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Ortelius publishes first world atlas

This Day in World History

May 22, 1570

Ortelius publishes first world atlas


On May 22, 1570, bookmaking and map-making history were made. Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish book collector and engraver published the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Epitome of the Theater of the World) — the world’s first atlas.

Several features make Ortelius’s work groundbreaking. His was the first book that bound together a collection of maps that were consistently presented. It was also the first map collection to aim at comprehensive coverage of the known world and the first to organize the maps logically, with all those applying to the same continent or region grouped together. Finally, the Theatrum was the first work to include explanatory texts that discussed the regions portrayed.

Ortelius World Map ("Typvs Orbis Terrarvm"), 1570. Source: Library of Congress.

The Theatrum is important for another reason as well. In it, Ortelius drew from the work of several different cartographers, trying to create the most accurate maps possible based on the best sources available. The desire to make his maps authoritative helps explain why Ortelius published several new editions before his death in 1598. He and those who carried on his work expanded the volume as well. The 1612 edition had 167 maps, more than double the 70 maps in the original 1570 edition.

Ortelius was a careful scholar, and his atlas cited the work of 33 cartographers upon whom he drew. His listing of more than 50 other contemporary geographers gives useful insight into the fields of geography and cartography in the late sixteenth century.

Ortelius’s Theatrum quickly became recognized as the standard collection of world maps and as the model for all atlases to follow. By the early 1600s though, those who carried on the Theatrum were less careful than he had been. The work was discontinued after 1612, having been eclipsed in authority by a new atlas based on the work of Gerardus Mercator — the first book to use the name atlas for the genre.

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