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Ortelius: A Legendary Mapmaker

Many years ago I visited an antique show held at the Washington D.C. Stadium Armory. Dealers from all over the United States displayed almost every kind of antique on tables throughout the market. One of the dealers owned an antique map store in St. Louis. I looked at many maps, dated from the 19th century and earlier, on his table. The map that interested me the most included images of ships and sea monsters.This prompted me to learn about old maps, especially those from the 16th and 17th centuries. Since that time I have read extensively about antique maps, among my favorites are those that were published by Abraham Ortelius.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) published the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum or Theatre of the World in Antwerp. Before the atlas was published custom “map books” were individually ordered and bound in Italy. Ortelius created an atlas with maps of a uniform size, arranged by continents and regions, with descriptions on the reverse of every map. He included a list of the cartographers whose maps were printed in the atlas.

The first Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was published in 1570 and later revised and expanded into 31 editions.Twenty-five editions were published from 1570 to 1598, the year of Ortelius’s death. Later volumes were printed posthumously.The Library of Congress holds numerous editions of the atlas dated from 1570 to 1612, the year the last version was printed.

Many of the maps from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum include images of people, sea creatures and land animals and are highly sought after by collectors. Featured below are some examples of maps from the atlas.

The map of Russia shown below was based on a map by Anthony Jenkinson. Jenkinson was a British explorer who traveled to Russia with the Muscovy Company. The regions of Lithuania, Latvia, Persia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are shown on the map. People engaged in various activities are represented, including an illustration in the upper left corner of Russian Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) sitting in front of a tent.The right side of the map shows text and pictures which represent religious ceremonies and the custom of burying the dead in trees.

a href="//www.loc.gov/resource/g3200m.gct00003/?sp=108&amp;loclr=blogmap"><em>Russiae, Moscoviae et Tartariae Descriptio</em>.</a>..Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

Russiae, Moscoviae et Tartariae Descriptio...Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The content on the map below was derived from many cartographic sources, including Olaus Magnus and Gerardus Mercator. It shows part of North America, Scandinavia, Greenland, Iceland and the phantom islands of Frisland, Drogeo and Icaria. A merman is shown playing a violin in the lower left corner.

Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The following map is based on Jacob van Deventer’s map of  Zeeland, a province located in the southwestern part of the Netherlands.The Greek god Triton is shown in the upper left corner riding a sea monster and holding the Zeeland coat of arms.

Zeelandicarum Insularum. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

Zeelandicarum Insularum. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The map of Italy below was created by Giacomo Gastaldi. A mermaid and Neptune god of the sea are shown embracing.

Italiae Novissima Descriptio. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

Italiae Novissima Descriptio. Published by Abraham Ortelius. 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The atlas was expensive yet very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was published in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian and Latin.

In addition to the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ortelius wrote other books. These include The Heads of Gods and Goddesses about ancient coins and The Image of the Golden World about the customs of ancient Germans. Another book written by Ortelius is titled  Thesaurus Geographicus (Geographical Treasure). In the book Ortelius compiled a collection of place names for natural features, towns, villages and cities. In 1618 the author and translator, John of Ankara (Ankiwratsʻi Yovhannēs) translated the book into Armenian.The decorative image below is from John of Ankara’s manuscript translation.

Detail from Vasn erkutsʻ ...Manuscript translation of Thesaurus Geographica by Ankiwratsʻi Yovhannēs. 1618. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Detail from Vasn erkutsʻ …Manuscript translation of Thesaurus Geographica by Ankiwratsʻi Yovhannēs. 1618. African and Middle Eastern Division.

 

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Abraham Ortelius, Flemish cartographer and geographer... Illus. in Narrative and critical history of America / Winsor. 1886. Prints and Photographs Division.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Abraham Ortelius, Flemish cartographer and geographer… Illus. in Narrative and critical history of America / Winsor. 1886. Prints and Photographs Division.

A first edition of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published on May 20, 1570, may be viewed in its entirety here. Philip Lee Phillips, former Chief of the Map Division, wrote in an annual report that he purchased the atlas for the Library’s collections with his own money during a summer trip to Europe in 1907. 

I attended the antiques fair to look at other types of antiquities, not maps. After the map dealer showed me the map with sea monsters I became interested in old maps long before I became employed in the Geography and Map Division. I don’t know if the map that I viewed at the Stadium Armory was published by Ortelius, but based on its appearance it could have been. I do know that it is the reason I became obsessed with antique maps which led to my interest in Ortelius.    

Learn More:

Read more about the atlas and the life of Ortelius in Imagined corners : exploring the world’s first atlas / Paul Binding.

Learn about the history and development of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in Ortelius atlas maps : an illustrated guide / by Marcel P.R. van den Broecke.

Read an in-depth article Ortelius Atlas by Frans Koks.

 

 

 

 

Canals of Washington, DC

Washington, D.C., was established as the “permanent seat of the Federal Government” by the passage of the Residence Act in 1790. This act allowed President George Washington to select the site for the new city anywhere along the banks of the Potomac River between its junction with the Shenandoah River, near present day Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and its junction with the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River, just below the current location of Washington, DC.

The area demarcated for the new city was a blank slate and President Washington selected Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to create a design for it. The map below, published in 1794, reflects L’Enfant’s vision for the new city with a few improvements attributed to Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820).

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading along from the Potomac River, down the format location of Tiber Creek, to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading from the Potomac River, down the former location of Tiber Creek (see below), to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

The detail below shows the Potomac River, the mouth of Tiber Creek, and the United States Mall as laid out by L’Enfant and Ellicott. Running along the  Mall, as we know it today, was a creek that led westward from roughly the current site of Union Station to the Tidal Basin and, ultimately, to the Potomac River. What many Washingtonians may not realize is that both L’Enfant’s original design, and Ellicott’s improvement incorporated canals to facilitate the shipment of goods and construction materials to build the new city.

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L'Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791]. Geography and Map Division.Map

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L’Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791] Geography and Map Division.

In addition to the canal running past the White House, there were grand plans for a university on the west end of the Mall and a turning basin for the canal at the base of Capitol Hill. The proposed University resembles the original campus of the University of Virginia!

 District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

 

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup't of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup’t of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division. In addition to the Washington Canal, the topography of Capitol Hill, also known as Jenkins Hill, can be seen running from north to south through the center of the map.

So why the canal?  It was simply a time saving measure.  The sandstone blocks that were used in Read more »

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