Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

From our Press Review

The Bulletin - 3 December 1998 - Page 26

Arts Feature

The man who sold the world

Clare Thomson pays tribute to Abraham Ortelius, the creator of the modem atlas

Every time you open an atlas you should thank Abraham Ortelius. But the Antwerp-born cartographer, who created the first modem atlas in 1570, has been relegated to the footnotes of history. Were it not for the devoted efforts of the Brussels International Map Collectors Circle (BIMCC), the 400th anniversary of his death - June 1598 - might have passed almost unnoticed.

Instead, the BIMCC have rallied Ortelius fans for an 11th-hour conference to honour him. To be held on December 12 and 13, the event will include visits to related shows at Brussels' Royal Library and Antwerp's Plantin-Moretus Museum.

"Few people know about Ortelius," admits Joost Depuydt, librarian at the Catholic University of Leuven. "Because he never studied at a university, he is claimed by no institution. He was a self-made humanist."

His name has also been eclipsed by that of fellow Flemish mapmaker Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594). "Mercator was widely recognised in his own time as a cartographer, scientist and mathematician," Depuydt explains. "Since then, the scientific world has always presented Mercator as a great map-maker, which he was; he put the globe on a flat surface. Ortelius did more to popularise maps."

Depuydt's fascination with the cartographer began seven years ago, when he went to study at London's Warburg Institute. He wanted archive material about Flemish map-makers, most of whom left Flanders in the 16th century because of religious conflicts in the Low Countries. "It was a ninety-five-year-old former British Library map librarian who talked me into Ortelius," recalls Depuydt.

He immersed himself in the map-maker's correspondence, published in England in the late 19th century and the main source of information about his life. Written in Latin and Dutch, the letters reveal a sharp, lively man with many friends and a keen interest in languages and travel.

Ortelius' admirers particularly respect his ability to navigate his way through heated religious debates without getting singed. Despite this, he was in close contact with Antwerp publisher Christopher Plantin, a member of a secret group called the House of Charity, which believed that people with differences of religious opinion should live peacefully together.

Sadly, the original letters are no longer accessible. When the childless Ortelius died, he left his correspondence to his favourite nephew, who lived in England. The whole was sold to an American collector in 1955 and re-sold by the collector's inheritors in 1968, since when the originals have been scattered worldwide.

Depuydt is one of several specialists who will pay tribute to Ortelius at the English-language conference, Abraham Ortelius 1527-1598: Mastermind of the Theatre of the World. As well as a fascination with his achievements, the speakers show great affection for the man himself.

"He was the first person to put maps together in a uniform format and to present that as a book," says Dutch author Marcel van den Broecke, editor of Abraham Ortelius and the First Atlas, a new collection of essays that will be presented during the conference weekend and published in English. "The atlas was the most expensive book produced at the end of the 16th century, and also the best-selling one. That's quite an achievement.

"Ortelius was a true Renaissance man: he knew his classics and had the courage to disagree with them."

"He was also very honest," says BIMCC founder and collector of African maps Wolf Bodenstein, who laments the lack of a commemorative Ortelius postage stamp. "He acknowledged all his sources and established the first explicit catalogue of authors."

At the conference, Depuydt will discuss Ortelius' humanist activities, especially his friendship with Justus Lipsius. British specialist Rodney Shirley, author of The Mapping of the World 1472-1700, will talk about the cultural imagery in the title pages of books by Ortelius and his contemporaries, while Van den Broecke will introduce Ortelius as a scientist, collector and merchant.

"Many people think that these roles are incompatible," explains Van den Broecke, "but I will argue that he could never have been the scientist he was if he had not also been a collector. It was a unique combination."

The conference takes place at the Collège Saint-Michel, 24 Boulevard Saint- Michel, Brussels, December 12 from 9 am to 1 pm, [...], with trips to the exhibitions in the afternoon and on December 13. Antwerp's Plantin-Moretus Museum has a display about Ortelius until January 24, [...]; another exhibition runs at Brussels' Royal Library from December 11 to March 27.