The Decorative Cartographic Title-Page Part One

Map collectors, by definition, collect maps. A few collectors with a well-lined purse may collect globes or complete sets of maps in atlases, but the great majority of maps bought by collectors over the past forty years have been loose sheets. These are usually the result of the (regrettable) breaking-up of original atlases, separating the maps from their accompanying text. Very often the first parts of the text – including the title-page or engraved frontispiece – have been discarded without it being realised how unusual and informative they are. The author started collecting title-pages and frontispieces only a few years ago and found that their study brought great insight into the content and purpose of the atlas or book from which the title-page comes, and hence of the maps themselves.


The title-page to Abraham Ortelius-Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570. The imposing architectural design, reminiscent of the proscenium of a theatre, provides a link with the word 'Theatrum' in the title. The figures symbolise the four continents of the world whose geography is portrayed by means of the maps within. Catholic Europe is seated at the top; Asia and Africa stand in front of the two main pillars; and the Amazonian warrior below is the first such representation of America. The bust signifies Magellanica. A poem in the introductory pages to the atlas gives a fuller explanation of the meaning of Ortelius' title-page. (By courtesy of the author).



The Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe engraved this grand title-page to the Amsterdam edition of Jaillots Atlas François, 1696. The personification of Europe is seated on the left and is receiving gifts from the other countries of the world. Mars, the god of war, is inspecting a map but appears to be restrained by Minerva, goddess of wisdom. Behind him, with winged helmet, is Mercury the god of trade. Atlas, supporting the heavens on his shoulders, gazes at Phaeton driving the sun chariot of Apollo across the zodiac. In the lower part is the sea god Neptune, flanked by Nereus and Amphitrite. Faunus, god of agriculture, holds a right-angled telescope called a polemoscope, invented by Hevelius in 1637. (By courtesy of the author).


IN THIS ARTICLE. I shall explain the form and the meaning of the decorative cartographic title-page, using the term 'title-page' loosely to embrace the frontispiece which may also be an integral part of the preliminaries of an atlas or a geographical work with maps. Leaving aside the purely typographical sheet, the engraved title-page nearly always contains messages related to the work's content in symbolical and pictorial form. Sometimes these are far from easy to decipher, requiring a knowledge of the classics, of ancient and period history, of the emblems, images, concepts of the time, and of contemporary discoveries in natural history and science. At this point I must issue a strong disclaimer of my personal qualifications for treading on ground usually reserved for the art connoisseur and historian. But map collecting is fun, especially when its ramifications take the enquirer into uncharted seas!


  • 1-11-1987

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