Category Archives: History of Cartography

One line to rule them all

A standard concept in the modern politico-military terminology is that of mission creep. This describes the, in the last sixty or seventy years often observed, phenomenon of a military intervention by a dominant power that starts with a so-called police action with a couple of hundred combatants and then within a couple of years grows to a full scale military operation involving thousands of troops and the expenditure of sums of money with an eye watering large number of zeros at the end. Famous examples of mission creep were the Americans in Viet Nam and the Russians in Afghanistan. In fact since the Second World War the American have become world champions in mission creep.

As a historian I, and I strongly suspect virtually all of my historian colleagues, experience a form of mission creep in every field of study to which I turn my attention. In fact the progress of my entire career as a historian of science has been one massive example of mission creep. It all started, at the age of sixteen, when I first learned that Isaac Newton was the (co)discoverer/inventor[1] of the calculus that I so loved at school. (Yes, I know that makes me sound a little bit strange but there’s no accounting for taste). This of course set me off on the trail of the whole history of mathematics, but that is not what I want to talk about here; let us stick with Newton. At some point I started to wonder why Newton, whom I saw as very much the theoretical mathematician and physicist, should have invented a telescope. This set me on the trail of the entire history of the telescope and because the telescope is an optical instrument, with time, the history of optics, not just in the early modern period but backwards through time into the European Middle Ages, the Islamic Empire and Antiquity. Of course Newton is most well known as physicist and astronomer and at some point I started investigating the pre-history of his work in astronomy. This eventually led me back to the Renaissance astronomers, not just Copernicus but all those whose work provided the foundations for Copernicus’s own work.

At some point it became very clear to me that to talk of Renaissance astronomers was in some sense a misnomer because those who pursued the study of astronomy in this time did so within a discipline that encompassed not just astronomy but also astrology, cartography (with a large chunk of geography and history in the mix), navigation, surveying, geodesy as well as the mathematical knowledge necessary to do all of these things. These were not separate disciplines as we see them now but different facets of one discipline. Over the years my studies have expanded to cover all of these facets and one into which I have delved very deeply is the history of cartography with the associated history of surveying. All of this is a rather longwinded explanation of why I have been reading Charles Withers’ new book Zero Degrees[2]


This book describes the history of how the Greenwich Meridian became the Prime Meridian.

A brief explanation for those who are not really clear what a meridian is; a meridian (or line of longitude) is any ‘straight’ line on the globe of the of the earth connecting the North Pole with the South Pole, where here straight means taking the shortest path between the two poles, as a meridian is by nature curved because it lies on the surface of the globe. Meridians are by their very nature arbitrary, abstract and non-real. We can chose to put a meridian wherever we like, they are an artificial construct and not naturally given. The Prime Meridian is a singular, unique, universally accepted meridian from which all other meridians (lines of longitude) are measured. The recognition of the necessity for a Prime Meridian is a fairly recent one in human history and Withers’ book deals with the history of the period between that recognition in the Early Modern Period to the realisation of a Prime Meridian at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first thing that Withers made me aware of is that a meridian is not a singular object but one that has at least four separate functions and at least two different realisations. Meridians are used for navigation, for time determination, for cartography and for astronomy. The latter is because astronomers project our latitude and longitude coordinate system out into space in order to map the heavens. Nothing says that one has to use the same meridians for each of these activities and for much of the period of history covered by Withers people didn’t.

On the realisation of meridians Withers distinguishes two geographical and observed. The majority of meridians in use before the late seventeenth century were geographical. What does this mean? It meant that somebody simply said that they make their measurements or calculations from an imaginary line, the meridian, through some given geographical point on the surface of the earth. Ptolemaeus to whom we own our longitude and latitude coordinate system, although he had predecessors in antiquity, used the Azores as his zero meridian although he didn’t know with any real accuracy where exactly the Azores lay. Also the Azores is a scattered island group and he doesn’t specify exactly where within this island group his zero meridian ran. We have a lovely example of the confusion caused by this inaccuracy. On 4 May 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter caetera, which granted the Crowns of Castile and Aragon all the lands to the west and south of a meridian 100 leagues and south of the Azores or the Cape Verde islands.

This led to a whole series of treaties and papal bulls carving up the globe between Spain (Castile and Aragon) and Portugal. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas moved the line to a meridian 370 leagues west of the Portuguese Cape Verde islands now explicitly giving Portugal all new discoveries east of this meridian. I’m not going to go into all the gory details but this led to all sorts of problems because nobody actually knew where exactly this meridian or its anti-meridian on the other side of the globe lay. Ownership disputes in the Pacific between Spain and Portugal were pre-programmed. These are classical examples of geographical meridians.

The Cantino planisphere of 1502 shows the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first observed meridian in the Early Modern Period was the Paris Meridian surveyed by Jean-Félix Picard in the 1660s. Such meridians are called observed because their exact position on the globe is determined astronomically using a transit telescope.

In the Early Modern Period there was no consensus as to which meridian should be used for which purpose and on the whole each country used its own zero meridian. I fact it was not unusual for several different zero meridians to be used for different purposes or even the same purpose, with one country. For geographers, cartographers and navigators crossing borders chaos ruled. The awareness that a single Prime Meridian would be beneficial for all already existed in the seventeenth century but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that serious moves were made to solve the problem.

The discussion were long and very complicated and involved scientific, political and pragmatic considerations, which often clashed with each other. On the political level nationalism, of course, raised its ugly head. Surprisingly, at least for me, there was also a very heated discussion as to whether the Prime Meridian should be a geographical or an observed meridian. I personally can discern no reasons in favour of a geographical Prime Meridian but various participants in the discussions could. Another problem was one or more Prime Meridians? Separate ones for cartography, navigation, astronomy and time determination.

Withers deals with all of these topics in great detail and very lucidly in his excellent summery of all of the discussions leading up to the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884, which forms the climax of his book.

The delegates to the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a truly fascinating piece of the history of science and in Withers it has found a more than worthy narrator and I recommend his book whole-heartedly for anybody who might be interested in the topic. Very important is his penultimate chapter Washington’s Afterlife. Every year in October people in the Internet announce that on this day in 1884 (I can’t be bothered to look up the exact date) the Greenwich Meridian became the world’s Prime Meridian and every year my #histsci soul sisterTM Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt (who played a significant role in the genesis of Withers’ book, as can be read in the acknowledgements) announces no it didn’t, the resolutions reached in Washington were non-binding. In fact the acceptance of Greenwich as the Prime Meridian took quite some time after the Washington Conference, some even accepting it initial only for some but not all the four functions sketched above. France, whose Paris Meridian was the main contender against Greenwich, only finally accepted Greenwich as the Prime Meridian in 1912.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles about Withers’ book. In the preface he outlines the structure of the book saying what takes place in each section. He repeats this in greater detail in the introduction. Then he starts each chapter with a synopsis of the chapter’s contents, often repeating what he has already said in the introduction, and closes the chapter with a summary of its contents. It was for this reader a little bit too much repetition. My second quibble concerns the illustrations and tables of which there are a fairly large number in the book. These are all basically black and white but are in fact printed black on a sort of pastel grey. I assume that the book designer thinks this makes them somehow artistically more attractive but I personally found that it makes it more difficult to determine the details, particularly on the many maps that are reproduced. Whatever I wouldn’t let these rather personal minor points interfere with my genuine whole-hearted recommendation.

[1] Chose the word that best fits your personal philosophy of mathematics

[2] Charles W. J. Withers, Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England, 2017

1 Comment

Filed under History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science

Why Mathematicus?

“The Renaissance Mathematiwot?”

“Mathematicus, it’s the Latin root of the word mathematician.”

“Then why can’t you just write The Renaissance Mathematician instead of showing off and confusing people?”

“Because a mathematicus is not the same as a mathematician.”

“But you just said…”

“Words evolve over time and change their meanings, what we now understand as the occupational profile of a mathematician has some things in common with the occupational profile of a Renaissance mathematicus but an awful lot more that isn’t. I will attempt to explain.”

The word mathematician actually has its origins in the Greek word mathema, which literally meant ‘that which is learnt’, and came to mean knowledge in general or more specifically scientific knowledge or mathematical knowledge. In the Hellenistic period, when Latin became the lingua franca, so to speak, the knowledge most associated with the word mathematica was astrological knowledge. In fact the terms for the professors[1] of such knowledge, mathematicus and astrologus, were synonymous. This led to the famous historical error that St. Augustine rejected mathematics, whereas his notorious attack on the mathematici[2] was launched not against mathematicians, as we understand the term, but against astrologers.

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However St. Augustine lived in North Africa in the fourth century CE and we are concerned with the European Renaissance, which, for the purposes of this post we will define as being from roughly 1400 to 1650 CE.

The Renaissance was a period of strong revival for Greek astrology and the two hundred and fifty years that I have bracketed have been called the golden age of astrology and the principle occupation of our mathematicus is still very much the casting and interpretation of horoscopes. Mathematics had played a very minor role at the medieval universities but the Renaissance humanist universities of Northern Italy and Krakow in Poland introduced dedicated chairs for mathematics in the early fifteenth century, which were in fact chairs for astrology, whose occupants were expected to teach astrology to the medical students for their astro-medicine or as it was known iatro-mathematics. All Renaissance professors of mathematics down to and including Galileo were expected to and did teach astrology.

A Renaissance Horoscope Kepler's Horoskop für Wallenstein Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Renaissance Horoscope
Kepler’s Horoskop für Wallenstein
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, to teach astrology they also had to practice and teach astronomy, which in turn required the basics of mathematics – arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry – which is what our mathematicus has in common with the modern mathematician. Throughout this period the terms Astrologus, astronomus and mathematicus – astrologer, astronomer and mathematician ­– were synonymous.

A Renaissance mathematicus was not just required to be an astronomer but to quantify and describe the entire cosmos making him a cosmographer i.e. a geographer and cartographer as well as astronomer. A Renaissance geographer/cartographer also covered much that we would now consider to be history, rather than geography.

The Renaissance mathematicus was also in general expected to produce the tools of his trade meaning conceiving, designing and manufacturing or having manufactured the mathematical instruments needed for astronomer, surveying and cartography. Many were not just cartographers but also globe makers.

Many Renaissance mathematici earned their living outside of the universities. Most of these worked at courts both secular and clerical. Here once again their primary function was usually court astrologer but they were expected to fulfil any functions considered to fall within the scope of the mathematical science much of which we would see as assignments for architects and/or engineers rather than mathematicians. Like their university colleagues they were also instrument makers a principle function being horologist, i.e. clock maker, which mostly meant the design and construction of sundials.

If we pull all of this together our Renaissance mathematicus is an astrologer, astronomer, mathematician, geographer, cartographer, surveyor, architect, engineer, instrument designer and maker, and globe maker. This long list of functions with its strong emphasis on practical applications of knowledge means that it is common historical practice to refer to Renaissance mathematici as mathematical practitioners rather than mathematicians.

This very wide range of functions fulfilled by a Renaissance mathematicus leads to a common historiographical problem in the history of Renaissance mathematics, which I will explain with reference to one of my favourite Renaissance mathematici, Johannes Schöner.

Joan Schonerus Mathematicus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joan Schonerus Mathematicus
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schöner who was a school professor of mathematics for twenty years was an astrologer, astronomer, geographer, cartographer, instrument maker, globe maker, textbook author, and mathematical editor and like many other mathematici such as Peter Apian, Gemma Frisius, Oronce Fine and Gerard Mercator, he regarded all of his activities as different aspects or facets of one single discipline, mathematica. From the modern standpoint almost all of activities represent a separate discipline each of which has its own discipline historians, this means that our historical picture of Schöner is a very fragmented one.

Because he produced no original mathematics historians of mathematics tend to ignore him and although they should really be looking at how the discipline evolved in this period, many just spring over it. Historians of astronomy treat him as a minor figure, whilst ignoring his astrology although it was this that played the major role in his relationship to Rheticus and thus to the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. For historians of astrology, Schöner is a major figure in Renaissance astrology although a major study of his role and influence in the discipline still has to be written. Historians of geography tend to leave him to the historians of cartography, these whilst using the maps on his globes for their studies ignore his role in the history of globe making whilst doing so. For the historians of globe making, and yes it really is a separate discipline, Schöner is a central and highly significant figure as the founder of the long tradition of printed globe pairs but they don’t tend to look outside of their own discipline to see how his globe making fits together with his other activities. I’m still looking for a serious study of his activities as an instrument maker. There is also, as far as I know no real comprehensive study of his role as textbook author and editor, areas that tend to be the neglected stepchildren of the histories of science and technology. What is glaringly missing is a historiographical approach that treats the work of Schöner or of the Renaissance mathematici as an integrated coherent whole.

Western hemisphere of the Schöner globe from 1520. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Western hemisphere of the Schöner globe from 1520.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The world of this blog is at its core the world of the Renaissance mathematici and thus we are the Renaissance Mathematicus and not the Renaissance Mathematician.

[1] That is professor in its original meaning donated somebody who claims to possessing a particular area of knowledge.

[2] Augustinus De Genesi ad Litteram,

Quapropter bono christiano, sive mathematici, sive quilibet impie divinantium, maxime dicentes vera, cavendi sunt, ne consortio daemoniorum animam deceptam, pacto quodam societatis irretiant. II, xvii, 37


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Repeat after me! – They knew it was round, damn it!

Last week saw various reports about a rare stolen copy of a Columbus letter that had turned up in the Library of Congress and has now been restored to its Italian owners; a comparatively happy end to one of a series of recent stories about the theft of precious books and documents from archives and libraries. Unfortunately the report on the website of NPR (that’s National Public Radio a non-commercial public American educational radio network) opened with the following paragraph:

The heist of a major historical document apparently went undiscovered for more than 20 years. Now, a stolen letter from Christopher Columbus spreading the news that the world isn’t flat has been returned from the U.S. to Italy.

As some readers might already have guessed the second sentence, specifically the phrase spreading the news that the world isn’t flat, had me screaming and banging my head against the wall to relieve the pain. This is just horrendously wrong in several different ways.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On his first voyage Columbus set sail from Spain in September 1492 and after approximately a month of sailing westward he landed on a set of previous unknown islands, unknown to the Europeans that is. This voyage proves or disproves absolutely nothing about the shape of the earth. To even contemplate a voyage proving the earth to be spherical and not flat we would have to fast forward thirty years to the return to Spain of the one ship and eighteen men from Ferdinand Magellan’s disastrous circumnavigation in 1522; just for the record Magellan was not one of the eighteen survivors, so to call him the first man to circumnavigate the world, as many people do, is simply false. Some flat-earthers could, and probably do/did, argue that Magellan’s fleet just sailed round in a circle on a flat disc and not around a spherical earth so even that is not a totally convincing proof (even if the objection is somewhat iffy).

Let us return to the good Cristoforo. One could argue that he set sail westward to reach the Spice Islands, instead of heading to the east, as was normal because he believed the earth to be a sphere and also believed that that sphere was small enough that the route west to the Spice Islands was shorter and thus quicker than the route east (A belief, as it turns out, that was based on faulty calculation, of which more later). Having reached what he erroneously believed to be the Spice Islands, leading to the equally erroneous name, the West Indies, he believed that he had proved the world to be spherical. There is however a fundamental flaw in this argument. Columbus did not sail westward because he believed the earth to be a sphere; he did so because he, like almost every other educated European, knew that it was a sphere, knowledge that had been part of the European cultural heritage for the best part of two thousand years.

This should in the meantime be well known, but for those, like the NPR reporter(s), who have been sitting at the back and not paying attention let us pass review over those two thousand years.

We have no direct records but latter authors tell us that the Pythagoreans in the sixth century BCE already accepted that the earth was spherical. Their reasons for doing so are unknown but it was possible in analogy to the celestial sphere of the so-called fixed stars. If you look up into the heavens on a clear dark night the sky appears to take the form of an inverted bowl or hemisphere. By the latest in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle, who would go on to have a massive influence on European intellectual history, knew that the earth was spherical and he offers up a series of empirical proofs for this claim. For example he wrote, “there are stars seen in Egypt and […] Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions.” Since this could only happen on a curved surface, he too believed Earth was a sphere “of no great size, for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent.” (De caelo, 298a2–10). He also pointed out that the shadow of the earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse is circular. Following Aristotle all Greek schools of philosophy accepted that the earth was spherical and following them the Romans. There was no doubt in the classical world that the earth was a sphere. Ptolemaeus, the most influential Greek astronomer, brought a series of arguments and proofs for the spherical form of the earth in his Syntaxis Mathematiké (Almagest) in the second century CE. Most notably that as ships approach over the horizon one sees the top of the mast before one sees the hull.

A lot of this specific knowledge got temporarily lost within Europe in the Early Middle Ages but still almost nobody who was educated doubted that the earth was a sphere. With the rise of the Islamic empire the astronomers writing in Arabic adopted the views of Aristotle and Ptolemaeus including the spherical form of the earth.

Back in the third century BCE the astronomer mathematician Eratosthenes from Alexandria determined the size of the sphere using the angle of the sun’s shadow and a bit of basic trigonometry. He achieved a fairly accurate result, its accuracy depends on which Stadia (an ancient measure of length) you think he used; we don’t know for certain. Other geographers and astronomers also determined the size of the earth’s sphere; all arriving at reasonable ball park figures. Ptolemaeus, in his Geōgraphikḕ (Geography) also determined that the known land area the oikoumenè, Europe, Africa and Asia, stretched over 180° of the earth’s surface from east to west.

In the High Middle Ages, Europe regained this knowledge, largely via the Islamic Empire through Spain and Sicily. The standard European university astronomy text Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi, written in the twelfth century CE, contained all the standard Greek arguments for a spherical earth including the lunar eclipse shadow, ship breasting the horizon and the change in visible asterism travelling from south to north. There existed no doubt amongst the educated in the Middle Ages that the earth was a sphere.

Picture from a 1550 edition of De sphaera, showing the earth to be a sphere. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Picture from a 1550 edition of De sphaera, showing the earth to be a sphere.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Columbus started making his plans at the end of the fifteenth century he knew that the world was a sphere, as did all of the people he tried to get to back his scheme. The only disputed point was how big the earth’s sphere was, how long the central landmass, Europe, Africa and Asia, was and thus how far the Spice Islands were if one sailed west from Europe. It was here that Columbus made some fundamental calculating errors. The Arabic astronomer al-Farghānī gave 5623 Arabic miles (being 111.8 km) as the length of one degree of longitude, whereas Ptolemaeus gave 6023 Roman miles (being 89.7 km). Columbus took al-Farghānī’s figure but multiplied it with the length of a Italian mile (much shorter than the Arabic one) to determine the circumference of the earth thus arriving at a figure that was far too small: approx. 25,255 km instead of al-Farghānī’s very accurate figure of 40,248 km. Ptolemaeus’ estimate of the spread of the main landmass was 180°, whereas it is in fact only about 130°. Columbus however took the even more inaccurate estimate of Marius from Tyre of 225°. The sum of these error meant that Columbus thought he only had about 3,700 km from the Canary Islands to Japan instead of the real 19,600 km! Having convinced his sponsors of the correctness of his calculations he set sail. If America had not been in the way Columbus and his entire crew would have stared starved to death on the open ocean.

So where does the myth of the flat earth come from? There were a few European scholars in antiquity and the early Middle Ages who, against the evidence, still argued that the earth was flat. However none of them enjoyed much support. One of the ironies of history is that Copernicus probably drew attention to the most famous of them, the third century cleric Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, by mentioning him in his De revolutionibus. The real myth of the medieval flat earth begins first in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and has two principal sources. Probably the most influential of these was the American author Washington Irving who in his fictional biography of Columbus claimed that Columbus had to fight against the Church’s belief that the world was flat in order to get permission and backing for his voyage, a complete fabrication. This falsehood was supported by the nineteenth centuries false interpretation of the medieval T and O Mappa Mundi.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

These medieval world maps were in the form of a circle, the O, with the three known continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, displayed in the form of a T with east at the top. These maps were interpreted in the nineteenth century as indicating that the medieval cartographers believed the earth to be a flat disc. This is not without irony as they were circular in order to indicate that the world in a sphere. The myth of the flat medieval world was taken up by two figures well known to readers of this blog John William Draper (1811–1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) in their widespread myth of the eternal war between religion and science. Science believing in a spherical earth whereas the reactionary Church believed in a flat one.

That Europe in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth is a total myth that just doesn’t seem to want to die. The next time somebody tells you that the medieval Church thought the world was flat, or that Columbus was a revolutionary for believing in a spherical earth or any other version of this nonsense, do me a favour, take a large, heavy, flat, round, metal object, such as a frying pan, and beat them around the head with it.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, Myths of Science

The Arch-Humanist

The name Conrad Celtis is not one that you’ll find in most standard books on the history of mathematics, which is not surprising as he was a Renaissance humanist scholar best known in his lifetime as a poet. However, Celtis played an important role in the history of mathematics and is a good example of the fact that if you really wish to study the evolution of the mathematical sciences it is necessary to leave the narrow confines of the mathematics books.

Conrad Celtis: Gedächtnisbild von Hans Burgkmair dem Älteren, 1507 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Celtis: Gedächtnisbild von Hans Burgkmair dem Älteren, 1507
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born Konrad Bickel or Pyckell, (Conrad Celtis was his humanist pseudonym) the son of a winemaker, in Franconian Wipfield am Main near Schweinfurt on 1 February 1459, he obtained his BA at the University of Cologne in 1497. Unsatisfied with the quality of tuition in Cologne he undertook the first of many study journeys, which typified his life, to Buda in 1482, where he came into contact with the humanist circle on the court of Matthias Corvinus, the earlier patron of Regiomontanus. 1484 he continued his studies at the University of Heidelberg specialising in poetics and rhetoric, learning Greek and Hebrew and humanism as a student of Rudolf Agricola, a leading Dutch early humanist scholar. Celtis obtained his MA in 1485. 1486 found him underway in Italy, where he continued his humanist studies at the leading Italian universities and in conversation with many leading humanist scholars. Returning to Germany he taught poetics at the universities of Erfurt, Rostock and Leipzig and on 18 April 1487 he was crowned Poet Laureate by Emperor Friedrich III in Nürnberg during the Reichstag. In Nürnberg he became part of the circle of humanists that produced the Nürnberger Chronicle to which he contributed the section on the history and geography of Nürnberg. It is here that we see the central occupation of Celtis’ life that brought him into contact with the Renaissance mathematical sciences.

During his time in Italy he suffered under the jibes of his Italian colleges who said that whilst Italy had perfect humanist credentials being the inheritors of the ancient Roman culture, Germany was historically a land of uncultured barbarians. This spurred Celtis on to prove them wrong. He set himself the task of researching and writing a history of Germany to show that its culture was the equal of Italy’s. Celtis’ concept of history, like that of his Renaissance contemporaries, was more a mixture of our history and geography the two disciplines being regarded as two sides of the same coin. Geography being based on Ptolemaeus’ Geographia (Geographike Hyphegesis), which of course meant cartography, a branch of the mathematical sciences.

Continuing his travels in 1489 Celtis matriculated at the University of Kraków specifically to study the mathematical sciences for which Kraków had an excellent reputation. A couple of years later Nicolaus Copernicus would learn the fundamentals of mathematics and astronomy there. Wandering back to Germany via Prague and Nürnberg Celtis was appointed professor of poetics and rhetoric at the University of Ingolstadt in 1491/92. Ingolstadt was the first German university to have a dedicated chair for mathematics, established around 1470 to teach medical students astrology and the necessary mathematics and astronomy to cast a horoscope. When Celtis came to Ingolstadt there were the professor of mathematics was Andreas Stiborius (born Stöberl 1464–1515) who was followed by his best student Johannes Stabius (born Stöberer before 1468­–1522) both of whom Celtis convinced to support him in his cartographic endeavours.

In 1497 Celtis received a call to the University of Vienna where he established a Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, that is a college for poetry and mathematics, with Stiborius, whom he had brought with him from Ingolstadt, as the professor for mathematics. In 1502 he also brought Stabius, who had succeeded Stiborius as professor in Ingolstadt, and his star student Georg Tanstetter to Vienna. Stiborius, Stabius and Tanstetter became what is known, to historians of mathematics, as the Second Viennese School of Mathematics, the First Viennese School being Johannes von Gmunden, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, in the middle of the fifteenth century. Under these three Vienna became a major European centre for the mathematical sciences producing many important mathematicians the most notable being Peter Apian.

Although not a mathematician himself Conrad Celtis, the humanist poet, was the driving force behind one of the most important German language centres for Renaissance mathematics and as such earns a place in the history of mathematics. A dedicated humanist, wherever he went on his travels Celtis would establish humanist societies to propagate humanist studies and it was this activity that earned him the German title of Der Erzhumanist, in English the Arch Humanist. Celtis died in 1508 but his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum survived him by twenty-two years, closing first in 1530



Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science

Hans Holbein and the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna Renaissance mathematical nexus.

There is a strong tendency, particularly in the popular history of science, to write about or present scientists as individuals. This leads to a serious distortion of the way that science develops and in particular propagates the lone genius myth. In reality science has always been a collective endeavour with its practitioners interacting in many different ways and on many different levels. In the Renaissance, when travelling from one end of Europe to the other would take weeks and letters often even longer, one might be excused for thinking that such cooperation was very low level but in fact the opposite was the truth, with scholars in the mathematical sciences exchanging information and ideas throughout Europe. A particularly strong mathematical nexus existed in the Southern German speaking area between the cities of Nürnberg, Ingolstadt and Vienna in the century between 1450 and 1550. Interestingly two of the paintings of the Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger open a door into this nexus.

Holbein (c. 1497–1543) was born in Augsburg the son of the painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder. As a young artist he lived and worked for a time in Basel where he became acquainted with Erasmus and worked for the printer publisher Johann Froben amongst others. Between 1526 and 1528 he spent some time in England in the household of Thomas More and it is here that he painted the second portrait I shall be discussing. The next four years find him living in Basel again before he returned to England in 1532 where he became associated with the court of Henry VIII, More having fallen out of favour. It was at the court that he painted, what is probably his most well know portrait, The Ambassadors in 1533.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting shows two courtiers, usually identified as the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur standing on either side of a set of shelves laden with various books and instruments. There is much discussion was to what the instruments are supposed to represent but it is certain that, whatever else they stand for, they represent the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry music and astronomy, the four mathematical sciences taught at European medieval universities. There are two globes, on the lower shelf a terrestrial and on the upper a celestial one. The celestial globe has been positively identified, as a Schöner globe and the terrestrial globe also displays characteristics of Schöner’s handwork.

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) was professor for mathematics at the Egidienöberschule in Nürnberg, the addressee of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the founder of the tradition of printed globe pairs, an editor of mathematical texts for publication (especially for Johannes Petreius the sixteenth centuries most important scientific publisher) and one of the most influential astrologers in Europe. Schöner is a central and highly influential figure in Renaissance mathematics.

On the left hand side of the lower shelf is a copy of Peter Apian’s Ein newe und wolgegründete underweisung aller Kauffmanns Rechnung in dreyen Büchern, mit schönen Regeln und fragstücken begriffen (published in Ingolstadt in 1527) held open by a ruler. This is a popular book of commercial arithmetic, written in German, typical of the period. Peter Apian (1495–1552) professor of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt, cartographer, printer-publisher and astronomer was a third generation representative of the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics. A pupil of Georg Tannstetter (1482–1535) a graduate of the University of Ingolstadt who had followed his teachers Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborious to teach at Conrad Celtis’ Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, of which more later. Together Apian and Tannstetter produced the first printed edition of the Optic of Witelo, one of the most important medieval optic texts, which was printed by Petreius in Nürnberg in 1535. The Tannstetter/Apian/Petreius Witelo was one of the books that Rheticus took with him as a present for Copernicus when he visited him in 1539. Already, a brief description of the activities of Schöner and Apian is beginning to illustrate the connection between our three cities.

Apian's Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apian’s Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), the cosmographer, sent out a circular requesting the cartographers of Germany to supply him with data and maps for his Cosmographia, he specifically addressed both Schöner and Apian by name as the leading cartographers of the age. Münster’s Cosmographia, which became the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century, was first published by Heinrich Petri in Basel in 1544. Münster was Petri’s stepfather and Petri was the cousin of Johannes Petreius, who learnt his trade as printer publisher in Heinrich’s printing shop in Basel. The Petri publishing house was also part of a consortium with Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben who had employed Hans Holbein in his time in Basel. Wheels within wheels.

The, mostly astronomical, instruments on the upper shelf are almost certainly the property of the German mathematician Nicolaus Kratzer (1487–1550), who is the subject of the second Holbein portrait who will be looking at.

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein Source: Wikimedia Commona

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein
Source: Wikimedia Commona

Born in Munich and educated at the universities of Cologne and Wittenberg Kratzer, originally came to England, like Holbein, to become part of the Thomas More household, where he was employed as a tutor for More’s children. Also like Holbein, Kratzer moved over to Henry VIII’s court as court horologist or clock maker, although the clocks he was responsible for making were more probably sundials than mechanical ones. During his time as a courtier Kratzer also lectured at Oxford and is said to have erected a monumental stone sundial in the grounds of Corpus Christi College. One polyhedral sundial attributed to Kratzer is in the Oxford Museum for the History of Science.

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer Source: MHS Oxford

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer
Source: MHS Oxford

In 1520 Kratzer travelled to Antwerp to visit Erasmus and here he met up with Nürnberg’s most famous painter Albrecht Dürer, who regular readers of this blog will know was also the author of a book on mathematics. Dürer’s book contains the first printed instructions, in German, on how to design, construct and install sundials, so the two men will have had a common topic of interest to liven there conversations. Kratzer witnessed Dürer, who was in Antwerp to negotiate with the German Emperor, painting Erasmus’ portrait and Dürer is said to have also drawn a portrait of Kratzer that is now missing. After Kratzer returned to England and Dürer to Nürnberg the two of them exchanged, at least once, letters and it is Kratzer’s letter that reveals some new connections in out nexus.

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his letter, from 1524, Kratzer makes inquires about Willibald Pirckheimer and also asks if Dürer knows what has happened to the mathematical papers of Johannes Werner and Johannes Stabius who had both died two years earlier.

Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) a close friend and patron of Dürer’s was a rich merchant, a politician, a soldier and a humanist scholar. In the last capacity he was the hub of a group of largely mathematical humanist scholars now known as the Pirckheimer circle. Although not a mathematician himself Pirckheimer was a fervent supporter of the mathematical sciences and produced a Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ or Geographia, Pirckheimer’s translation provided the basis for Sebastian Münster’s edition, which was regarded as the definitive text in the sixteenth century. Stabius and Werner were both prominent members of the Pirckheimer circle.

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two Johanneses, Stabius (1450–1522) and Werner (1468–1522), had become friends at the University of Ingolstadt where the both studied mathematics. Ingolstadt was the first German university to have a dedicated chair for mathematics. Werner returned to his hometown of Nürnberg where he became a priest but the Austrian Stabius remained in Ingolstadt, where he became professor of mathematics. The two of them continued to correspond and work together and Werner is said to have instigated the highly complex sundial on the wall of the Saint Lorenz Church in Nürnberg, which was designed by Stabius and constructed in 1502.

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502 Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

It was also Werner who first published Stabius’ heart shaped or cordiform map projection leading to it being labelled the Werner-Stabius Projection. This projection was used for world maps by Peter Apian as well as Oronce Fine, France’s leading mathematicus of the sixteenth century and Gerard Mercator, of whom more, later. The network expands.

Mercator cordiform world map 1538 Source: American Geographical Society Library

Mercator cordiform world map 1538
Source: American Geographical Society Library

In his own right Werner produced a partial Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, was the first to write about prosthaphaeresis (a trigonometrical method of simplifying calculation prior to the invention of logarithms), was the first to suggest the lunar distance method of determining longitude and was in all probability Albrecht Dürer’s maths teacher. He also was the subject of an astronomical dispute with Copernicus.

Johannes Werner Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Werner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of this blog will know that Stabius co-operated with Albrecht Dürer on a series of projects, including his famous star maps, which you can read about in an earlier post here.

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An important non-Nürnberger member of the Pirckheimer Circle was Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), who is known in Germany as the arch-humanist. Like his friend Pirckheimer, Celtis was not a mathematician but believed in the importance of the mathematical sciences. Although already graduated he spent time in 1489 on the University of Kraków in order to get the education in mathematics and astronomy that he couldn’t get at a German university. Celtis had spent time at the humanist universities of Northern Italy and his mission in life was to demonstrate that Germany was just as civilised and educated as Italy and not a land of barbarians as the Italians claimed. His contributions to the Nuremberg Chronicle can be viewed as part of this demonstration. He believed he could achieve his aim by writing a comprehensive history of Germany including, as was common at the time its geography. In 1491/92 he received a teaching post in Ingolstadt, where he seduced the professors of mathematics Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborius (1464–1515) into turning their attention from astrology for medicine student, their official assignment, to mathematical cartography in order to help him with his historical geography.

Conrad Celtis Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Celtis
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unable to achieve his ends in Ingolstadt Celtis decamped to Vienna, taking Stabius and Stiborius with him, to found his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum as mentioned above and with it the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics; the first had been Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. Regiomontanus spent the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg, where he set up the world’s first scientific publishing house. Stiborius’ pupil Georg Tannstetter proved to be a gifted teacher and Peter Apian was by no means his only famous pupil.

The influence of the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna mathematicians reached far beyond their own relatively small Southern German corridor. As already stated Münster in Basel stood in contact with both Apian and Schöner and Stabius’ cordiform projection found favour with cartographers throughout Northern Europe. Both Apian and Schöner exercised a major influence on Gemma Frisius in Louvain and through him on his pupils Gerard Mercator and John Dee. As outlined in my blog post on Frisius, he took over editing the second and all subsequent editions of Apian’s Cosmographia, one of the most important textbooks for all things astronomical, cartographical and to do with surveying in the sixteenth century. Frisius also learnt his globe making, a skill he passed on to Mercator, through the works of Schöner. Dee and Mercator also had connections to Pedro Nunes (1502–1578) the most important mathematicus on the Iberian peninsular. Frisius had several other important pupils who spread the skills in cosmography, and globe and instrument making that he had acquired from Apian and Schöner all over Europe.

Famously Rheticus came to Nürnberg to study astrology at the feet of Johannes Schöner, who maintained close contacts to Philipp Melanchthon Rheticus patron. Schöner was the first professor of mathematics at a school designed by Melanchthon. Melanchthon had learnt his mathematics and astrology at the University of Tübingen from Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531) another mathematical graduate from Ingolstadt.

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another of Stöffler’s pupils was Sebastian Münster. During his time in Nürnberg Rheticus became acquainted with the other Nürnberger mathematicians and above all with the printer-publisher Johannes Petreius and it was famously Rheticus who brought the manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus to Nürnberg for Petreius to publish. Rheticus says that he first learnt of Copernicus’s existence during his travels on his sabbatical and historians think that it was probably in Nürnberg that he acquired this knowledge. One of the few pieces of astronomical writing from Copernicus that we have is the so-called Letter to Werner. In this manuscript Copernicus criticises Werner’s theory of trepidation. Trepidation was a mistaken belief based on faulty data that the rate of the precession of the equinoxes is not constant but varies with time. Because of this highly technical dispute amongst astronomers Copernicus would have been known in Nürnberg and thus the assumption that Rheticus first heard of him there. Interestingly Copernicus includes observations of Mercury made by Bernhard Walther (1430–1504), Regiomontanus partner, in Nürnberg; falsely attributing some of them to Schöner, so a connection between Copernicus and Nürnberg seems to have existed.

In this brief outline we have covered a lot of ground but I hope I have made clear just how interconnected the mathematical practitioners of Germany and indeed Europe were in the second half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth. Science is very much a collective endeavour and historians of science should not just concentrate on individuals but look at the networks within which those individual operate bringing to light the influences and exchanges that take place within those networks.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of science, Renaissance Science

Der Erdapfel

Erdapfel is the word for potato in my local Franconia dialect, in fact in most of Southern Germany and Austria. In High Germany a potato is ein Kartoffel. Don’t worry this is not a post about root vegetables or variations in German regional dialects. Der Erdapfel is also the name given to the so-called Behaim Globe, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe, Nürnberg’s most famous historical artefact. The name, which literally translates as Earth Apple, is thought to be derived from the medieval term Reichsapfel (Empire Apple), which was the name of the Globus Cruciger, or orb, as in orb and sceptre, the symbols of power of the Holy Roman Emperor; the orb symbolising the earth. The Behaim globe, which was conceived but not constructed by Martin Behaim, is together with Behaim, the subject of many historical myths.


Martin Behaim was born in Nürnberg in 1459 and lived with his parent on the market place next door to the businessman Bernhard Walther (1430–1504) who was the partner to Regiomontanus in his printing and astronomical activities during the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg. Martin’s father was one of the rich traders, who dominated Nürnberg culture. In 1576 he was sent away to Flanders to apprentice as a cloth trader. In 1484 he journeyed to Portugal, which is where to mythological part of his life begins. According to the traditional version of his life story he took part in two sea voyages down the west coast of Africa with Diogo Cão. He was knighted by the Portuguese king and appointed to the Portuguese Board of Navigation. All of this took place because he was supposedly a student of Regiomontanus, whose ephemerides, the first ever printed ones and highly accurate, were well known and respected on the Iberian Peninsula. All of this information comes from Behaim himself and some of it can be read in the texts on the Behaim Globe.


Artist's impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Artist’s impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Between 1490 and 1493 Behaim returned to Nürnberg to sort out his mother’s testament and it was during this period that he persuaded to city council to commission him to produce a globe and a large-scale wall map of the world. It is not certain if the wall map was ever produced and if it was it has not survived but the globe certainly was and it is now, as already said, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe. It is not however, as is often falsely claimed the oldest or first terrestrial globe. The earliest recorded terrestrial globe was constructed by Crates of Mallus in the second century BCE. Also Ptolemaeus in his Geographia, in his discussion of different methods of cartographical projection, acknowledges that a globe in the only way to accurately represent to earth. The Behaim Globe is not even the earliest European medieval globe as the Pope in known to have commissioned earlier terrestrial globes, which have not survived. Given their method of construction and the materials out of which they are made the survival rate of globes is relatively low.

The globe remained the property of the city council of Nürnberg until the middle of the sixteenth century when it was returned to the Behaim family who basically threw it into the corner of an attic and forgot about it. In the nineteenth century it was rediscovered and studied by various historians of cartography and a copy was made for a museum in Paris. Unfortunately it was also ‘restored’ several times through processes that did far more damage than good. In the early twentieth century it was lent to the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. In the 1930s the Behaim family considered selling the globe, most probably in America, and to prevent this Adolf Hitler bought the globe with his own private money and presented it to the German nations. It still resides in the Germanische Nationalmuseum.

I said that the globe is veiled in myths and we will start to sort them out. Firstly Behaim only conceived the globe he didn’t construct it as many people believe. The globe was made by pasting strips of linen onto a fired clay ball. The ball produced by Hans Glockengiesser (a family name that translates as bell founder) and the globe constructed by Ruprecht Kolberger. After the paste had set the globe was cut free from the clay form by a single cut around its equator and the two halves we then pasted together on a wooded frame. The actually map was painted onto the linen ball by the painter and woodblock cutter Georg Glockendon and the lettering was carried out by Petrus Gegenhart. Behaim only seems to have directed and coordinated these activities.


Another popular myth is that because of Behaim’s activities in Portugal the cartography of the globe is cutting edge up to the minute modern; nothing could be further from the truth. The basis of the cartography is Ptolemaeus with obvious additions from other ancient Greek sources as well as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Travels of Marco Polo. Much of the cartographical work is inaccurate even by the standards of the time, including surprisingly the west coast of Africa that Behaim supposedly had explored himself, which brings us to Behaim’s personal claims.


His claim to have sailed with Diogo Cão is almost certainly a lie. At the time of Cão’s first voyage along the African coast Behaim is known to have been in Antwerp. On his second voyage Cão erected pillars at all of his landing places naming all of the important members of the crew, who were on the voyage, Martin Behaim is not amongst them. They is no confirmatory evidence that Behaim was actually a member of Portuguese Board of Navigation and if he was his membership almost certainly owed nothing to Regiomontanus, as there is absolutely no evidence that he ever studied under him. The historian of navigation, David Waters, suggests that if Behaim was actually a member of this august body then it was because the Portuguese hoped to persuade the rich Nürnberger traders to invest money in their expeditionary endeavours, Behaim thus functioning as a sort of informal ambassador for the Republic of Nürnberg.

The picture that emerges is that Martin Behaim was con artist probably deceiving both the Portuguese court and the Nürnberg city council. The Behaim Globe is an interesting artefact but its historical or scientific significance is minimal. If you are in Nürnberg, I can recommend going to the Germanische Nationalmuseum to see it but when you are there also take a look at the Schöner 1520 terrestrial manuscript globe in the neighbouring room. It’s cartographically much more interesting and Schöner, as opposed to Behaim, plays a very important role in the history of globe making.


Johannes Söner's 1520 terrestrial Globe. Germanische Nationalmuseum

Johannes Söner’s 1520 terrestrial Globe.
Germanische Nationalmuseum




Filed under History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Abraham Ortelius and the 16th century information age.

The sixteenth century saw the evolution of modern cartography emerge out of a renaissance in Ptolemaic cartography. In the second half of the century the Netherlands played a leading role in this process. I have already blogged twice about Gerard Mercator the man most closely associated with the modern cartography, here and here, and also about his teacher Gemma Frisius, so today I want to turn my attention to Mercator’s friend and rival Abraham Ortelius.


Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was born Abraham Ortel (as we most Renaissance scholars there are numerous variant spellings of the family name) in Antwerp on 14 April 1527, to where his grandfather William had moved the family from Augsburg in Southern Germany in 1460, supposedly because of religious persecution. The son of a merchant who died whilst he was still young, in about 1535. Ortelius studied mathematics, Latin and Greek as a youth and apprenticed as an engraver of maps and entered the Antwerp guild of map illuminators in 1547. He set a shop trading in books, prints and maps with his sister and became an engraver for the highly influential Plantin publishing house. Through his various activities as a trader Ortelius came to travel extensively throughout Europe, visiting all the regions of Germany, Italy, France, England and Ireland.

He met and became friends with Gerard Mercator at the Frankfurt book Fair in 1554. In 1559-1560 he accompanied Mercator on his cartographical expedition through Trier, Lorraine and Poitiers. It was during this trip that Mercator is supposed to have persuaded his friend to not just engrave and colour other people’s maps but to become a cartographer in his own right.

Following the example of his mentor, Ortelius started out producing single maps sold as prints. His first effort was an eight-sheet world map produced in 1564. This was followed by a two-sheet map of Egypt (1565), a single-sheet map of the Holy Land in 1566, a two-sheet map of Asia (1567) and a six-sheet map of Spain (1570). Ortelius’ entry into the map business was a success. Gemma Frisius, Mercator and Ortelius were all cartographers and businessmen. However, whereas it is safe to say that Gemma Frisius and Mercator were cartographers first and businessmen second in the case of Ortelius it was the other way round; he was very much a businessman first and a cartographer second.


Ortelius' World Map 1564 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius’ World Map 1564
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given the massive increase in international trade and the travel involved in it, there was a strong increase in the demand for good maps. To save themselves the trouble of carrying around large bundles of loose maps various people had started collecting together maps from various sources and binding them together in a book. However, the maps in such collections were of different styles, varying qualities and highly varying usefulness. Ortelius and his business partners came up with the idea of printing and publishing a comprehensive collection of maps of uniform size all in the same style and containing the most up to date geographical data available. Published by Ortelius and printed by Egidius Coppens van Diest the first edition of Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum (the first modern atlas!?) containing fifty-three maps appeared in 1570.


Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Title Page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Title Page
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius didn’t produced the maps from scratch himself but relied on the maps of other cartographers, modifying and improving them as he reproduced them in his uniform style oft incorporating elements of several maps into his finished product. This method of working was not new but had been employed by the leading cartographers throughout the sixteenth century, where Ortelius differed was in that he included a Catlogus cartographorum, a list of eighty-seven cartographers whose work he had used to compose his Theatrum. The Theatrum was a major success going through forty editions between 1570 and 1624. As well as numerous Latin editions there were also several editions each in German, French, Italian, Spanish and English. The Theatrum was very definitely a sixteenth-century bestseller.


Map of the Persian Empire from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Persian Empire from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important features of the Theatrum was its evolution. Each new edition would be modified and updated with as much new information as Ortelius could obtain.

Starting with 53 maps in 1570, it grew to 70 maps in 1573, 93 maps in 1579, 122 maps in 1584 and in the final edition prepared by Ortelius and published in 1590, one year after his death, 134 maps. Plantin had been involved in marketing and selling the Theatrum from the very beginning and took over printing it in 1579 uptil his own death in 1589.

Of interest is a pocket sized version, or epitome, of the Theatrum that was published by Philips Galle and printed by Plantin beginning in 1577. Like the original this too went through many editions in several different languages, the first edition having been in Dutch.

The evolution of the Theatrum between its birth in 1570 and Ortelius’ death in 1589 is a wonderful example of the so-called Republic of Letters in operation in the Early Modern Period. Ortelius had connections all over Europe and even further afield amongst the scholars of his day. Through correspondence they supplied him with the information he needed to update and modernise his maps. Also supplying the geographical and historical information with which he annotated later editions of his magnum opus. This information network worked in both directions with Ortelius passing on information he had received from one member of the network to others he thought might be interested. This correspondence did not only deal in matters geographical and cartographical but also included much information from all the various branches of natural history. An impression of Ortelius’ correspondence network can be gained from his Album Amicorum (friendship book), which he maintained from 1574 to 1596. It has 130 entries that read like a who’s who of the European intellectual elite of the period.


Maris Pacifici, 1589, the first dedicated map of the Pacific to be printed Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maris Pacifici, 1589, the first dedicated map of the Pacific to be printed
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius’ second major geographical work was his Synonymia Geographica sive Popularum, Regionum, Insularum, Urbium… Appelationes et Nomina, originally an appendix in the Theatrum but then published in expanded form as a separate volume beginning in 1578. This is a list of classical place names identifying their modern locations based on Ortelius’ own historical research, an important research tool for anybody studying classical works.

Another minor claim to fame possessed by Ortelius is that he appears to be the first person to have suggested a theory of continental drift based on his recognition that the continents surrounding the Atlantic basin seemed to fit together. He suggested that the Americas had been torn away from Europe and Africa by earthquakes and floods. His theory fell on deaf ears in his own times.

We still have one rather important linguistic question to clear up. If the ‘first modern atlas’, was entitled the Theatrum orbis terrum by Ortelius, its creator, then why do we call a collection of maps an atlas?

Almost at the same time as Ortelius, his friend Mercator embarked on a very similar project if his motivation was somewhat different. I have blogged about Mercator’s map collection, which he called an atlas already here so I won’t repeat the story now. Mercator’s book only appeared in full, bearing for the first time the title Atlas, posthumously in 1595, twenty-five years after the first appearance of the Theatrum. Although Mercator’s work was without doubt superior to Ortelius’, the later was already a well-established best seller and the larger more complex work of Mercator failed to seriously challenge the market leader. Had the situation remained as it was, we would probably still refer to a bound collection of maps as a theatre. In case you are wondering Ortelius’ original title translates as something like view of the earthly globe. However at the end of the 1590s things changed. Ortelius died and although his Theatrum continued to appear until 1624 nobody took the trouble to update it. On the other hand Mercator’s son died in 1599 and Jodocus Hondius a cartographical publisher and globe maker from Amsterdam bought up the rights to Mercator’s Atlas. Hondius did update and modify Mercator’s work and so took over dominance in the market. In 1624 Hondius’ biggest rival Willem Janszoon Blaeu bought the rights to Ortelius’ Theatrum incorporating it into his own map book that he titled an atlas in imitation of Hondius. And so it is that we now call a bound collection of maps an atlas and not a theatre.









Filed under History of Cartography, Renaissance Science