History Timeline 1500s

Above: Painting, entitled Discovery of the Mississippi, by William H. Powell, 1847, is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right: Giovanni de Verrazzano, 1889, engraving by F. Allcarini, Tocchi, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Giovanni da Verrazzano

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1500s


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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1570

    May 20, 1570 - Abraham Ortelius, Flemish Netherlands cartographer publishes the first modern world atlas of fifty-three maps, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World). He is credited with first to imagine continents had at one time been joined together.

    World Map, Abraham Ortelius

    In many ways, the accomplishment of Abraham Ortelius would have as much impact on the exploration of the world, and particularly the New World of the Americas, than any within the first one hundred years of European conquest. Yes, more than Columbus and his four voyages to find a passage to Asia by sailing west, but finding the Americas and the Caribbean instead. Yes, more than the Vikings who had gone before, or the numerous expeditions by men like Cabot, Verrazano, Coronado, Hudson, and many others prior and after the dates of successful colonization in the territory of the United States. Now, we should not get ahead of ourselves here. Without all those men who went searching for the Northwest passage and found other things instead, Ortelius would have nothing to base his fifty-three maps within the Theater of the World on.

    Ortelius was forty-three years old when he completed the atlas, encouraged by Gillis Hooftman van Eyckelberg, a Dutch merchant and shipbuilder who would own one hundred ships and trade with Russia, and to ports in the Baltic Sea, Arctic Ocean, and North Africa. The text of the maps were written by him, and organized by him, but not drawn by Ortelius. He sourced the various maps to other cartographers, but, unlike other maps, which had been independent and specific to the needs they were drawn, this book contained all the maps of the world in one book. They were the same size, organized by continent, and with text written by Ortelius that explained them.

    The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was published by Gilles Coppens de Diest in various editions. By the end of 1572, there were three Latin editions, plus one Dutch, French, and German editions as well. Thirty-three cartographers had been used to create the maps, including Gerardus Mercator (France), Giacomo Gastaldi (Italy), and Diego Gutierrez (Spain). Mercator, whom Ortelius knew personally, should be credited with providing at least eight plates to the compilation, derived from Mercator's previous, 1869, map of the world that for the first time used the new projections of sailing courses as straight lines that are still used today in nautical maps. Mercator, also, invented the word, "Atlas" to a book of maps.

    One of the most interesting, but little noticed at the time, texts written by Ortelius included the theory that the continents had at one time been joined, noticing the geometric symmetry of the coasts of America to Europe and Africa.

    ... that the Americas were "torn away from Europe and Africa ... by earthquakes and floods..." "... The vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three [continents]."

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    Ortelius Prior to the Maps

    Ortelius was born in the city of Antwerp in today's Belgium, but in the beginning of the century, part of Habsberg, Netherlands and part of the Holy Roman Empire. His family had been accused of Protestanism, although that does not seem to have fallen on Abraham. His penchant and studies into map making and engraving began at the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke when he was twenty years old. The Guild was for painters and artists within the city. Seven years later when traveling to Frankfurt, he met Gerardus Mercator, a reknowned cartographer, who had similar interests.

    In 1564, Ortelius published his first map, the Typus Orbis Terrarum, which was an eight-leaved map of the world. He had begun to travel extensively throughout Europe and contact with other historians and cartographers, including those, Richard Haklyut, who saw colonization of the New World as important, promoting the idea in the next century to King James I about forming the Virginia Company to colonize Virginia.

    Ortelius After the Maps

    The success of the maps grew over the next thirty years. Twenty-five editions were published, with an expansion to seventy maps by 1573. It would be published until 1612; that edition included one hundred and sixty-seven maps. Ortelius would expand to creating other works that focused on ancient history, as well as books dedicated to his travels. In 1575, he was appointed the official geographer to Philip II, the King of Spain.

    Image above: Ortelius World Map, Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570, Abraham Ortelius "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum." Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via Library of Congress. Below: Painting of Abraham Ortelius, 1633, Peter Paul Rubens, Adriaen Thomasz. Key. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source info: "Ortelius Atlas," Frans Koks, Library of Congress; Wikipedia.

    Abraham Ortelius

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