Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

20 may 1570 (1570A)
Size : 535 x 445 mm

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Folio (535 x 445 mm). Contemporary limp vellum With 53 double-page engraved maps, all in first states. Small loss to the tail of the spine; a bit unevenly warped at the edges, possibly a temporary publisher’s binding intended to be replaced later. Collation: A-DII (including engraved title), 53 double-page engraved maps, a-iII, k-Nii, o. Complete.

First edition, First issue. «A landmark in cartographic publication, for it is the first largemodern atlas.» (PMM, 91)

Exceptional, unsophisticated example of the first state of Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum, one of the most important works in the Western Canon.

Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is widely considered to be the first true modern atlas. When it was published in 1570, the Theatrum was the best available summary of 16th-century cartographic knowledge, covering much of the exploration of the world in the century following the discovery of America.

Ortelius’s Theatrum has its genesis in the 1550s when the merchant Gilles Hooftmanwas building a practical map collection. Apparently, Hooftman found unrolling large maps to be unwieldy, so it was suggested to him by Jan Radermaker to bind his maps up in book form. When Radermaker befriended Ortelius in 1555, he evidently passedthe task off to him. At the time, Italy was the center of global cartographic publishing.Therefore Ortelius ordered from Rome an «Italian Assembled to Order Atlas» (or «Lafreri School» atlas) with 38 maps. Elsewhere it has been suggested that Gerard Mercator was the progenitor of the idea for the first standardized atlas, but that he held back from competing with Ortelius out of a spirit of friendliness. That being said, because of Mercator’s work habits, he would not have been able to produce a work likethe Theatrum by 1570, even if he had that in mind.

Van der Krogt (Abraham Ortelius...p. 65) further explains :

The first edition of the Theatrum is dated May 20, 1570 (vdK 31:001). It had been finished the year before, as appears from the privileges by the Brabant Council and the Privy Council from respectively February 21 and October 23, 1569. The basis for the first edition of the Theatrum, with 53 maps, is formed by the 38 maps of the atlas which Ortelius had composed for Hooftman.

The first edition of the Theatrum was printed at Ortelius’ own expense by Egidius (Gielis) Coppens van Diest, an Antwerp printer who had experience with printing cosmographical and cartographical works. From 1539 onwards, Van Diest had printed various editions of Apianus’ Cosmographia, edited by Gemma Frisius, and in 1552 he printed the small atlas of Honterus, Rudimentorum Cosmographicorum... Libri IIII.

Ortelius drew all of the maps by hand, and those drawings were interpreted into printsby his engravers Frans Hogenberg, Ambrosius Arsenius, and Ferdinand Arsenius.

According to Van Den Broecke, the Theatrum was issued in at least four different configurations in its first year of publication. These are commonly categorized as the 1570A, B, C, D states. Van den Broecke states that 100 copies of the 1570A were printed, of which 40 were initially sold to Plantin. In Koeman’s Atlantes Neerlandici IIIA, Petervan der Krogt records 15 or so examples of the 1570A. The condition of this present 1570A atlas is as close to pristine, a handsome, crisp and clean copy.

Van Der Krogt (IIIA, 31:001A) provides an extensive list of changes between these variants. The present atlas accords with all of the requirements for a 1570A.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) started his career as a map colorist. In 1547 he entered the Antwerp guild of St Luke as afsetter van Karten. 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. He 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. 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 inhis edition of the Peutinger Table (1598).

References : Adams O-335; Van der Krogt IIIA, 31:001A; Phillips 382; Printing and the Mind of Man 91 (this edition); Shirley 122.


Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was a Renaissance cartographer and geographer, considered to be one of the founders of modern cartography. He was born in 1527 in Antwerp, then part of the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Ortelius began his career as a map colourist, buying maps and colouring them before selling them on. His early interest in cartography soon developed into a passion for scientific geography.

During his travels, particularly in the company of renowned geographers such as Gerard Mercator, Ortelius acquired an in-depth knowledge of geography. It was thanks to these travels and his encounters with other scholars that he was inspired to create his most famous work, the "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum".

Ortelius published his first major work, a world map in eight sheets, in 1564. He continued to produce various maps, including one of Egypt in 1565, a plan of Brittenburg Castle on the coast of the Netherlands, and a map of Asia, before publishing his masterpiece in 1570.

Ortelius' "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum" is considered to be the first true modern atlas. In its first edition of 1570, it contained 53 maps, but was rapidly expanded with each successive edition. This revolutionary atlas harmonised the formats and styles of maps available at the time, while retaining the names of the maps' original authors. Ortelius also created a catalogue of map authors, updated from edition to edition, to recognise the contributions of numerous geographers.

The success of the "Theatrum" greatly contributed to the spread of geographical culture in Europe at the end of the 16th century. After Ortelius's death in 1598, his atlas continued to be published and improved by other editors, leaving a lasting legacy in the field of cartography.