Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish cartographer, was born Apr. 14, 1527. In 1570, Ortelius published Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or Theater of the World. This was the first modern world atlas. It contained 53 maps, and its novelty lay in the fact that the maps were uniform in style, size, and lettering; had been engraved especially for this work; had descriptive text on the back of each map; and covered the entire world, region by region. Most of the maps were not original with Ortelius—he borrowed freely from previous cartographers and he fully credited all his sources—but many of the maps, such as the world map, are brand new.

The Theatrum was an immediate publishing success, and it went through 23 editions and translations in Ortelius’ own lifetime (he died in 1598). It also made the previously poor Ortelius a great deal of money, which meant he could now afford to travel and collect geographical information and improve his maps. The Library’s copy of the Theatrum is the 1592 edition, considerably enlarged from that of 1570 (134 maps instead of 53). We reproduce above: the world map (considerably improved from that of 1570); a map of the New World (second image above); and the map of Iceland, charming because of the many ferocious sea beasties that fill the North Atlantic south of the island (third image).

The second part of the Theatrum contained historical maps, depicting the world as known to ancient geographers, such as a map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (fourth image). One of the most arresting engravings in the Theatrum shows the world as mapped by Ptolemy of Alexandria, superimposed on the much larger world known to Ortelius (fifth image).

The Theatrum also includes an engraving of the only portrait made of Ortelius during his lifetime, by Adriaen Thomaszoon Key (sixth image).

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City