Atlas (noun): A book of maps.

Atlases are collections of maps bound into a single piece, usually a book. They usually included texts, such as geographical descriptions of the places depicted in the maps. Within individual atlases, the maps in the collection were fairly uniform in format, design, and presentation. Atlases as a genre however, were not married to a single style of mapmaking, but embraced the diversity and hybridity of cartographic style. Popular sixteenth and seventeenth century atlases were published in multiple languages, though they usually left the Latin labels on the original map unaltered. Though large, world atlases were the most popular, publishers created atlases in an array of sizes and styles to fit various consumer demands. Pocket and town atlases were popular among travel enthusiasts. Though less common, publishers also created regional, historical, and celestial atlases[SS1] .

Map-makers and publishers marketed atlases as a form of imaginary travel, a way to experience the world from the comfort of home. For example, the preface of Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitaes orbis terrarium, invites readers to use their work as a pleasant substitute for travel. The authors write that “with the present work, we have relieved lovers of history of the hardship, danger, and expense of traveling[2] .” As such, the maps in atlases emphasized the unique urban and geographical features, local history, and the character of peoples and places[SS3] .

Historians have various theories on the origin of the atlas. Some cite Ptolemy’s Geographie, with its twenty-eight uniform ancient maps, as an antiquarian precursor to the modern atlas. Some historians claim the first atlases were collections of maps produced in Rome and Venice in the sixteenth-century. Others credit Dutch Low-Country map-makers, pointing specifically to Abraham Oretlius’s Theatrum orbis terrarium as the first modern atlas, published in 1570. Gerardus Mercator was the first to title a collection of maps as an “atlas” with his 1585 oublication, Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditations de fabrcia mundi ed fabricate figvra. Regardless of origins, atlases “represented a new phenomenon” in the late sixteenth century.[4] 


Example Quotes

“Atlases (in a context of geography) are collections of maps in book form, often including much written matter as well. Though no single format is mandatory, atlases tend to be associated with imposing dimensions, similar to those of loose maps in one sheet.” (Goffart, 4)

“A conventional trope in the prefatory pages of the atlas for much of its history was that it offered the wonder of the vast and varied world in images that could be consulted in the privacy of one’s study, negating the time, discomfort and potential danger of travelling to see such things in person.” (Cosgrove, 6)



Cosgrove, Denis. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining, and Representing the World. New York: I.B. Taurais & Co Ltd

Goffart, Historical Atlases: The First Three Hundred Years, 1570-1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Koeman, Cornelis, Gunter Schilder, Marco van Egmond, and Peter van der Krogt. “Commercial Cartography and Map Porduction in the Low Countries, 1500- ca. 1672,” in History of Cartography, ed. David Woodward (2007), 1296-1383.

Maier, Jessica. “A ‘True Likeness’: The Renaissance City Portrait,” Renaissance Quarterly, 65 (2012), 711-52.

Mukerji, “Printing, Cartography, and Conceptions of Place in Renaissance Europe,” Media, Culture & Society.

Unger, Richard. Ships on Maps: Pictures of Power in Renaissance Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

 [1]Goffart, Historical Atlases, 4; Koeman et. al., “Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries,” 1318; Mukerji, “Prinitng, Cartography, and Conceptions of Place in Renaissance Europe,” 652; Unger, Ships on Maps, 66.

 [2]Quote from Jessica Maier, “A ‘True Likeness’: The Renaissance City Portrait,” Renaissance Quarterly, 65 (2012), 717 (footnote 22).

 [3]Cosgrove, Geography and Vision, 6; Maier, “A ‘True Likeness’”.

 [4]Quote from Koeman, et. al., “Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries,” 1318.

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