ORTELIUS, Abraham (1527-1598). Theatro d'el orbe de la tierra. Antwerp: Jan Baptist Vrients, 1602.

$ 440,000.00

Folio (18 x 12 inches). EXCEPTIONALLY FINE HAND-COLOURED engraved title-page HEIGHTED WITH GOLD, coat of arms of Philip III of Spain by P.A. Schottus, portrait of Ortelius and 149 engraved maps by Frans Hogenberg and others on 120 copperplates and printed on 117 mapsheets, each map richly embellished with figural cartouches, arms, sailing ships, sea monsters, and deities etc (map 21 misbound, rusthole on world map just touching the plate-mark), 120 ten-line woodcut historiated initials, 33 various smaller woodcut initials, all FINELY COLOURED IN A CONTEMPORARY HAND, PROBABLY BY MYNCKEN LIEFRINCKS (TRUUSJE GOEDINGS). Contemporary Spanish paneled vellum over paste-board, each cover finely decorated with gilt filletes, fleurons and and central gilt arabesque, yapp edges, the title in manuscript on the spine, all edges gilt, remains of two pairs of ties (very early and expert repairs to the head and foot of the spine, some minor staining). Modern half green morocco folding-case.

Provenance: Otto Schaefer, his sale Sotheby's November 1995, lot 162.


The second edition in Spanish, first published in 1588, and the first edition of the "Theatrum..." published under the imprint of Jan Baptist Vrients, who assumed responsibility for the atlas three years after Ortelius's death. Vrients added several new maps to Ortelius's oeuvre and continued to publish the atlas until his own death in 1612, after which no further editions appeared. This edition of the "Theatrum..." was published without the "Parergon" and the "Nomenclator".

The world map used in this edition is printed from Ortelius's third and final "Typus orbis terrarium" plate, which greatly improved the delineation of the southwest coastline of South America and depicted the Solomon Islands for the first time. Also included is the landmark map "America Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descrptio" (America, or New World, Newly Described).

Ortelius first published his "Theatrum...", arguably the first atlas in the modern sense of the word in 1570, A businessman native to Antwerp, Ortelius complied the best existing maps, re-engraved them on a standardized format, and included them with the text in one volume. Dedicated to Philip III, King of Spain, who in 1602 ordered an 'armada' to sail from Acapulco on the South coast of Mexico to report on the islands of the Pacific Oceans and the "great realm of California".

Truusje Goedings, renowned expert in Dutch colourists of the 17th-century writes of this copy:

"The de-luxe colouring of this copy of the Spanish edition has remained remarkably fresh and is of very high quality. It was done by one, contemporary hand in a definitely Flemish style, with its overall colouring in rather heavy, warm hues, though somewhat more refined than usual. The plates and maps are heightened with gold, also in the lettering. Moreover, all initials in the text are coloured brightly and with care and variation. This is rare, and accentuates the quality of the colouring. In general coloured copies of the 'Theatrum' had their texts left plain, and if colour was applied to initials or text-decorations, this was mostly done thin and hastily with just one or two colours. The green used for large land surfaces did not turn into a brownish yellow as often in atlases of this period, but remained fresh in many places. Only a brighter hue, apparently a mixture, has been discoloured. A special feature is the lead white used to whiten the white of the paper (to enhance contrast, or as ground for other colours). In some places this has oxidized and turned into grey, f.e. at the upper part of the dedication print on verso title, and in the cartouche on the Africa map. A de-luxe colouring like this was very costly at the time. Plantijn, former publisher of the 'Theatrum', used to ask especially for these copies expert colourist Myncken Liefrincks, head of the Liefrincks printing firm. As she was still the best address at the time, Vrients will have done the same. Plantijn's archives reveal some of her prices. For instance, for a de-luxe colouring of a Spanish Theatrum (ed. 1588, priced uncoloured ca. fl. 20) with adornments in gold and silver she got payed fl. 36,-, almost four times the price of a regular colouring - and almost twice the price of a plain copy. (see on this my article in Kunst in Kaart, exh. Amsterdam).

"The richness of colouring and the carefull overall treatment of this copy suggest it was intended for a wealthy client or for presentation. This Spanish version was Vrients's first edition of the Theatrum after he had bought the plates from Ortelius' heirs, which he dedicated in print to the Spanish king. He certainly had prepared a few copies for presentation to the Spanish court. Where the dedicatee himself in general was presented with a de-luxe binding in leather, one or two of his high-placed favorites who were often also gifted had to do with a little bit less, be it in colour, or in binding (as here might have been the case). Anyhow, the Spanish title and monograms on spine indicate a provenance from an early Spanish owner. Comparison with 2 copies of the same edition held in the Escorial library (see Koeman 31:451, p.212) might bring more light to this". Rijksmuseum 1989, p.95-130, esp. p.113-117, with lit.; and C.Hofmann in Couleur de la Terre, Paris Bibl. Nationale 1999, p.69 ).

"All the elements of the modern atlas were brought to publication in Abraham Ortelius' "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum". This substantial undertaking assembled... the best available maps of the world by the most renowned and up-to-date geographers... each of Ortelius' maps was engraved specifically for his atlas according to uniform formats" (Shirley). 

Ortelius first published his "Theatrum…", arguably the first atlas in the modern sense of the word, in 1570, with 70 seventy copper engravings on fifty-three double-folio pages. A businessman native to Antwerp, Ortelius compiled the best existing maps, re-engraved them on a standardized format, and included them with the text in one volume. But, by 1570, he had been dealing in maps and charts for more than twenty years. The death of Ortelius' father in 1535, who had been a wealthy merchant, seems to have placed his family in financial difficulties. When Ortelius was as young as 19 he is recorded as having joined the Guild of St. Luke as 'afsetter' "or colourist of maps and prints. He seems to have reached a very advanced level of skill in this craft, as some customers continued to insist on buying atlases coloured by him personally at a time when he had already developed into a publisher and cartographer/merchant… Ortelius [also] became a trader in books, prints and maps. Much of this trading had to do with the house of Plantin [subsequently publisher of the 'Theatrum']…Soon he was attending the book fair in Frankfurt to buy and sell books, maps and prints for others as well as for himself. He first met Gerard Mercator there in 1554, which marked the state of a life-long professional relationship and personal friendship… " (van den Broecke page 14).

Through his work Ortelius became quite the cosmopolitan, he travelled extensively to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Italy, England and Ireland, and as a result had command of several languages. With the publication of the "Theatrum" came tremendous success and wealth. Giving full credit to the original cartographers, the "Theatrum" was so successful that it was printed three times in 1570 alone. In 1574 Ortelius retained the position of Royal Cosmographer to Phillip II and was given a fine gold necklace, worth 1000 ducats. Between 1570 and 1612 the atlas was published in 42 editions and the 7 languages: Latin, German, Flemish, French, Spanish, English and Italian. Koeman Ort 34; Palay 205364; Shirley 158. Catalogued by Kate Hunter