It is only fitting that the most creative map illustration software today be named after one of history’s most prominent cartographers. This superb portrait by the Flemish painter Adriaen Thomaszoon Key represent Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), a luminary figure in the intellectual history of the Renaissance.
Born Abraham Ortels in the Flemish capital of Antwerp in present-day Belgium, Ortelius (who Latinized his name in his 20s, as was then fashionable among the educated elite) eventually became one of the most celebrated geographers of all time — equal parts innovator, entrepreneur, cartographer, and classical scholar. His foremost accomplishment was the production of the first world atlas in the modern sense of the word, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which was first published in Antwerp in 1570.
Although he created some maps personally, Ortelius was known more as a publisher than a cartographer. For the Theatrum he compiled the best existing maps, had them re-engraved by talented printmakers in his employ such that all conformed to a standard format and style, appended scholarly text to their versos, and then published them as a uniform edition. The result was an atlas that was truly without precedent.
Previously, collections of maps had been assembled into book form, but these were invariably volumes made to order according to the desires and needs of an individual client, and no two were alike. In contrast to Ortelius’s atlas, few of these books included explanatory text, and they contained a motley assortment of maps by different makers that showed little or no uniformity.
In the Theatrum, Ortelius also took the step — quite rare in the sixteenth century, when plagiarism was rampant — of crediting the original authors of the maps included. In its lavish production values, geographic sophistication, and high aesthetic appeal, Ortelius’s atlas was a decisive step forward in the history of cartography and the dissemination of geographical knowledge. The atlas was wildly successful throughout Western Europe, becoming one of the first “best-sellers” in the history of the printed book. Between the Theatrum’s first appearance in 1570 and its final edition in 1612, it was printed in thirty-one editions and seven different languages — a remarkable figure for the time.
This portrait of Ortelius by Adriaen Thomaszoon Key is the only known representation of the famous geographer done during his lifetime. Previously attributed to the painter Anthonis Mor (also known as Antonio Moro), the painting was first recognized as Key’s work by Burton B. Fredericksen in his 1965 catalogue of the J. Paul Getty Collection (see references, below).
Ortelius almost certainly sat for the artist so Key could make first-hand studies “from life” that he could then work up into this final composition. Key shows Ortelius in the flawless naturalistic style for which Northern European artists were celebrated. Every hair in the geographer’s beard and rich fur cape emerges with distinct clarity. Ortelius is depicted in bust-length, his face — in near-profile — emerging brightly above a neat white ruff from the dark, simple background. He stares intently to the right, resting his hand gently on a terrestrial globe, where the Mediterranean can just be made out. Ortelius’s intense gaze, his prominent, furrowed brow, his sober expression and dignified bearing all contribute to an impression of surpassing intelligence. The illumination of his face against the relative obscurity of the background was probably a calculated allusion to the geographer’s learning (literal enlightenment) and to his greatest accomplishment, that of having spread knowledge of geography to a broader European public.
The inscription at center right, “contemno et orno,” which in full would read “contemno et orno mente manu,” almost certainly alludes to Ortelius’s triumph in having produced the first atlas. Although its meaning is debated, the inscription was probably meant to translate as “I divide and order with mind and hand,” which is precisely the task of the geographer — to divide and order the world and its parts through the intellect, and then transcribe that knowledge onto paper. The placement of Ortelius’s above the globe is likewise highly symbolic, in this case alluding to his firm grasp on (and power over) geography.
H. Hymans, Antonio Moro, son oeuvre et son temps (Brussels, 1910), 156 (as Antonio Moro); B.B. Fredericksen, Handbook of Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, 1965), 11 (as Antwerp painter, c. 1575-80 [possibly Adriaen Thomas Key]); B.B. Fredericksen, Handbook of Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, 1972), 64, n. 79 (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key); D. Jaffé, Summary Catalogue of European Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, 1997), 66, reproduced (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key); P. Binding, Imagined Corners: Exploring the World’s First Atlas (London, 2003), 42 (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key).
Used with gracious permission from Arader Gallery, New York City.