelius' Map of the World

Abraham Ortelius's map of world is, without doubt, one of the most recognized and influential world maps of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeen centuries. It had a profound influence on contemporary cartography.

The present example is the rare, separately-published final state of the map, released shortly after the discovery of the Le Maire Strait, and significantly post-dating the last regularly published edition of Ortelius's atlas in 1612. There is no text on the verso.

Ortelius's map of the world was issued utilizing three different copperplates between 1570 and 1612. This final state utilized the still-surviving third copper plate and was issued separately after 1617, several decades after Ortelius's death.

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 natives 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.

Quivira refers to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541. 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.

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 leaked out, including to Ortelius in Antwerp.

Ortelius' atlas and the states of Typus Orbis Terrarum

The influence of this and other Ortelius maps 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--they were not necessarily uniform and were bound together on demand.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ortelius's 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, in its first edition, appeared in the very first 1570 atlas.

Major changes in the final (post-1617) state

  • The Narrow Magellan passage between South America and Terra Australis is modified, showing Tierra del Fuego and Staat Land as smaller regions not attached to Terra Australis and adding Fretum le Maire (Le Maire Straits), Mauritius, C. Hoorn and I. Barnevelt.  The corresponding coast of Terra Australis to the south is completely removed and left blank between 290 degrees and 335 degrees.
  • In Brazil, between Orellana and R..S. Elena, all the place names are changed, with Parayba, Fernambuco and S. Michael added and G. de Todos Santos changed to B. de todos Santos.

The dating of the final state of the map has ranged from after 1617 to 1641. Given that that the only changes to the map are near the Le Maire Strait and Brazil, an early date, to ca. 1630, seems most likely.

Scholarly Note on Ortelius's Maps After 1612

As noted by Gunter Schilder, Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica, Volume III, page 256:

. . . for a long time it was supposed that the history of this atlas of the world ended with the Spanish edition of 1612, and that the copperplates were not used any more. Already in Volume II of my Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica I have referred to the copperplates for the maps of Ortelius, which were re-published, complete with alterations, by Theodoor Galle and his son Joannes.

From archive material we know that in 1618 Balthasar Moretus made preparations for a reissue of the Theatrum: he paid rather high sums to engravers Ferdinand Arsenius and Arnold Floris van Langren for the adaptation of the copperplates. The mathematician Godefridus Vendelius was to write an explanatory text. For reasons unknown this project was shelved. However, the recent discovery of a complete copy of the atlas provides that, in spite of this, an atlas of the world appeared in the forties [1640s], in which the plates were printed on the old Spanish text sheets of 1612. Both on the map of the world by Ortelius and on the one of America the representation of the big, unknown Southland ('Terra Avstralis nondvm cognita', 'Terra Avstralis, sive Magellanica hactenvs incognita', respectively) in the region of South America is interrupted and completed with the discoveries made during the voyage of Le Maire. Both maps include the following names: 'Fretum le Maire', 'Mauritius', 'staten lant', 'C. Hoorn' and 'I. Barnevelt'. On both map the islands of the Pacific, discovered by Le Maire, as well as the new shape of the northern coast of New Guinea were overlooked. 


This late state of the map is exceedingly rare. We note two examples offered in the past 40 years (Swann 2021 (this example) and Sotheby's 1992). 

Condition Description
Original hand-color in outline. Full mragins. A clean crisp impression. Full margins. Blank verso.
Imhof, Dirk, "The Problematic Sales of the Spanish Ortelius Atlas after 1612", Quaerendo, 51, (2021), pages 331-347. Shirley 122. Van den Broecke, plate 3. Karrow et al., Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) cartographe et humaniste (Brepol Publishers, 1998).
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).