The rare first edition, first state of Abraham Ortelius’s map of the Americas

[Abraham Ortelius / Frans Hogenberg (engraver)], AMERICAE SIVE NOVI ORBIS, NOVA DESCRIPTIO. [Antwerp: Abraham Ortelius, 1570].
Engraving, 14 ¼”h x 19 7/8”w at neat line plus margins, full modern color. Letterpress Latin text on verso. Mended tear extending from lower edge 1” into image just to the right of centerfold, minor marginal soiling. Very good.

The first state of the first edition of Abraham Ortelius’s influential map of the Americas, “both functional as well as decorative” (Burden).

The map appeared in the very first edition of Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, generally recognized as the first modern atlas—the first to feature maps of uniform size and style providing global coverage including the New World, entirely based on modern geographic information and eschewing the Ptolemaic maps that had played a large role in earlier atlases. It was a long-lived bestseller, and between 1570 and 1612 no fewer than 31 editions were published in seven languages.

Burden summarizes the cartography:

“Ortelius depicts the discoveries of a number of people on this map, but the general shape of the continent is derived from Gerard Mercator’s great twenty-one sheet world map of the previous year. The two of them had a close relationship and shared their knowledge openly with each other…. One of the main noticeable features of the map is the bulbous Chilean coastline; this was not corrected until his third plate [i.e., the third edition of the map, which first appeared in the French-language Theatrum of 1587]. A strategically placed cartouche hides a complete lack of knowledge of the southern waters of the Pacific. Once through the Strait of Magellan the voyager’s sea route took him on an almost direct course for the East Indies. No sight had been made of a large [antarctic] continent but conventional wisdom has it that there had to be as much land in the southern hemisphere as the northern.” (Burden, p. 51)

One could write volumes about this map, but I’ll point out just a few other features of interest in North America: In the northeast, Ortelius follows Mercator in reporting the findings of Cartier’s 1535-36 voyage up the St. Lawrence as far as the site of modern-day Montreal (“Hochelaga”), which revealed a vast river penetrating deep into the continent. A mysterious river (“R. Sola”, maybe a mis-rendering of the St. John’s?) runs from the coast of modern-day Georgia north to the southern reaches of New France. In the West are “Cevola” and “Quivira”, legendary cities of great wealth and sophistication sought after by the Spanish Conquistadores. And in the far northwest the continent is shown bounded by a strait (identified on other maps as the Strait of “Anian”) implicitly separating it from Asia—a feature for which there was as of yet no hard evidence but turned out to be an excellent guess.

Burden rightly points out that the map was intended to be “functional as well as decorative” (p. 51), as were most of the maps in the Theatrum. Here the decorative impact is much enhanced by the sailing vessels in the Pacific (Magellan’s?), the large strapwork cartouche concealing much of the southern continent, the ornamentation in the spandrels, and the geometric border.

For all the map’s geographic issues, Ortelius’ work compares favorably to the previous “best-selling” map of the Americas, Sebastian Munster’s “Novae Insulae, Nova Tabula”, issued just 30 years earlier. That map lacked almost all interior detail; showed North America bissected by a mythical sea providing supposedly easy access to the Pacific and Asia; and placed Japan just a few days’ sail west of Central America.

Offered here is the scarce first state of the first edition of the map, with the Azores mistakenly labeled “Canarie insule”. This error was quickly remedied, with the corrected map also first appearing in 1570. It is also the first state of the text on the verso, matching all of Van den Broecke’s issue points. Van den Broecke estimates that only 225 impressions were issued at the time, which explains the map’s considerable rarity of this on the market.

In the interest of full disclosure, Van den Broecke observes that “the sea are South-West of Brazil contained a picture (probably a ship) which was erased before the first copy of this map was published in 1570. The dot pattern, which is normally vertical in the seas, is random in this area, and the edges still contain wave patterns.” From this he posits the possible existence of an earlier state of the map, either proof or separately published, but to my knowledge no such map has been located as of this writing.

As mentioned above Ortelius’s Theatrum was a runaway success, and the copper plate for this map was used to print roughly 1750 impressions between 1570 and 1579, by which time must have been badly worn. A new plate was cut for the map in 1579 and another in 1587, the latter finally erasing the odd Chilean bulge.

A fascinating and eminently decorative map of the Americas, in the rare first edition, first state.

Burden, The Mapping of North America, #39. Schwartz & Ehrenberg, Mapping of America, p. 69, 70 (illustrating a corrected state of the 1st edition). Van den Broecke, Ort 9 1570L(AC)2.