Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) is often called the ‘father of modern cartography,’ particularly because in 1570, he issued the first edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which is considered the ‘first modern atlas.’ The publication of this atlas marked an epoch in the history of cartography, for it is the first uniform and systematic collection of maps of the whole world based only on contemporary knowledge since the days of Ptolemy.
Ortelius began his career as an engraver and “peintre des cartes,” (map colorist), eventually becoming a dealer in maps and books. As such he met and befriended the great Gerard Mercator and began to produce as well as sell maps in Antwerp in 1561, starting with an eight sheet world map. In the sixteenth century there was a great increase in interest in maps and charts, and Ortelius, as a businessman with a passion for history and cartography, was at the forefront in meeting this demand. Through his collecting and his antiques business, Ortelius became acquainted with a large network of the preeminent cartographers in Europe and thus was able to research the best contemporary maps, becoming the greatest expert of his day in the bibliography of maps.
He decided to produce an atlas of the entire world, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or Theater of the World, done on a systematic basis in a uniform style, beginning with a map of the world, then maps of the continents, followed by regional maps. Ortelius based his work on the best maps available, drawing all the maps himself with the celebrated Frans Hogenberg cutting most of the plates. Unlike other atlas-makers, Ortelius cited the authors of the original maps from which he compiled his work.
The Theatrum was hugely popular and influential, and Ortelius was made the royal geographer to Phillip II, expanding his atlas with new maps, and in 1579 to include the Parergon, a historic atlas intended to supplement the Theatrum. When he died in 1598, the Theatrum had been published in 25 editions in five editions, with two other languages added after his death. Thus it is not only for his unprecedented achievement in issuing the first modern atlas, but also for his thoughtful and rigorous methodology, that Ortelius belongs amongst the first rank of cartographers.