The “first” Atlas

I’m holding a semi-popular public lecture on Gemma Frisius and Gerhard Mercator in Nürnberg next Wednesday (tomorrow) as part of a series on the history of cartography to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Mercator’s birth and the 250th anniversary of Tobias Mayer’s death. My emphasis on Frisius will of course be the invention of triangulation plus his role as Mercator’s teacher. People who consider themselves to be educated have a collection of trivial facts that they associate with certain names or terms. Mention of the name Mercator provokes two reflect reactions from such people, “projection” and “the first atlas”.  I’ve already blogged about the Mercator-Wright projection on Mercator’s birthday so today I’m going to waste a few words over “the first atlas”.

“The first atlas” is a very good example why one should avoid the term first in the history of science but as we shall see the term atlas is also not without its historical problems. An atlas is “a bound collection of maps” (Mirriam-Webster), “a book of maps” (Macmillan), “a collection of maps, usually in book form” (Collins), “a book of maps” (Webster’s) etc. etc. There were bound collections of manuscript maps in book form in the middle ages long before the invention of printing so according to the common definitions Mercator’s Atlas can’t be the first one. This means we have to modify our statement. Mercator produced the first printed atlas. Unfortunately this version is also not true.

In the 1480s there were printed editions of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia with woodcut or copperplate images of the maps for which his text gives reproduction directions, thus fulfilling the atlas definitions given above. Next try. Mercator produced the first modern printed atlas. Ignoring for a moment the problems that the term modern carries even this statement isn’t true as Mercator’s friend and fellow cartographer Abraham Ortelius published a modern printed atlas, his Theatum Orbis Terrarum in 1570, twenty-five years before Mercator’s Atlas was published posthumously by his son.

So why do people believe that Mercator published the first atlas? In fact Mercator published the first printed, bound collection of maps that bore the title atlas, however he almost certainly didn’t intend the term to refer to his map collection.

Mercator originally intended to write a cosmographia, that is a complete description of the cosmos. This work was conceived in six parts:

1)    An account of the creation of the world and the order of its parts

2)    The order and the movement of the celestial bodies

3)    The nature and influences of the celestial bodies in order to determine a correct astrology

4)    The elements

5)    A description of the entire earth

6)    A history of the world

It was this truly monumental work that was intended to bear the title Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura. It should be pointed out that the Atlas of this title is not the mythical Greek titan who carried the world on his shoulders but the equally mythical King Atlas of Mauritania, who according to legend was a wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who is credited with having produced the first celestial globe.

Mercator only lived long enough to complete a fraction of this intended magnum opus. He wrote an account of The Creation, completed a critical edition of the maps in Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which he published in 1578, and made a start on his own maps for the description of the entire earth. Due to the demand for the later, being a very successful commercial cartographer, he began to publish these in separate volumes as he worked. In 1585 he published three volumes, the first contained sixteen maps of France, the second nine maps of the Netherlands and the third twenty-six maps of the Germanic States. In 1589 he published a four and final volume of twenty-two maps of Italy, The Balkans and Greece. These volumes did not bear the title atlas but were named Tabulae Geographiae being just one part of his intended but never realised cosmographia. Following his death in 1594 his son Rumold published a fourth volume containing twenty-nine maps of Great Britain, as well as Northern and Eastern Europe together with a world map of his own and general maps of Europe, Asia, Africa and America copied from Mercator’s famous world map of 1569 by his grandsons Gerhard junior and Michael.

In 1595 Rumold published the contents of these four volumes together with the Ptolemaic maps and the account of The Creation in one volume using the title page his father had created for his cosmographia thus creating the first atlas.

Although Mercator’s maps were superior to those of Ortelius this incomplete work could not complete commercially with the highly successful and well established work of the latter, which had already dominated the market for twenty-five years. If the story had ended there Mercator’s Atlas would probably have disappeared into the slipstream of history and we would today refer to a collection of maps as a theatre. However following Rumold’s death in 1599 his heirs sold the copper printing plates to the Dutch printer-publisher and cartographer Jodocus Hondius who completed the atlas with maps of his own and published it under his own and Mercator’s names in 1606.

Mercator (left) and Hondius (right) shown working together in 1630 Atlas

Slightly ironical as they never met and both were dead by then.

Over the years Hondius and his heirs published new expanded editions of the Atlas. In 1630 a second Dutch cartographer, Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who amongst other things had studied with Tycho Brahe on Hven, entered the market with a competing product and for the next thirty plus years the two publishing houses of Hondius and Blaeu produced ever bigger multi-volume atlases containing more and more maps culminating in the truly spectacular twelve volume Atlas Maior, containing over six hundred maps, published by Willem Janszoon’s son Joan. By now the name atlas for a collection of maps had become firmly established it was Ortelius’ alternative theatre that landed in the trashcan of history.


Filed under History of Cartography, Renaissance Science

22 responses to “The “first” Atlas

  1. Pingback: The “first” Atlas | Whewell's Ghost

  2. “It should be pointed out that the Atlas of this title is not the mythical Greek titan who carried the world on his shoulders but the equally mythical King Atlas of Mauritania, who according to legend was a wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who is credited with having produced the first celestial globe.”

    Is it just a coincidence that both have to do with terrestrial globes?

    • “Is it just a coincidence that both have to do with terrestrial globes?”

      Actually it’s celestial globes! The titan Atlas actual carries the cosmos on his shoulders and not just the earth.

      As to your question, I have no idea!

  3. Great read. Thanks Thony. I think I’ll store it away and use the topic myself in our children’s magazines. Perfect for our ‘History’s Mysteries’ column.

    Can I ask how it’s known that the Atlas reference was to the king and not the Titan? Did Mercator refer to it elsewhere?

  4. Michal Meyer

    What is going on in the first image? The lounging woman is holding a man’s head (sans body). And there appears to be the torso of a woman stuffed into a box?

  5. I’d not heard of Mercator’s project to map all of history until I did read a biography of the man a few years ago. That project, that ambition, really captured my imagination in a way I don’t recall even the mapping of the geographical world to have done.

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  17. Samos atlas

    Hey, first of all thanks for your article !
    I would like to ask this question :
    How sure are we about the fact that this is Atlas of Mauretania who is shown on the mercator atlas.

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