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Unstable editions of Ortelius' atlas
The author is a scientific adviser and Managing Director of the company Cartographica Neerlandica in Bilthoven, The Netherlands which specialises in maps of Ortelius.
Abraham Ortelius as depicted by Paul Rubens (1577-1640). (By courtesy of the Plantijn-Moretus Museum of Antwerp, where the original is displayed).
The Theatrum was an instant success and four issues of the first edition were published in 1570. When it appeared, it was the most expensive book ever printed. Despite this it was received by the public with such enthusiasm that no less than 7300 copies were produced in thirty-one editions from 1570 until 1612.[1 ]Ortelius also issued about 750 copies of Additamenta and about 600 copies of the Parergon (maps from antiquity), some separately, some bound up with the regular atlas to order. Ortelius is often characterised as being merely a publisher and compiler rather than a cartographical innovator but recent research by Peter Meurer has shown that the innovative nature of the form and content of the Theatrum should not be underestimated.
At least 900 copies are known to have survived to the present day, and there may be more because libraries, particularly in Eastern Europe, are still finding previously unrecorded copies. To obtain a better view on the question of how issues of the Theatrum relate to what is commonly regarded as an edition of an atlas. I examined different copies and this research convinced me of the necessity to introduce the concept of unstable editions.
Throughout the various editions of Theatrum there are 228 different plates, 174 in the regular atlas editions and 55 in the Parergon. In spite of numerous attempts over the past century to establish a definitive list of plates, new ones are still being identified: since publication of Peter Meurer's book in 1991 and Robert Karrow's book in 1993, Meurer has found plate 71/II 'Hannonia' 1575, and I have found 93/I 'Americae' 1579-84 (Meurer's 93/I 'Asiae' should be renumbered 71/I as this plate does not stem from 1579 but from 1575), 93/IV Valentiae 116/I 'Angliae, Scotiae et Hibemiae' 1589, 135/VI 'Palestinae' 1595-1612, 33P/II 'Italiae Veteris' 1595-1624 and 39P/IV 'Erythraeae' 1609-1624. The first edition of 1570 contains 53 plates. The largest edition of Theatrum, the English edition of 1606, contains as many as 166 of the total 228 plates; 29 are from the first edition. Clearly, many new plates were introduced and only a few cast aside. An up-to-date inventory of plates is given in the table on page 6.
The first and most obvious reason for discarding a plate and replacing it with a new one is increased geographical knowledge. Knowledge of the world expanded at a tremendous pace during the life cycle of the Theatrum and examples where incorrect information leads to correction by introducing a new plate are plentiful. The bulge on the west coast of South America on plates 1 and 2, corrected on plates 113 and 114, are the best known examples but there are others, even among the Parergon plates.
An "unintended" state of a map in the form of plate damage can also help in determining its age. In this case plate damage consists of a crack which began to form in the cartouche of the continent map of Africa after 1602 and which progressively widened with each subsequent edition. This is what the cartouche looks like in the editions of 1612.
Two states of the cartouche of the Flandria plate, occurring in two exemplars (Leiden University and Amsterdam University) of the first version of the first edition of the Theatrum, (Koeman's Ort 1A). The Leiden exemplar shows a heart, the Amsterdam exemplar does not.
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