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Ortelius [Ortels], Abraham

1. Dates
Born: Antwerp, 14 April 1527 (Bagrow says 4 April)
Died: Anterp, 4 July 1598. (Bagrow and Denucé say 28 June, if it matters.)
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 71
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
Ortelius' grandfather was a very prosperous merchant who came to Antwerp from Augsburg as an agent of the Fuggers. Ortelius' father was also a merchant, who died when Ortelius was ten.
Ortelius himself said that he grew up on slender means. Nevertheless, his grandfather, still alive in 1559, was clearly wealthy, and Ortelius himself was obviously in good circumstances by the age of forty. I put the circumstances down as affluent at least.
3. Nationality
Birth: Belgian Area
Career: Belgian Area
Death: Belgian Area
4. Education
Schooling: No University
At the age of twenty, Ortelius entered into the guild of St. Luke in his native city as an illuminator of maps. Whether he had any schooling by a master artisan is unknown.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
When Ortelius was appointed royal cosmographer, Arias Montanus vouched for his orthodox faith which had been under suspicion.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Cartography, Geography
Subordinate: Natural History
Ortelius was the principal cartographer of the sixteenth century with the exception of Mercator. The colonization and expanding commerce increased the demand for maps in the sixteenth century. His first product of mapmaking was an eight sheet map of the world printed in 1564. In the following six years he published maps of Egypt, Asia, and Spain. At the suggestion of Hooftman and his friend Rodermacher, Ortelius undertook the project of compiling a comprehensive atlas of the world, Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570). The unusual feature of this work was a list of 87 mapmakers forming a history of all the geographical research undertaken up to that point. The work was so popular that new editions and translations in Dutch, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and English were published from 1570-1624. Ortelius continued to re-edit and revise his work. The success of Theatrum won Ortelius the title of Cosmographer to the King, Philip II of Spain.
In 1577 he travelled to England and Ireland making the acquaintance of Dee, Camden, Hakluyt, and other British geographers.
Ortelius never devised new projections like Mercator; he was more an editor of maps. He obtained the rights to the existing maps, reduced them, and brought the contents up to date. He travelled widely in his profession, to Italy, France, and regularly to the Frankfurt fair.
Later in life he spent time on classical studies and collected ancient coins and other antiquities.
He also collected insects, plants, etc. in his museum.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Publishing, Art, Patronage
Secondary: Merchant
At the age of twenty, Ortelius was an illluminator of maps; he was received as a merchant into the Guild of St. Luke. Bagrow speaks of him selling maps in a business that included his sister as a helper. He also did a business in antiquities.
He worked for Plantijn as an engraver.
In 1570 he became the Royal Cosmosgrapher of Philip II.
8. Patronage
Types: Merchant, Court Official, Aristrocrat, Government Official
Between 1559-60 he travelled through Lorraine and Poitou with Mercator who encouraged him to become a cartographer and make his own maps. Mercator, and others like him, do not seem patrons to me. Ortelius was clearly a prosperous merchant, and his relations with peers such as Mercator do not have the flavor of patronage.
At the suggestion of Gillis Hooftman (a merchant and collector of maps, and a patron of learning) and of his friend Rademacher, Ortelius undertook the compilation of a comprehensive atlas of the world. The relation with Hooftman does appear like patronage to me; he dwelt on a higher level.
He was the Royal Cosmographer to the court of Philip II, from whom he received a substantial income allowing him to continue his collecting and travels.
He dedicated his first world map (1564) to the "noble and erudite" Marcus Lavrinus of Watervliet, and his second one to a physician, Scipio Fabius. Apparently he dedicated every map he published, and with so much other patronage I am not counting these dedications to peers.
On the other hand, he dedicated a map of 1571 to Francesco Usodimaro, a patrician of Genoa. Through the assistance of Marcus Welser he came into possession of the famous Peutinger map, which was finally published in the year of Ortelius death dedicated to Welser. I do consider these dedications and relations as patronage.
Ortelius owed his position as Royal Cosmographer to Arias Montanus, an official at the court, to whom he remained obliged and to whom he dedicated a map of Spain. Arias sent him expersive gifts.
He dedicated the Theatrum to Philip II.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Cartography
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
From an early age Ortelius was in correspondence with many learned men, including Mercator and Lipsius. The correspondence survives and much of it has been published.
  1. Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale, (Paris, 1857-66), 38.
  2. Michaud, Biographie générale, 32.
  3. Leo Bagrow, A. Ortelii Catalogus Cartographorum, 2 vols. Ergänzungsheften Nr. 199 & 210 zu "Petermanns Mitteilungen," (Gotha, 1928-30).
  4. J. Denucé, Oud-Nederlandsche kaartmakers in betrekking met Plantijn, 2 vols. (Antwerp, 1912-13), 2, 1-148.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. J.H. Hessels, Epistola ortelianae.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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