Established 1976


Learn about maps: History


This section deals primarily with maps of European or American origin as that is what is most likely to appear in today's market. Maps from other parts of the world are fascinating - we used to deal in the very appealing Tokugawa-era woodblock maps of Japan, but the supply virtually dried up some years ago.

Maps have been made in many parts of the world, and non-European maps are dealt with extensively in Woodward and Harley, The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Books One, Two and Three. A less weighty (though no less scholarly) introduction to non-European mapping can be found in Norman Thrower's Maps and Civilization which devotes several chapters to the subject.

Please note that there is a pattern in the brief history below - leadership in mapmaking tends to go along with military, commercial and/or political prominence.

Ancient maps

No one knows when the first map was made. Perhaps it was some paleolithic hunter scratching lines in the earth to direct his comrades to where he had seen prey. The oldest surviving physical object which could be called a map is a wall painting of a town plan at the archeological site of Catal HyŁk in Anatolia, Turkey. Radiocarbon examination dates it from about 6200 B.C. ["The Catal HyŁk Map" by Harry Steward in Mapline Number 19, September, 1980]. Maps are known from classical times - a clay tablet with a city plan from Mesopotamia; a world map on bronze supposedly shown to the King of Sparta circa 500 B.C.; an Egyptian papyrus showing a gold mine: don't bother looking for the mine - it was played out in ancient times.

Nebenzahl's Maps of the Holy Land (pages 25-6) describes and illustrates a spectacular mosaic map of the Middle East at Madaba, Jordan composed of more than two million colored stones and measuring approximately 5 x 10 meters. Details of Jerusalem allow the mosaic to be dated at circa 565 A.D.

Perhaps the most celebrated of ancient maps is the Peutinger Table which survives at the Royal Library of Vienna. It is a 12th or 13th century manuscript copy of a road map of the Roman Empire which was probably created in the 5th century A.D. The map was found in a monastery around 1500 and is named for German humanist Konrad Peutinger (died 1547) who was among the first to possess it. It has been reproduced several times, most notably by Abraham Ortelius in 1598.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages most maps were either of small local areas or were cosmic maps of the world. The former were for land ownership purposes, and the latter were cosmological - providing inspiration about the place of this world in relation to the next. It is possible the world maps could also have been helpful to travelers, though only the largest contained enough detail to be of much use. World maps were of many shapes, though the most common was circular. A few travelers' maps (likely intended for pilgrims) survive, such as those of the 13th century monk, Matthew Paris.

Sailing charts known as portolans are a special category. The earliest date to circa 1290 and show the Mediterranean and Black seas. Over time portolans, which were highly accurate, expanded to include more of Europe and even influenced world maps.

Early Renaissance

All the above maps were manuscript, i.e., made by hand. In the 15th century European map-making was influenced by several events. One was the invention of movable type by Gutenberg circa 1455, which led to the extensive production of printed books. Some books, such as geographies needed maps, creating a demand for printed maps.

Another great event was the rediscovery of Ptolemy in the West. Ptolemy (circa 150 A.D.) was a scholar of Alexandria, Egypt whose Geographia explained his system of coordinates for locating places on the map. It included coordinates for several thousand places. This great work was lost to the West for over a thousand years, but was retained in the East. As the Byzantine Empire came under pressure from the Turks, refugees fled west taking their possessions with them, including texts of the Geographia.

By the late 1400s several editions of the Geographia had been printed with maps made according to Ptolemy's instructions. Over time the number of maps in the Geographia increased as modern maps were added to accompany the classical maps. Maps were also found in other printed works such those of Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, or Hartman Schedel's 1493 Liber Chronicarum, usually known as the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Then came a third great event, Columbus' discovery of the New World. The Nuremberg Chronicle was in production as Columbus' ships were returning, and its world map marks the end of an era. The discovery effectively stopped creation of printed world maps for more than a decade as the information was absorbed and interpreted.

16th Century

By the early 1500s mapmakers were getting lots of new data to put on their maps; not just of the New World, but also of Africa and Asia. Thanks to their lead in exploration Spain and Portugal had a head start on everyone else, but their maps were kept in their archives and generally were not published.

Some of the best early mapmakers were in Italy. The Italian city-states were leading centers of trade and had great interest in anything that might affect their commerce. This was part of pattern which was repeated over the centuries - leadership in mapmaking went along with commercial and/or military prominence. Maps were essential tools of both commerce and war.

Some of the earliest printed maps to show the Americas were produced by or for Italians. The Contarini-Rosselli map of the world (Venice or Florence, 1506) is now in the British Library. Johann Ruysch's world map was published in the 1507 Rome edition of Ptolemy. Later Jacopo Gastaldi (circa 1500 - circa 1565) and his followers produced excellent maps. Often their maps were included in assembled-to-order atlases, sometimes called Lafreri atlases after Antonio Lafreri of Rome who published several with his name on the title page.

The Italian maps were usually copperplate engravings, while north of the Alps woodblock printing was more common. (See our section on map printing for further information.) One of the most important northern cartographers was Martin Waldseemuller who in 1507 produced the first map with the name America on it. It was a large multi-sheet wall map and only one complete copy survives. (The Library of Congress recently purchased this map.) Waldseemuller also created maps for an edition of Ptolemy (Strasbourg, 1513). Sebastian Munster who worked in Basle published by his Cosmographia (1544) and an edition of Ptolemy (1540). These were reprinted many times.

As the century went on trade shifted to western Europe and the major ports of the Low Countries became important commercial centers, as well as places of map production. Antwerp was a great entrepot (center of distribution), and was important in printing as well. It was there that on May 20, 1570 Abraham Ortelius (1527-98) produced what is generally regarded as the first modern atlas. It was titled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and contained 53 maps, all uniform in size and style. The maps were entirely modern, as Ortelius had sought the best available maps and then redesigned them to a standard format to fit his atlas. The Theatrum was an immediate success, going through four printings in its first year. It continued through more than 40 editions over the next generation.

In 1572 Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg published the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, the first atlas of city views and plans. It too became a best-seller of its time. A third important work soon emerged. Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer created the Speighel der Zeevaerdt, the first atlas of sea charts. The charts were engraved by the van Deutecom brothers and are as artistic as they are functional.

At the same time Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) was busily creating maps. He and Ortelius were friends as well as colleagues. Mercator was of a more scholarly temperament and his productions came forth more slowly. Before creating a modern atlas he wanted to produce a definitive edition of Ptolemy, which was published 1578. He was the first to use the term "atlas" as the name of a book of maps. Sections of his modern atlas began to appear in the 1580's, and the complete work was issued by his heirs in 1595, the year after his death.

There was active map production elsewhere in Europe. Among the more notable productions was Christopher Saxton's Atlas of England & Wales (1579), one of the earliest national atlases.

The southern part of the Low Countries suffered greatly during wars to gain freedom from Spanish control. Antwerp was sacked twice (1576 and 1584), and never fully recovered. Commerce moved north to Amsterdam.

The 17th century

Jodocus Hondius of Amsterdam obtained publishing rights to Mercator's Atlas, and expanded it until his death in 1612. His sons Jodocus Jr. and Henricus, and his son-in-law Jan Jansson continued to develop it and became leading publishers.

Around 1621 Jodocus Jr. set up his own business. In 1629 Willem Blaeu who had been publishing pilot guides and sea charts acquired a number copperplates from the estate of Jodocus Jr. (there must be a story here) and set about producing a competing atlas. After Willem Blaeu's death in 1638 the work was carried on by his sons Joan and Cornelis.

Henricus Hondius and Jan Jansson responded by expanding their own atlas. For the next generation there was an intense competition between the two houses to create the largest and most beautiful of atlases. It was not unlike the horsepower wars of modern automobile manufacturers.

Other mapmakers joined in, though Blaeu and Hondius/Jansson were clearly the leaders. In 1662 an extraordinary atlas was published. It was Joan Blaeu's Grand Atlas or Atlas Major with approximately 600 beautifully-engraved maps on thick paper in nine to twelve volumes depending on the edition. Lavish versions were issued with sumptuous bindings and brilliant coloring; sometimes these were purchased by the Dutch Republic as gifts for royalty and other notable personages. The Grand Atlas was to normal atlases as a Rolls Royce is to an ordinary sedan.

-to be continued-
1937 Central Street
Evanston, Illinois 60201
Copyright 2003, 2004 © George Ritzlin Maps & Prints