Belgian inventions: the first commercial Atlas

Although today we blindly rely on global positioning systems (GPS) to guide us around the world, the use of the atlas, a book that compiles maps, is not so far behind us. Yet its invention dates back to the 16th century, when the Belgian Abraham Ortelius marketed a book that became a commercial success throughout Europe.

“You are to be commended for having selected the best description of each region and brought it together in one book. The book is not expensive and we can take it with us wherever we go.”

With these words, the cartographer Gerardus Mercator addressed his colleague Abraham Ortelius on the publication of the first atlas, a book that, for the first time, brought together maps from all over the world.

Although many people think that Mercator was the inspiration behind the atlas, that honour was reserved for Abraham Ortelius. However, Mercator was the one who introduced the word ‘atlas’, referring to the maps on sheets that were bound into a physical book.

Classical work

Until the 15th century, maps were based on the classical work of Ptolemy, a Greek astrologer, astronomer, geographer, mathematician and music theorist who lived in the 2nd century AD. But with the advent of the great voyages of discovery, a new era in cartography also dawned.

One of the earliest printed works that resembled an atlas came from the Italian Battista Agnese. He produced hand-drawn parchment world atlases between 1536 and 1564, not filling in unknown parts of the world with fanciful expectations, as was somewhat the trend at the time. He drew the world as it was known at that very moment.

New insights

Meanwhile, the Belgian Abraham Ortelius kept a close eye on all new developments. He studied classical literature and history and followed the evolution of the sciences. Discoveries in America, Africa and Asia excited him immensely. It was his fascination with voyages of discovery, new inventions and the rediscovery of ancient writers that eventually led Ortelius to map out and compile these new insights and a new world view.

Thus, his career evolved from being a colourer of maps at Plantijn, a printing house in Antwerp where the two oldest printing presses in the world can still be admired today, to that of a cartographer who made the history books. It was in this same Plantijn printing house that Ortelius in 1570 was the first to bring together all known maps of the world in the same format in a book. The first atlas was a fact and the book became an immediate commercial success. It was admired and used throughout Europe.

The world map (Typus orbis terrarium), the first map in Ortelius’ atlas, is also his most famous one. This representation of the world had an enormous cultural impact, because it was a synthesis of all the latest knowledge about the size and shape of the continents.

Today the Plantijn-Moretus Museum still pays attention to the achievements of Ortelius. The original atlas can be admired digitally and on the occasion of the 448th anniversary of the publication of the first atlas, the museum made a digital overview of Ortelius’ life and work.