This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.
First published in 1570, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is generally regarded as the first modern atlas, being a comprehensive suite of maps derived from empirical observations and issued together as a single work. Edited and published by the Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), with plates engraved by Frans Hogenberg, the Theatrum was a great success, going through over twenty-five editions in various languages. With each edition, new maps were added, and old ones altered or replaced as further European “voyages of discovery” filled in the expanses once designated terra incognita. The world map shown here is derived from earlier maps by Giacomo Gastaldi and others. Note, among many other erroneous features, the inclusion of the fictitious north Atlantic island of Friesland and the enormous southern continent of Terra Australis. Buyers of the atlas could choose either a plain, uncolored version, or with the maps colored by hand, as in this copy from the 1574 Latin edition (Ortelius himself had started out as a map colorist, and for many years employed his sister Anne in this capacity).
With so many variations in edition, issue, and state, atlases like the Theatrum are notoriously complex to collate and describe, which I suppose is part of the appeal they hold for me as a book cataloger. On a more personal level, I have an affinity for Belgian things, having lived for some time in Antwerp, and, before joining the librarian profession I worked for a rare book dealer who specialized in atlases, so my interest in Ortelius is sentimental as well as academic. This particular copy, however, will always have special significance to me. Donated to Houghton and duly assigned an accession number in 1950, this treasure of a book was somehow never cataloged until 2013, when, in the course of some unrelated errand in the stacks, I happened to identify it. It was a thrilling find, a day at Houghton I will always remember, and when the call went out for staff to contribute to the exhibition Open House 75, I knew at once what to choose.
Noah Sheola, Bibliographic Assistant, Houghton Library, contributed this post.