Abraham Ortelius was a cartographer and publisher, and the first person to publish an atlas as we know it. He began his career as a map colourist, enrolling in the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1547, and appearing in the books of the Plantin publishing house in 1558 as a “peintre des cartes”. He lived with his sister Anna, who was also a map colourist; one of his clients specifically requested an atlas coloured by her. He dealt in maps and books to supplement his income, and met Gerard Mercator at the Frankfurt book fair in 1554. He moved into the publishing side of the business in 1561, after he assembled a collection of maps of Europe for his patron Gillis Hooftman, and three years later he produced his own eight sheet world map, ’Typus orbis terrarum’. Only one copy survives. He then began his magnum opus, ‘Theatrum orbis terrarum’, the first atlas in the modern sense of the world. Although collections of maps had been bound together in the past, this was made according to principles laid down by its editor rather than a customer. It was also the first to make the maps uniform in style and scale and, unusually, the individual maps were not issued for sale beforehand, as Ortelius thought of them as a coherent whole. It also contained the first accurate European map of Japan.
The ‘Theatrum’ was a work of great scholarship. Ortelius sourced what he considered to be the best available map of each area, and had them expertly reproduced. This in itself was not groundbreaking, but he then compiled a comprehensive list of his sources and included it at the beginning of each edition, an unprecedented acknowledgement which established his scholarship and made other cartographers keen to contribute. He was aided by his vast network of contacts throughout Europe, built through his successful career and his ability to speak five languages. His friendship album, kept between 1574 and 1596, has dedications from all over Europe and every kind of profession. His contemporary Gerard Mercator, the best cartographer of his day, publicly praised the atlas and helped to revise the world map.
The ‘Theatrum’ was incredibly popular, and Ortelius was made royal geographer to Phillip II. He then travelled through Europe, and eventually produced a book of city views to accompany his great work. Ortelius also wrote a critique of ancient geography in 1578, ‘Synonymia geographica’, which is considered to be the first work to refer to continental drift. A year later, he began the ‘Parergon’, a classical atlas originally intended to act as a supplement to the ‘Theatrum’. As he was both a keen scholar and collector of antiquity, the book grew into an important work in its own right, reflecting the continued demand for material related to the ancient world. In 1589 he published ‘Maris Pacifici’, the first printed map dedicated to the Pacific Ocean.
Although he was careful not to commit to any religious belief publicly, with both Catholic and Protestant friends, it has been suggested that Ortelius was a member of the Family of Love, a secretive devotional sect which promoted detachment from worldly affairs: his world map ‘Typum orbis terrarum’ surrounds the world with quotes meditating on the transience of humanity.