Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gerard Mercator: The Most Celebrated Sixteenth-Century Cartographer

Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) / Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612)
“Orbis Terrae Compiosa Descriptio”
From Atlas
Amsterdam: c. 1623-1630
Hand-colored copperplate engraving

For nearly sixty years, during the most important and exciting period in the story of modern mapmaking, Gerard Mercator was the supreme cartographer, his name, second only to Ptolemy, synonymous with forms of map projection still in use today. His influence transformed land surveying and his research and calculations lead him to break away from Ptolemy’s conception of the size and outline of the continents, developing a projection that drastically reduced the longitudinal length of Europe and Asia and altered the shape of the Old World as visualized in the early 16th century. Although not the inventor of this type of projection, Mercator was the first to apply it to navigational charts in such a form that compass bearing could be plotted on charts in straight lines, thereby providing seamen with a solution to an age-old problem of navigation at sea. Mercator’s innovations, including the aptly named Mercator projection, continue to be employed in maps produced today, 400 years later.

The geographer died in 1594 after publishing just a few parts of the atlas that he had spent decades preparing. In 1604, after the death of Gerard’s son Rumold, the plates for his maps were sold to the great Amsterdam cartographer, Jodocus Hondius, who brought out the first of the so-called “Mercator-Hondius” editions in 1606. Hondius supplemented the original 107 maps with 39 new maps compiled under his own supervision, bringing the total number to 146, and had the original text expanded by Petrus Montanus. The new maps were of extremely high quality, and were for the most part devoted to parts of the world, such as America, that had been neglected by Mercator. Hondius’s first edition of the general atlas proved instantly popular, selling out within a year. Hondius continued to augment and perfect the atlas over the following years, constantly adding new maps and incorporating new discoveries and corrections. The first French edition came out in 1607, with a translation of the text by the historian Henri Lancelot-Voisin de la Popliniere. This world map is thought to have been published in the 1620s, as the title on the top edge shows the cracks that had developed in the copperplate in this time frame (Shirley, Mapping of the World).

Unlike the work of Abraham Ortelius, a contemporary (and equally celebrated) cartographer, Mercator’s maps were original. Ortelius engaged in the reduction and generalization of already existing maps, while Mercator, with his sense that scientific work should be original and new, checked the current knowledge of the earth’s topography against its fundamental sources and drew maps in an original manner. Mercator was the most skilled mapmaker of his time, spearheading the Golden Age of Dutch cartography. His maps were unsurpassed in terms of accuracy, and no less attention was given to their beauty. Other cartographers looked inevitably to the innovations of Mercator when compiling their own maps, and the reasons for such tribute are clear in every map contained in this spectacular atlas. Vividly hand-colored, it brought distant and exotic places to European viewers with outstanding clarity and immediacy, describing not just the terrain, but also including images of flora and fauna, as well as native peoples. Fearsome sea monsters and European sailing ships adorn the seas, while the glorious Baroque cartouches add gracefully curving architectural elements to the images. This beautifully-colored double hemisphere map of the world represents a great opportunity to acquire the most spectacular map from this landmark publication by the foremost cartographer in history.

This splendid world map is currently on display along with a selection of other fantastic maps of the world and the Americas by Abraham Ortelius, Alexis-Hubert Jaillot, Guillaume de L’Isle and Mercator's grandson, Michael Mercator. For more information please visit www.aradersf.com or call Arader Galleries at 415-788-5115.

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