Orbis Terrrae Compendiosa Descriptio Quam ex Magna Universale Gerardi Mercatoris… Rumold Mercator, 1587 (1595).

A fine example of the scarce first atlas issue from the original Mercator Atlas of the famed world map of Mercator on a double-hemispherical projection. Only two issues were actually published by the Mercator family, this 1595 issue and that of 1602; all subsequent issues were published by the Hondius firm.

Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594) is known to every modern school child as the creator of the map projection which now bears his name. Clearly a maverick, his geography was original, based on his own interpretation of data (albiet from sometimes dated sources) rather than being derivations of existing maps. He was a student of philosophy, was overwhelmingly interested in the origin and nature of the universe, and did not confine his ideas on the matter to established precepts.

Although from a family of modest means, Mercator quickly earned respect in his field. By 1537 he was well-trained in the science of map-making, and by 1541 was successful as a globe-maker. Disaster nearly struck in 1544 when he was arrested by the Inquisition for heresy, and he was ultimately spared only because of the intervention of the University of Leuven on his behalf.

His greatest achievement was the construction, in 1569, of a map of the world on twenty-one sheets, the first to use his famous projection; three examples of that work are extant. The present map is an adaptation of it on a double-hemispherical projection, prepared in 1587 by his son Rumold. It first served to accompany a Geneva issue of Strabo’s Geographia.
Terra Australis, the southern continent or Antipodes of Classical theorists which Fineaus had earlier integrated into Magellan’s Tierra del Fuego, now appears in full bloom. It wraps around the fullest expanse of the southern latitudes possible, save for New Guinea, which he correctly shows as a separate island. In the East Indies he retains the old Iava minor and Iava maior of Marco Polo for Java and Sumatra respectively, adds to them a “true” Sumatra, and squeezes between them a promontory of Terra Australis labelled Lucach, Beach, and Maleteur. Lucach is Siam, described by Polo as an independent and gold-rich realm with elephants and other wild animals, “such a savage place that few peple ever go there.” The next region, Beach, originated as a copyist’s corruption of Lucach. Maleteur is Polo’s Malaiur (Malaya), which Polo says “conducts flourishing trade, especially in spices.” Mercator’s mistaken application of Polo’s Southeast Asia to Terra Australis results in the displacement of Iava minor yet further south.

On the opposite pole, Mercator has depicted the Arctic as per a four-island theory previously used by Ruysch in 1507. Mercator cited the provenance of this concept in a legend on his large map of 1569: “. . . we have taken [the Arctic geography] from the `Itinerium’ of Jacobus Cnoyen of the Hague, who makes some citations from the Gesta of Arthur of Britain; however, the greater and most important part he learned from a certain priest at the court of the king of Norway in 1364. He was descended in the fifth generation from those whom Arthur had sent to inhabit these lands, and he related that in the year 1360 a certain Minorite, an Englishman from Oxford, a mathematician, went to those islands; and leaving them, advanced still farther by magic arts and mapped out all and measured them by an astrolabe in practically the subjoined figure, as we have learned from Jacobus. The four canals there pictured he said flow with such current to the inner whirlpool, that if vessels once enter they cannot be driven back by wind . . .”.

It was Mercator who coined the term “Atlas” after the Greek mythical hero. Work on his Atlas was slow and deliberate, a Ptolemaic volume appearing 1578 and one covering parts of Europe in 1585. The third part, containing this world map, did not appear until 1595. The present example comes from that first atlas issue.