Mapping the World: The Origins of Cartography

Mapping the World: The Origins of Cartography

Ahead of our 14 April - 23 April Books & Maps Timed Sale, our specialists share a fascinating insight into the history of cartography. 

2 March 2023

Often coming with associations of travel and exploration, antique maps and atlases appeal to people’s sense of place and affection for where they have lived or where they live now. Furthermore, as modern-day navigation relies more and more on the internet, antique maps offer a romanticised insight into how people travelled and understood the world hundreds of years ago. A good many antique atlases were not bought at production, enabling the buyer to select any of the maps available and have them bound later, meaning that many antique atlases that appear the same can have completely different maps in them, giving insight into the personalities and interests of the people who originally collected them.

The term ‘atlas’, meaning a collection of maps bound together with varying subject matter, was coined by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), where it was used in 1595 for his seminal work Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura. The name came from the Greek mythological Titan Atlas, who was forced to hold the earth and the heavens on his shoulders as punishment from the Gods, and it was his image that Mercator used as the frontispiece for his atlas. Although Mercator is regarded as the central figure of the Golden Age of Dutch cartography, it was his friend Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish book collector and engraver, who made the first atlas in 1570 called Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. It was a lot smaller than Mercator’s work and never officially referred to as an atlas, but it was the first work to consist of map sheets collected in a single book, in a uniform format with explanatory text, therefore it was an innovation of its time, whilst undoubtedly setting a precedent from which later cartography could flourish in the Age of Discovery.

Although the first atlas was not made until the 16th century, map-making had been around for a lot longer, and we owe a great deal to those early mathematicians, astronomers and theologians of the ancient world for how we understand the world today. The first known map was scratched on clay tablets in the ancient city of Babylon as long back as 600 BC, and the first world map was created by Greek academic Anaximander in the 6th century BC, who believed the earth was shaped like a cylinder and that humans habited the flat upper portion. The word ‘map’ comes from medieval Latin, mappa mundi, ‘mappa’ meaning cloth and ‘mundi’ the world.

To my mind, the world’s greatest cartographer was Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer and geographer who, in the second century AD, invented geography, plotted some 10,000 locations, and devised latitude and longitude. His work was sadly lost to the West for a thousand years with the fall of the Roman Empire, however, whilst there’s acknowledgement that some of his work was distorted, it later influenced the greatest Byzantine and Renaissance cartographers.

As well as collecting maps for their historic and aesthetic value, it’s an area of the market that still offers museum-quality and historically important works at relatively modest prices, making it a popular choice for some. Our upcoming Books & Manuscripts sale has well-over fifty examples from the 17th century onwards, covering many different geographic locations at varying price points. Look at the online catalogue when it goes live in mid-April to see if you can spot any places that are particularly special to you!

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