| Established 1976 |
A VERY SHORT HISTORY OF MAPS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
-to be continued-