In this modern world where the likes of Amazon’s Kindle appear to be taking much of the modern, traditional book world by storm, there is an ever increasing awareness and appreciation of old rare
books, including antique atlases. This reflects a world in which many fear the medium might disappear. In the modern cartographic world we have been offered the remarkable services of Google Maps, Microsoft’s Bing and others. These open the world of maps to many other avenues. However nothing on a computer can replace the time many of us have spent leafing through an atlas
looking for far off places and letting our minds wonder. A third dimension providing an almost 3D world is opened up by looking through an antique atlas at rare maps.
So what is the history of the atlas as we know it? Our understanding of an atlas is of a book bearing a collection of two dimensional maps of the known world. The ancient world produced the first such work but there is no evidence of any maps as we know it being produced. Entitled
Geographia, it was the work of Claudius Ptolemaeus (c. A.D. 90—168) from Alexandria, Egypt. It consisted largely of tables of longitude and latitude for thousands of places known to the Egyptian world. Ptolemy’s ancient atlas disappeared from memory during the Dark Ages.
Mediaeval cartography portrayed the world as a globe with the Christian capital of Jerusalem at its centre. This was especially so in England. One of the most famous of these
Mappa Mundi resides in Hereford Cathedral, England, and dates from
ca. 1275. The first collections of maps were mediaeval and are loosely referred to as
Isolarios which were collections of maps of Islands and major ports, usually relating to the Mediterranean Sea.
It was when the Byzantine monk Maximos Planudes (c.1260—1310) discovered a manuscript of Ptolemy’s
Geographia that its importance was recognised. From the information provided he produced a series of manuscript maps. During the ensuing years a number of duplicates were made by himself and other qualified cartographers in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). However, it is known that the Arab world possessed at least one example of the book with maps in the tenth century.
The flowering of the Renaissance in Italy brought about a desire for ancient Greek and Egyptian literature. It was about 1400 that one of these
Geographias reached Italy from Constantinople. The first printed version of it came from the press of Domenico de Lapis in Bologna, 1477. Today it is very rare with only a little over 20 examples
surviving, only one of which is in private hands. Others followed in Rome, 1478, Florence, 1482, and Ulm, 1482. It was through the new medium of
such printed maps and atlases that knowledge of the world was disseminated throughout Europe to a much greater audience. Their inaccuracies were however soon noticed and in a number of later editions supplemental
Tabula Moderna were added to the work. With the Renaissance in full flower, during the middle of the sixteenth century the Italian cartographers of the day produced ever higher quality maps showing great detail. Enterprising
mapsellers such as Antonio Lafreri, Claudio Duchetti and Fernando Bertelli amongst others not only sold these rare maps individually but collected them together in bindings. These so called
‘atlas factice’ or composite atlases are highly prized today and it is only through this medium that so many separately published maps of the day survive. Because these maps were often by different publishers they were of various sizes and ‘margins’ of blank paper were often pasted to enable them to fit in the book.
It was the enterprising Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp who first saw the market for a uniformly sized, styled and comprehensive
atlas of ‘modern’ maps. The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was first published in 1570 and was such an immediate success that four editions were made before the year finished. By the end of the sixteenth century, the most advanced cartography was being printed in northern European countries. Great advances mathematically in projecting these maps were being made, notably by Gerard Mercator with one famously named after him. It was Mercator who first applied the word ‘Atlas’ to a collection of maps with the
Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditations printed in Duisburg in 1595. This also marked an era of great decoration in engravings and maps were no exception. Further great map makers of the period included Jodocus Hondius, Willem Blaeu, Jan Jansson and John Speed to name but a few.
The bindings themselves are often to be admired, being constructed with
vellum, or calf. Fine skins like morocco are often used and then decorated with gold in either panels or ornate decoration sometimes including a family or royal crest. Atlases managed to combine the numerous talents of the day into one beautiful three-dimensional work. An object that opens like a box to reveal a lost world of mystery and history combined. It is this which makes them so captivating.