Saturday, June 30, 2012

Abraham Ortelius, Man of Vision

Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens
By contrast with John Ogilby, who began his life as a dance-master and theatre owner and drew his map for the Lords Proprietors as a late-life indulgence, Abraham Ortelius began at the age of twenty in 1547 as an illustrator of maps.  He met great men of the cartographic profession like Gerardus Mercator, whose 500th anniversary birth was celebrated on March 4th this year!  Ortelius' comes up in 2027.  His family was originally from Augsburg, however, Abraham was the eldest of three children of Leonard Ortels, an antique dealer in Antwerp.  Abraham learned Latin from his father and independently studied mathematics. 

It's interesting to note that some of his family had escaped religious persecution in Europe by living in England, much like Huguenot Frenchman from the siege of La Rochelle in 1627-8.  My Huguenot ancestor, Jean de Fonvielle came to Carolina from England after spending time there to escape Catholic persecution.  Many North and South Carolinians can lay claim to that history.  It seems that England was the religious refuge of Europeans of this time, not unlike the United States gained famed for in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ortelius' World Map of 1570, Typus Orbis Terrarum

Abraham Ortelius was admitted to Antwerp's Guild of Saint Luke as an illuminator of maps in 1547.  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells that he after he became a  "dealer and collector of maps, Ortelius eventually started making maps himself. His first map, a wall map of the world, was published in 1564 and was followed by a map of ancient Egypt (1565), a wall map of Asia (1567), a wall map of Spain (1570), and a map of the Roman empire (1571). He had already acquired some renown and means when in 1570 he published his Theatrum orbis terrarum, considered to be the first modern atlas, being a handy collection of maps of the same dimensions providing a survey of the world as known up to that moment.

A portion of Abraham Ortelius' 1587 Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio

As for historians of North Carolina, it is important to note that his Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, published in 1587, included recent details learned from the Roanoke voyages of Sir Walter Raleigh.  The name "Wingandekoa" is clearly marked with a large sound or river extending west into the mainland (Albemarle?).  "Cape St. John" is also the older name for "Cape Hatteras."  This information could not have been more than a couple of years old.

The really interesting part of this map is the notation "Apalchen" to the west of Wingandekoa.  Is this the origin for the name given to the Appalachian mountains?  The 1528 Narvaez Spanish expedition that explored the interior of La Florida met a nation of Indians near Tallahassee calling themselves the "Apalchen" or "Apalachen," later translated as "Apalachee."  The curious part of this Ortelius map shows that he interpreted this information to mean that "Apalchen" existed directly west-northwest of Wingandekoa, which it certainly did.  He got this interpretation in 1587!  Nice work, Ortelius!  Uh... hope you weren't referring to the Indian nation specifically and not the territory.  :)  We'll talk later about the apparent St. Johns River from the area of today's Jacksonville, Florida area running through the Appalachians... you may have missed on that one, ol' buddy... of course, that may have been the Indians and not the mountains.  Oh, well.  Who can blame you for never having visited America!? 

Of course, Ortelius was well acquainted with many of the affluent and scholarly people of his day.  Theodore de Bry engraved many of John White's watercolor paintings for Thomas Hariot's A Brief and True Report of the Newfound land in Virginia about Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke voyages of 1584-1587.  Hariot published his book in 1590.  De Bry was born in Belgium 1528, a year younger than Ortelius and often visited Antwerp as well as London.  Although I've found no reference to date, I'm certain that Ortelius must've known the noted engraver.  He may even have met John White.  As painters and illustators, they all virtually dealt in the same business.  He could easily have known about the Roanoke voyages, even in 1587, not having passed away until 1598. 
Animation of Pangea to today
The most fascinating detail of Abraham Ortelius's work, however, is that he predicted continental drift, the mechanism by which the continents on Earth spread apart from the one giant continent of Pangea, a supercontinent that existed over 200 million years ago in the early Mesozoic era.  This was Mercator's influence that pulled him into scientific geography.  W. J. Kious' "Historical Perspective" in This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics, explains Ortelius' genius:

Gerardus Mercator
"Abraham Ortelius in his work Thesaurus Geographicus ... suggested that the Americas were "torn away from Europe and Africa ... by earthquakes and floods" and went on to say: "The vestiges of the rupture reveal themselves, if someone brings forward a map of the world and considers carefully the coasts of the three [continents]."

He is the first known to have suggested this idea, obviously from the arrangement of the continents as they appear like scattered pieces of the same puzzle.  As one can easily see in his 1570 map, Typus Orbis Terrarum, the continents do fit together rather well.  Alfred Weggener would have to reinvent this theory almost 400 years later, in the mid-20th century.  It is remarkable that he could make this prediction from his study of maps of the 16th century!

Abraham Ortelius was, indeed, a man of great vision.  That he possibly conferred with Theodore de Bry, and/or John White, Thomas Hariot, and others of the Roanoke voyages gives us the impression that these endeavors were all cutting-edge science of the 16th century, as indeed, they were.  Remarkable that the Lords Proprietors of Carolina relied on a local dance master for their map while they were surrounded by such greatness and science.  In retrospect, John Ogilby must have charged less.  You get what you pay for, as they say.