In 1595 the Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator introduced a new word to the publishing lexicon.

Having prepared a volume of maps of the same style and dimensions, he used the term ‘atlas’ to describe the finished work.  

Mercator was not paying homage to the Titan god condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity. He was honouring the legendary Atlas, King of Mauretania — a man skilled in philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, who was credited with inventing the celestial sphere. Atlas was often pictured measuring the globe with a compass.  

In today’s world of digital publishing, ‘atlas’ is still used to describe a collection of maps on a theme, or with a similar appearance and design. The Library holds an impressive number of atlases, with the most dazzling volumes produced during the Golden Age of Cartography of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Twenty-five years before Mercator's Atlas was published, another Flemish cartographer and geographer, Abraham Ortelius, published Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), a collection of 53 maps that is considered the first example of an atlas. Each map follows a similar graphical style and scale with the cartouches decorated with elaborate strapwork and masks.

‘Typus Orbis Terrarum’ (world map), Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1579
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The opening world map in this volume, Typus Orbis Terrarum, is now iconic. It includes a distinctive Northwest Passage below the Terra Septemtrionalis [sic.] Incognita (‘unknown northern land’). At the tip of South America, the Strait of Magellan sits above a sprawling Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (‘southern land not yet known’).

Along the bottom of the map is a compelling quote in Latin from Cicero, translated as, ‘Who can consider human affairs to be great, when he comprehends the eternity and vastness of the entire world?’

Between 1570 and 1612, there were 31 editions of the Ortelius atlas produced in seven languages. Among the many editions in the Library’s collection is a fine hand-coloured copy from 1579, once owned by David Scott Mitchell and rebound by the Mitchell Library bindery in the 1920s in kangaroo leather with intricate tooling.

The first official appearance of ‘atlas’ in a title was in Mercator’s seminal publication, Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura, published posthumously by his sons in 1595. Unlike Ortelius, who repurposed the work of other cartographers, Mercator produced most of the maps himself. The magnificent title page features the draped figure of Atlas holding a globe, surrounded by figures representing the known continents. The Americas are represented by three figures: Mexicana, Peruana and Magallanica.

In 1604 the Flemish engraver and cartographer Jodocus Hondius purchased the printing plates used for Mercator’s original atlas. He and his family were responsible for publishing several later editions, gradually increasing the number of maps to 107 in the 1630 edition. The Library’s copy of this edition was also owned by David Scott Mitchell.

Title page, Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura, 1630
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Frontispiece, Le Grand Atlas, 1667
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By 1630 Atlas Sive Cosmographicae … had become the most significant geographical work of its time. But this was also the year Willem Blaeu published his first terrestrial atlas, and the Blaeu family would play a leading role in Dutch cartography’s golden age.

Acclaimed as the largest and most splendid atlas of the seventeenth century, the Atlas Maior or Geographia Blaviana was published by Willem’s son Joan Blaeu in 1662–65. This multi-volumed atlas contains 594 copper-engraved maps and 3368 pages of text. It presents the comprehensive state of geographic knowledge in the mid-seventeenth century.

The expensive Atlas Maior was a collector’s item for the cartographers’ powerful and wealthy clients and an influential gift for potential sponsors. The Library holds two editions: a black and white copy of the first edition in the Mitchell Library collection; and a sumptuous 12-volume French edition from 1667, hand-coloured and bound in cream vellum with gilt tooling. This edition was acquired by the Free Public Library of Sydney in 1884.

In an illustration on the frontispiece of the French edition, with gold highlights, the title of the atlas is held aloft by a group of putti (cupids). Below them, the crowned figure of Cybele, the earth goddess, sits in a chariot led by a pair of lions. Holding a large key to unlock the world, she is surrounded by four female figures and their companion animals, representing the known continents: Europe is seen with a horse, America has an armadillo at her feet, Asia stands beside a camel, and Africa leads an elephant.

The double-hemisphere world map at the beginning of this atlas, Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula, shows the latest knowledge of the world, including the results of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s voyages circling the Australian continent and sailing to New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji between 1642–44.

‘Nova et sccuratissima totius terrarum orbis tabula’, Le Grand Atlas, 1667
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Classical gods can be seen in the map’s upper margin, representing the planets orbiting the heavens: at the centre is Apollo, the Sun god, closely attended by Mercury and Venus; the moon as a cherub clambers between the two hemispheres; to the far left is Jupiter, king of the gods; to the far right are the warrior gods Mars and Saturn. The hemispheres are flanked by images of the Astronomer, holding an armillary sphere, and the Geographer, taking measurements of the globe. Allegories of the seasons decorate the lower margin, a common feature in world maps of this period.

Between 1681 and 1684, the five-volume Nieuwe Lichtende Zee-Fakkel (New Great Shining Torch of the Sea) was published by Johannes van Keulen, with over 130 new charts. The atlas is famous for its extravagant illustrations, mostly by Jan van Luyken.

The frontispiece of the first volume depicts the coronation of the sea god Neptune, standing behind a large celestial sphere, surrounded by six female figures representing the continents. In the skies above Neptune’s head is Aeolus, the god of wind, riding a large inflated bladder. The famous chart of the East Indies has a detailed cartouche depicting the gruesome decapitation of a prisoner.

Frontispiece depicting Neptune, Nieuwe Lichtende Zee-Fakkel, 1714
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Chart of the East Indies, Nieuwe Lichtende Zee-Fakkel, 1714–1753
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New editions of the Zee-Fakkel were produced by van Keulen’s son and grandson up to the 1750s. The Library holds a complete set published in six parts between 1714 and 1753 and bound in two volumes. In 2011 the atlas was conserved by the Library’s expert book conservators with support from the Foundation.

These four atlases are among the highlights of the Library’s outstanding collection of maps, charts, atlases and globes. They will be on display in 2021 in the major exhibition Mapping the Pacific, celebrating the beauty and science of mapping.

Maggie Patton
Manager, Research and Discovery

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Winter 2020.