Important Map of Asia and North America Included in the World’s First Modern Atlas
Finely colored example of Abraham Ortelius' map of Tartary, Japan, and the west coast of North America, from Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terarrum, the first modern atlas of the world.
This map is the earliest obtainable map to name California and is one of the first to include the Strait of Anian, which separates North America and Asia.
The map provides a remarkable representation of what was then the Tartar Kingdom, extending from the Caspian Sea in the west, to China, Japan and Russia in the east. Taiwan is included, labeled as Isla Fermosa. The map also offers an intriguing treatment of the northwest coast of America, California, and what is today the American Southwest. Japan is shown horizontally, a typical depiction of the archipelago at the time.
As with many of the maps which made up Ortelius’ popular atlas, this map was innovative for its time. Perhaps its greatest innovation was the early adoption of the Strait of Anian, today the Bering Strait. 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 so was Giacomo Gastaldi’s world map of 1562, followed by Zaltieri and Mercator. The Strait then became shorthand for a passage to China, i.e. a Northwest Passage. It appeared on maps until the mid-eighteenth century.
Two distinctive cartouches are in opposite corners (bottom left and top right) and showcase the strapwork style typical of Ortelius’ atlas maps. To the upper right, the title is surrounded by an elaborate frame, vases of flowers, and exotic birds. To the bottom left, a man and a woman sit astride the cartouche’s frame, seemingly reading the Latin inscription which translates to:
This map contains the area of Tartaria, with the remaining part of East Asia to the Morning Ocean, subject to the great Khan whose might is bounded by the river Ob, Lake Kataia, the Volga, the Caspian Sea, the river Chesel, the mountains of Usson, the area of Tibet, the river Caromora and the Ocean.
Beyond the cartouches, other decorative elements include two ships sailing at sea and a large fish with huge fins. Although North America is relatively empty of toponyms, Asia is thick with place names and details, including several vignettes. A huge tent fills much of Moscovie, for example, with a large man fitted out for battle emerging from the flap.
Many blocks of text, in Latin, also adorn the map. For example, in the far northeast of Tartary there is a note that states:
The Nephalites are named Neptali after one of the 10 tribes with a Hebrew name, and after the Danites, who by way of punishment were called the Danes of the dark North, and they were on account of the claims of Rachel Balbah placed to the side, in the area of the Hudores or Iehudeores; in the year 476 they were victorious in their battle against Perosa. Others call them incorrectly Euthalites.
In the north Pacific:
The Scythian ocean, according to Plinius, has sweet water, and he also says it contains many islands, as M. Paulus [Marco Polo] also says, but neither of the two tells about their number or location.
In the center of Tartary is another tent, with an imposing figure exiting via the flap. The text says:
The great Khan (which in the language of the Tatars means emperor), the highest ruler of Asia.
In the east of Tartary:
Argon. Once there was in Asia a Christian kingdom, known to Prester John, and D. Thomas founded it [this city] in this place, so that it was in contact with the church of Rome, and was subjected to Rome through Prester John of Africa. Before it was defeated by the Goths, it was known as Crive Romove.
These text blocks show not only how large a place in the European imagination Tartary and East Asia commanded, but they also reveal some of the source Ortelius used to compile his maps. He mentions Prester John with reference to Argon and a lost Asian Christian Kingdom. Since at least the twelfth century, Prester John was thought to rule over a Christian Kingdom. At first, scholars thought this kingdom was located in India but, over time—Prester John was popular in European chronicles from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries—his supposed location migrated to Central Asia and then Ethiopia.
Another source is Marco Polo, the famed thirteenth-century traveler. A Venetian merchant, Polo supposedly journeyed across Asia. His adventures, many of them apocryphal, were recorded in ca. 1300. They were copied and later printed many times over and were a favorite source on Asia for European mapmakers into the seventeenth century.
Finally, Ortelius references the Bible, always an important source for European mapmakers. The many writings, many dating from the Middle Ages, which attempted to locate Biblical events, like the migration of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, were utilized by Ortelius and his contemporaries. Other important sources were Ortelius’ own 1564 world map, his 1567 map of Asia, and Gastaldi’s map of Asia of 1561.
Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and the states of the “Tartariae Sive Magni Chami Regni typus”
In 1570, Ortelius published the first modern atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or “Theater of the World;” that is, he produced 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.
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. At the time of its publication, it was the most expensive book ever produced.
This map featured in the very first 1570 atlas. It was produced in four states over the course of its printing history.
- State 1: 1570.
- State 2: 1573. The ship in the center gets portholes. Hachuring of the coastline extends from 2-3 mm to 5-6 mm.
- State 3: 1587. Coastline hachuring is further extended and the waves under the ship at center are enlarged.
- State 4: 1609. Ship at center is re-engraved, with the loss of the portholes.
Interestingly, from 1595 onward, the bottom left corner of the plate began to fall away. By 1609, the stippling of the sea had faded and the missing piece in the bottom left measured 4 x 6 mm.
This is an informative and significant map from one of the most important cartographic publications ever produced. It would make a fine addition to any collection of Asian or early atlas maps.
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).