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Current Exhibition:



 12th - 31st January, 2018

Abraham Ortelius (1527 -1598) was a Flemish cartographer, cosmographer, geographer, and publisher, and a contemporary of Gerard Mercator, with whom he travelled through Italy and France. Although it is Mercator who first used the word "Atlas" as a name for a collection of maps, it is Ortelius who is remembered as the creator of the first modern atlas. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was the first systematically collated set of maps by different map makers in a uniform format. Three Latin editions as well as a Dutch, French and German edition of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum were published by 1572 and a further 25 editions printed before Ortelius' death in 1598. Several more were printed posthumously, and Ortelius’ maps continued to play a vital role in mapmaking across Europe for the century following his death.

The Parergon (’Supplement’) was, as the title suggests, originally conceived of as a supplement to Ortelius’ Theatrum. The work, a massive and intricately researched index of the classical world, was accompanied by a series of ancient world maps. Unlike the maps of the Theatrum, the majority of which were reductions of earlier maps, the maps of the Parergon were researched and drawn by Ortelius himself. The work was a huge commercial success, and the maps themselves set the standard for ancient world maps for the duration of the seventeenth century, being reproduced or reprinted by various publishers after Ortelius’ final 1624 printing. His interest in the mapping of the ancient world is manifest.

The maps of the Parergon are a veritable mine of textual commentary and classical philology, drawing upon Ptolemy, Strabo, Pliny, and many others. Interestingly, the project seems to have been a labour of love, rather than a mercantile venture. Ortelius himself was fascinated with the ancient world, and a formidable classical scholar in his own right. In addition to his work as a cartographer, he dealt in antiquities, visited and surveyed ancient sites across Europe, published a critical edition of Caesar’s Gallic Wars in 1593, and assisted Welser in his studies of the famous Tabula Peutingeriana in 1598, producing an engraved copy of the map that can be found in later editions of the Parergon.

The Parergon finds its genesis, appropriately, in Ortelius’ maps of the Holy Land and the geography of the Bible. Biblical maps were very much in fashion during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, intended originally to illustrate God’s Creation in the terrestrial and celestial spheres. The Protestant Reformation, however, put map-makers in an awkward, and often dangerous, religious and political position. Ortelius’ own career, like his friend Mercator’s, danced a fine line with the various religious authorities of northern Europe. Indeed his birth in Antwerp, rather than his family’s native Augsburg, was almost certainly the result of the Ortels Family’s flight from the Holy Roman Empire, under suspicion of Protestantism.

Like many aspects of publishing, mapmaking in the sixteenth century was risky business. Maps allowed the viewer to see the world from a God-like perspective, looking down from the heavens above. Such a concept, so basic to modern map users, was deeply unsettling to church authorities both Catholic and Protestant. In 1553, when Ortelius was still a junior map-colourist, the publisher Michael Servetus was burned at the stake by the Geneva Calvinists for simply suggesting that the bible was wrong in asserting that Palestine was a land rich and fruitful, when his own geographical investigations had suggested it was barren and dry. Perhaps this is one reason why so many of the maps of Ortelius and his contemporaries contain overt biblical references. In exhorting the viewer to marvel at the wonders of God’s Great Work, the mapmaker simultaneously offered a balm to zealous religious authorities.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the religious turmoil of Ortelius’ youth had calmed, but remained a valid cause for concern. In 1575, Ortelius was appointed Royal Geographer to King Philip II of Spain. Despite his fame, Ortelius’ position was only ratified through the support of his friend Montanus, who assured the Catholic monarch of Ortelius’ orthodoxy. The resulting patronage allowed Ortelius greater creative freedom, and his biblical maps, included in early editions of the Theatrum, became the groundwork for a much more ambitious project to examine the history of the Mediterranean. The logical next step for this supplement, or Parergon, was an examination of the geographical legacy of the Classical and Hellenistic Greek world.

Illustrated editions of Ptolemy, the second century AD Alexandrine Greek polymath, had begun to appear in the fifteenth century, and so by Ortelius’ day were well-trodden territory for map-makers. What set Ortelius’ maps apart was the application of contemporary geography to classical description. Ortelius’ maps showed more than just classical place names. His maps were both erudite and playful. Theories drawn from Greek philosophy were counterpoised with epic journeys from classical myth, so that Thales and Anaximander on one map met Jason and Aeneas on the next.

Added to this sense of geographic whimsy was a solid foundation in the language and literature of the Greek and Roman worlds. Every map is agonizingly detailed. Every site, city, or notable feature is labelled and referenced. The Roman world is obviously given the most attention. To Ortelius and his contemporaries, their Europe was the unworthy inheritor of a much greater Roman ancestor.

Ortelius himself was obsessed with the Roman ancestry of his native lands. His map of ancient Belgium, one in a series illustrating his favourite classical text, Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, states as much in its dedication, when it exhorts his fellow countrymen to remember their ancient heritage. Similar maps appear for each of the Roman provinces, often illustrating regions, like Dacia, Thrace, or Roman Africa, that had no contemporary equal in Ortelius’ day.

The maps in this exhibition represent the largest collection of Ortelius’ works ever held by Sanders of Oxford. Together they provide a remarkable timeline of Classical geography, from the very earliest histories of Egypt and the Ancient Near East, to the Byzantines, Vandals, and many other Post-Roman nations that connected Ortelius’ Europe to the Classical Mediterranean.