The Civitates Orbis Terrarum as a Global Object

Owing to the global scope of its contents evidenced even its name (“Cities of the World”), the Civitates orbis terrarum has been dubbed “Google Map’s ancestor.”[1] With each turn of the page, the sixteenth-century readers of the Civitates would have felt as if they were themselves traveling to and experiencing a new urban space. Its 546 chorographic depictions of cities from around the world—448 being European and 27 non-European—engender a sense of the physical space and layout of each city.[2] Meanwhile, the accompanying histories of the cities, as well as the illustrations of the people and customs unique to each city, help to color the reader’s imagination about the urban culture with which they would interact. If, today, one need only click a few buttons to access Google Maps, in the sixteenth century one need have only flipped open Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates to explore everything from the geography to the customary dress of a city on the opposite side of the globe. As Braun himself noted in the third book of the Civitates, the atlas provides its onlookers the chance “to acquire knowledge which could scarcely be had but by long and difficult journeys.”[3]

It perhaps proves surprising, if not paradoxical, then, that the Civitates was envisaged, produced, and printed in Cologne by two Cologne residents—Hogenberg an émigré to the free imperial city and Braun a native. The material history of the Civitates thus finds its roots firmly grounded in a particular place, a singular German city, seemingly belying the reality of the atlas’ global scope. And yet, a fuller picture of the atlas as a physical object that has traversed space and time, whose influences and impact stretch beyond Cologne in the years of its publication, reveal that its scope was more global than even its name suggests.

Not only, in these ways, does the Civitates prove global in the cities it depicts, but also in the worldwide first- and second-hand knowledge from which it draws. Rather than serving as a product merely of the two Cologne-based creators whose names adorn its cover, the Civitates represents an amalgamation of knowledge of the world sourced from around the world. As the atlas’ editor, Braun both drew upon and grew a “network of like-minded scholars” on whose first-hand knowledge of urban spaces in and beyond Europe he relied.[4] The first two books of the Civitates saw Braun depending primarily upon printed materials, such as Abraham Ortelius’ famous Theatrum, to illuminate various aspects of the cities it depicted.[5] However, the acclaim of these first two books and Braun’s call in the second book for contributions allowed him to more widely construct the network of collaborators on which the atlas relied and to multiply the number of cities it depicted.[6] For, the Civitates’ third, fourth, and fifth books were all constructed from the submissions of material generated as the “products of an international collaborative effort that brought together scholars, artists, geographers, publishers, merchants, and statesmen.”[7] Such collaborators included the Flemish artist, Anton van den Wyngaede,[8] who contributed certain city views, and an Italian painter whose view of Constantinople from the 1480s/90s inspired Hogenberg’s depiction of the same.[9]

As it turns out, the Civitates’ international scope and influences translated into an impact that transcended Cologne’s city limits and ultimately traversed the globe. In particular, scholars have intentionally tracked or otherwise noted the presence of the atlas or its individual views in archives, as well as its usage by or influence on historical figures. “Inventories and commentary from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” for example, have demonstrated that “the Civitates [was] a popular item in humanist collections,”[10] as well as in the “private libraries of lawyers and other wealthy professionals.”[11] Meanwhile, more particular instances of the Civitates’ impact have arisen as scholars identify its use in various global contexts. In England, Tudor archives hold copies of the Civitates’ city views, while further sources show that sixteenth-century intelligencer, William Herle, returned from an intelligence mission from the Low Countries and presented to Queen Elizabeth a letter book containing the atlas’ depiction of Emden.[12] Evidence exists in Spain to demonstrate that the tutors of the young Felipe IV, per the instruction of his father, Felipe III, employed the Civitates to educate the future king about Portuguese territorial possessions.[13] In Frankfurt, the chorographer Mattheus Merian rendered and published depictions of Constantinople and Lisbon which are inspired by the Civitates’ views of the same. Also in Europe, Paris saw the wide-reaching effect of the Civitates. For, it was in the French capital where François de Belleforest produced works influenced by the Civitates and where Gérard Jollain published his engraving of New Amsterdam based upon the Civitates’ chorography of Lisbon. Evidence of Jollain’s work, then, expands our knowledge of the Civitates’ influence not only to Paris, but across the Atlantic and into the new world to present-day New York. Equally, across wider Eurasia to Mughal India, one scholar suspects that the Civitates could well have made its way to the court of Shāh Jahān, both because of the atlas’ fame and because of “the Mughals’ interest in [European] cartographic works.”[14]

It is not simply the contents of the atlas itself, then, but also the influences upon which it drew and the impact that it generated on an international scale that renders it a material object of global interest. Though a compendium of views claiming to depict global contents, the Civitates itself, in those materials and people who inspired it and in those whom it inspired, traversed the “Cities of the World.”


[1] Cited in Oana Popescu and Jianca Stefan-Gorîn, “The First Cities of the World in a Bird’s-Eye View,” Urbanism.Arhitectura.Constructii 7, no. 3 (2016): 174,

[2] Peter van der Krogt, “Mapping the towns of Europe: The European towns in Braun & Hogenberg’s Town Atlas, 1572-1617”, Belgeo 3-4 (2008): 4,

[3] Cited in Jessica Chiswick Robey, “From the City Witnessed to the Community Dreamed: The Civitates Orbis Terrarum and the Circle of Abraham Ortelius and Joris Hoefnagel” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006): 54,

[4] Chiswick, “City Witnessed,” 54.

[5] Chiswick, 55.

[6] Chiswick, 55.

[7] Chiswick, 25.

[8] Popescu and Stefan-Gorîn, “First Cities,” 173.

[9] Aykut Gürçaglar, "Landscapes of Istanbul as an Imaginary Oriental City through the Eyes of English Painters," Ars & Humanitas 5, no. 2 (2011): 158,

[10] Chiswick, “City Witnessed,” 38.

[11] Chiswick, 37.

[12] Robyn Adams, "Sixteenth-Century Intelligencers and Their Maps," Imago Mundi 63, no. 2 (2011): 211,

[13] Andréa Doré, “O Deslocamento de Interesses Da Índia Para o Brasil Durante a União Ibérica: Mapas e Relatos,” Colonial Latin American Review 23, no. 2 (2014): 174,

[14] Ebba Koch, "The Symbolic Possession of the World: European Cartography in Mughal Allegory and History Painting," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 55, no. 2/3 (2012): 571,