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Atlas (cartography)

From Academic Kids


An atlas is a collection of maps, traditionally bound into book form, but also found in multimedia formats, such as on CD-ROM. As well as geographic features and political boundaries, many often feature geopolitical, social, religious and economic statistics.

Atlases throughout history

The earliest atlases were not called by that name at the time of their publication.

The first book that could be called an atlas was constructed from the calculations of Claudius Ptolemy, a geographer working in Alexandria circa A.D. 150. The first edition was published in Bologna in 1477 and was illustrated with a set of 27 maps, though scholars say that it is not known whether the printed maps were engraved versions of original maps made by Ptolemy, or whether they were constructed by medieval Greek scholars from Ptolemy's text.

From about 1544, many maps were produced, especially in the important trading centers of Rome and Venice. Each publisher worked independently, producing maps based upon their own needs. The maps often varied dramatically in size. Over time, it became common to bind the maps together into composite works. Although the term atlas was not in use in 1544, these works are now called "IATO" atlases - (Italian, Assembled to Order) or more frequently "Lafreri atlases" after one of the leading publishers of the period.

Abraham Ortelius is credited with issuing the first modern atlas on May 20, 1570. His "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum", contained 53 map-sheets covering the countries of the World. This work was the first book of its kind to reduce the best available maps to a uniform size. It was an immediate critical and commercial success.

However, use of the word "atlas" for a bound collection of maps was not to come into use until the posthumous publication of Gerardus Mercator’s "Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi ..." (Atlas, or Description of the Universe) (Duisburg, 1585-1595).

Origin of the term "atlas"

The origin of the term atlas is a common source of misconception.

Two different mythical figures named 'Atlas' are associated with mapmaking. The most famous is Atlas from Greek mythology. He is the son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene (or Asia), brother of Prometheus. Atlas was punished by Zeus and made to bear the weight of the heavens and earth on his back. In his epic Odyssey, Homer refers to this Atlas as "one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars who hold heaven and earth asunder".

In works of art, this Atlas is represented as carrying the heavens or the terrestrial globe on his shoulders. The earliest such depiction is the Farnese Atlas, now housed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli in Naples, Italy. This figure is frequently found on the cover or title-pages of atlases. This is particularly true of atlases published by Dutch publishers during the second half of the seventeenth century. The image became associated with Dutch merchants, and a statue of this figure adorns the front of the World Trade Center in Amsterdam.

The first publisher to associate the Titan Atlas with a group of maps was Lafreri, on the title-page to "Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori ...". However, he did not use the word "atlas" in the title of his work.

The second Atlas was King Atlas, a mythical King of Mauretania, in Libya. This Atlas was a wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, who supposedly made the first celestial globe. It was this Atlas that Mercator was referring to when he first used the name 'Atlas', and he included a depiction of the King on the title-page.

Selected modern comprehensive atlases

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