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Books & Manuscripts

Gerard Mercator – Inventing the Atlas

Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) is one of the greatest figures of cartography: his influence on the way we perceive the world is still felt today through his innovative projection of the globe, which has been used by navigators ever since its invention in 1569. Further to this, Mercator also coined the phrase "atlas" and his complete work of 1595 is the first collection of maps to carry this appellation. A rare and important version of this work will be offered in the Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale in London on the 14 November. 

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GERARD MERCATOR AND JODOCUS HONDIUS, L'ATLAS OU MÉDITATIONS COSMOGRAPHIQUES DE LA FABRIQUE DU MONDE ET FIGURE DICELUY.1613. ESTIMATE: £50,000–60,000. 

Gerard Mercator – the Renaissance man

Mercator is one of the main figures representing the Golden Age of Dutch cartography in the 16th and 17th century.  He was a true Renaissance man, with interests stretching far beyond that of geography. He was well versed in theology, astronomy, cosmography, philosophy, history, mathematics and terrestrial magnetism, in addition to being a calligrapher, engraver, publisher and maker of scientific instruments. Mercator was married to Barbara Schellekens, and together they had six children. The three sons all became mapmakers and Rumold Mercator oversaw the publication of the first complete edition of a Mercator world atlas. 

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GERARD MERCATOR AND JODOCUS HONDIUS, L'ATLAS OU MÉDITATIONS COSMOGRAPHIQUES DE LA FABRIQUE DU MONDE ET FIGURE DICELUY.1613

Why an atlas is called an atlas

An atlas is a collection of maps that can vary in subject matter. The phrase was devised in 1595 with the title, Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura. That was the first time the term was used for a gathering of maps, and in time, "atlas" came to be utilised for any book of maps. It was also a symbol of respect for the legendary African King Atlas, who is shown on the frontispiece of the 1595 edition. King Atlas was recognised as an inventor of the first celestial globe. Such a globe is hugely important in navigating the seas, to determine the position of stars and constellations. The frontispiece later came to show the Greek mythological Titan Atlas.

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GERARD MERCATOR AND JODOCUS HONDIUS, L'ATLAS OU MÉDITATIONS COSMOGRAPHIQUES DE LA FABRIQUE DU MONDE ET FIGURE DICELUY.1613. ESTIMATE: £50,000–60,000. 

The Mercator projection

The Mercator projection, or cylindrical projection, was introduced in 1569. It represents lines of constant course, or rhumb lines. In a Mercator projection the meridians have an equal distance between them, whilst the distance between the parallels of latitude becomes larger as the distance to Equator increases. The Mercator projection is often used for navigation charts, because it enables sailors to set out a straight-line course. On a less practical note, the scale is not equal to reality. The areas far away from Equator appear excessively large and disproportionate.

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FRONTISPIECE FROM GERARD MERCATOR'S ATLAS SIVE COSMOGRAPHICAE MEDITATIONES DE FABRICA MUNDI ET FABRICATI FIGURA [1595]. THIS COPY SOLD FOR £422,400 IN THE AUCTION OF THE WARDINGTON LIBRARY IN 2006. 

This atlas, which formed part of the Wardington Library, sold at Sotheby's in 2006 is distinguished by its striking binding with the arms of Pietro Duodo, Venetian ambassador to Paris 1594–1597. It is likely that the binding was done in Rome during one of Duodo's diplomatic missions there in 1604 and 1606.

 

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GERARD MERCATOR AND JODOCUS HONDIUS, L'ATLAS OU MÉDITATIONS COSMOGRAPHIQUES DE LA FABRIQUE DU MONDE ET FIGURE DICELUY.1613 

The copy offered on November 14

The publication of the Atlas was continued by Jodocus Hondius who purchased Mercator's plates in 1604. In 1606, the first Amsterdam edition appeared and from then to 1638 the atlas saw many enlarged editions in various languages. This is one of the French editions to be published after the death of Jodocus Hondius in 1612. This copy is lavishly hand-coloured in addition to having distinguished noble provenance – it once belonged to Princess Amalia, Fürstin von Gallitzin (1748-1806).

 

CLICK HERE to see the full catalogue for the sale. 

Discover the 10 Maps That Changed the World.

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