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The World & 4 Continents From The First Modern Atlas

Finely colored set of 5 maps of the World and Continents, from Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first modern World Atlas.

Ortelius' Theatrum was perhaps the single most influential set of maps published in the 16th Century. First issued in 1570 and expanded over the next forty two years to this final Vrients edition of Ortelius' masterwork, the Theatrum revolutionized the presentation of maps to an increasingly educated classes of Renaissance Europe and became the standard from which most cartographic works of the period were copied.

The present example is from the 1572 German edition of Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first edition in German, possibly issued in response to the publication of Johann Koler's remarkable German text edition in Nuremberg

Ortelius meticulously searched Europe for the best available regional maps, constantly compiling, adding and updating his work. It is through Ortelius that the works of many regional mapmakers, whose works are virtually unobtainable to modern collectors, can be studied and appreciated.

Each of the five maps offered here were the standards for their time, drawn from the most important wall maps produced by Mercator, Ortelius and other leading European mapmakers and represented the completion of the shift of importance from the Italian mapmakers of the mid-16th Century (the so-called Lafreri School of mapmakers), to the Low Countries, marking the beginning of the Golden Age of Dutch Cartography.

  • Typus Orbis Terrarum is based upon the cartography of Gastaldi and Gerard Mercator's highly important 1569 wall map. The title is given in large letters above the image and below, is a quotation from Cicero: "What do human affairs signify when one considers the vastness of the world and all eternity?"
  • Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio is probably the single most widely viewed and copied maps of America published in the 16th Century. 
  • Asiae Nova Descriptio is the atlas version of Ortelius' own wall map of Asia, published in 1567, derived from Gastaldi and Albufeda.
  • Africae Tabula Nova is based on the Gastaldi wall map of 1564. It is embellished with a ferocious sea battle southeast of Madagascar and several sea monsters in the Atlantic. The drawing of the far eastern coast of Brazil, shown as well below the Equator.
  • Europae derives in large part from Mercator's work. Russia from Jenkinson's map and Scandinavia from Olaus Magnus. The relatively modest cartouche shows partially covered and apparently distraught Europe sitting on the back of a placid Zeus as bull, both gazing toward Europe.

This set contains only the first edition of each of the 5 maps.  The copperplate for the Asia map would be changed in 1574, with other copper plates changed 1575 (America) and 1584 (World).   

Overall a very attractive uniform set of the first edition of Ortelius' maps of the World & Continents, from an early edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.   


While the individual maps of the world and each of the continents appear regularly on the market, matching sets from the same edition of the atlas are relatively scarce. 

Complete sets of the first edition are even scarcer, having only been pubished for 4 years before Ortelius began to change the copper plates.

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).