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Abraham Ortelius: Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip.

Map: SCAN2519
Cartographer: Abraham Ortelius
Title: Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip.
Date: 1592
Published: Antwerp
Width: 20 inches / 51 cm
Height: 15 inches / 39 cm
Map ref: SCAN2519
Ortelius's famous map consisting of the modern North Atlantic, Scandinavia, Finland, western Russia, the United Kingdom, the North Pole, Greenland and part of North America.

As part of the first printed atlas, Ortelius’s map of the north Atlantic was the most widely distributed map of this region during the late fifteenth and early 16th century. It was hugely influential and used as the cartographic reference of choice at the time. It was initially published in the first edition of the atlas in 1570 and remained mostly unchanged for the full publishing history of the work until its last edition in 1641. The one major change noted on the plate occurred in 1592, when eight names were added to the right and larger polar island above the “Mare Congelatum”. This was also the island, which, according to Ortelius and his source, Mercator, was inhabited by a tribe of female Pigmies.

The major sources for this map were the nine-sheet wall map of Scandinavia by Olaus Magnus, published 1539, Gerhard Mercator’s wall map of the world published 1569, Jacob Ziegler’s map of 1532 and in some ways most interestingly, Nicolo Zeno’s map of 1561, issued by Ruscelli. While the first three were highly respected sources, Zeno’s map and claims were far more dubious. Nicolo Zeno was a Venetian merchant and statesman who claimed to have found a collection of letters left by two of his ancestors who were brothers. These letters purportedly bear an account of a journey undertaken in the north Atlantic in the late 14th century, which reached an unknown land in the west, supposedly North America. This account was the basis of Venetian claims to parts of the New World lasting well into the 17th century. The letters also report on multiple mythical islands discovered on their route, including Estotilant, here situated on the North American mainland, Friesland, south of Iceland and Drogeo Dus, west of Friesland. Adding to this smorgasbord of mythical islands is St. Brendan’s Isle, north of the large musical merman on the lower left and the Island of Brazil west of the same merman. As Zeno’s claims and map were treated with scepticism even at the time, questions have been raised as to why Ortelius, who was a rigorous editor and compiler, would include such a spurious source on his map but so far these have remained unanswered.

The former three sources are far more reliable but less entertaining. The shape of Scandinavia is sourced from Magnus via Mercator as is the shape of the peninsula of Finland. The shape of Iceland is closest to a later map by Magnus issued in 1561 while the peculiar island entitled Greenland is similar to but not the same as that shown-on Mercator’s world map of 1569. The concept of the North Pole divided into islands is also taken from Mercator’s world map. Ziegler’s map of 1532 is the first map of the region to break from Ptolemaic traditions and acts as a foundation for the whole image.

The example offered is the 1592 edition with the eight additional names on the Polar island.

This has become one of Ortelius’s most famous maps, not only for its aesthetics but also for the introduction of the multiplicity of mythical islands courtesy of Zeno.

Original hand colour. Latin text on verso. Image available upon request. [SCAN2519]