On May 20, 1570, in the city of Antwerp, a Flemish man by the name of Abraham Ortellius brought human geographic knowledge into the modern era. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) was the world’s first atlas, a collection of 70 map sheets bound to a text board, forming a sort of book from which copper engraving plates were made.
For the first time in history, the entire world could be traced out from a bird’s eye view. Ortellius was a medieval aggregator of sorts, his work the first geographic media collective. Drawing upon the work of several centuries of explorers and cartographers, Ortellius was able to lay out a comprehensive visual database of the entire known world. A boy in Belgium could now dream about Samarkand’s place in the central Asian steppes. An Italian could trace the snaking ribbons of the Amazon. The world, which was considered flat less than 100 years before, was now recognized as a globe of water and wind, a continuum of lands and peoples that could be organized, understood and labelled.
The original Theatrum now rests in collection at the Library of Congress. Its historical and artistic importance goes beyond its value to the intrepid adventurers of the sixteenth century. Ortellius’s project was constantly updated and revised to reflect the newest worldwide geographical knowledge, and as such represents the beginning of an attitude towards the geographic world that continues to this day – the constant re-envisioning of the physical world, that is Ortellius’s legacy. We see it in our GPS and our nautical charts, our Google Street View and our Yelp reviews.
Using his compendium of maps, and his cartographer’s sense for natural borders, Ortellius was one of the first thinkers to recognize the possibility that the continents may not have always looked the way they do now. After cataloguing the entire drawable world, he then went on to claim, in his later work, the 1596 Thesarurus Geographicus, that his embossed and bound globalized view was only one iteration of world geography. Just as the Theatrum was bing constantly updated with the newest cartographical information, Ortellius proposed that the Earth was itself a changing face, and that the continents were originally bound together. The New World, he said, may have been “torn away from Europe and Africa…by earthquakes and flood…The vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three.”
The whole world was mapped more than 500 years ago; today we’re still working out the details.