Biographies of Cartographers

Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was a renowned Flemish cartographer who composed some of the most influential maps of the Middle Ages, including the world’s first atlas Theatrum Orbis terrarum. Ortelius grew up in Antwerp as the son of a wealthy merchant where he began to sell maps as a young boy. Ortelius made his living during his younger years as a professional illuminator. At the age of twenty he was accepted into the guild of St. Luke’s and began painting and illustrating maps. Ortelius was an experienced traveler and visited many regions of the world, even conducting merchant business for multiple years in Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg). He developed a keen interest in geography and began to publish maps about the places he had visited.

Ortelius was the first to present the idea of Continental Drift. He noticed through observation that the continents seemed to fit together as if they had been torn apart and illustrated his theory in the Typus Orbis Terrarum. When he presented this idea to his colleagues, he was ridiculed and from that point on began a life of academic isolation. It would be two hundred years later that his idea of Continental Drift would be understood and acknowledged within the scientific community and later became known as Pangea. Later in his life, Abraham Ortelius was honored with the title of Royal Geographer for the Spanish Crown under the direction of King Phillip II of Spain. This recognition provided Ortelius with a large substantial income that he invested into world travels. Ortelius died in 1589 at the age of seventy-one.

Willem Blaeu

Willem Janzoon Blaeu (1571-1638) was born in the Netherlands and moved to Amsterdam at the age of twenty-three to learn the family business of the herring trade. Blaeu had little interest in the fishing market and instead turned his sights on mathematics. Blaeu was advanced in his studies and reached an impressive level of scientific standard for which he was invited to study alongside the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe on the private Island of Hvn during the years 1595-1596. He then returned to the Netherlands where he continued his studies of astronomy for several years and even married Maertgen Cornelisdr of Uitgeest and in 1596 his son Joan Blaeu was born.

In 1598, the same year Blaeu watched and charted a solar eclipse over Humburg he made and published a celestial globe, 34 cm in diameter and based the globe on Tycho Brahe's unpublished star catalogue. Creating celestial globes would be the beginnings of Blaeu’s career as a cartographer. His first world map, Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica. published in 1605, put his name on the highly competitive map market. By the second half of the 17th century, the Blaeu family monopolized the field of map making in Amsterdam by buying rivals’ copperplates, the instrument needed to print a map. At the end of his life, Willem Blaeu was appointed the official cartographer and examiner of navigation of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company in 1633. Blaeu died in 1638 at the age of sixty-seven.

Claes Visscher

Claes Visscher (1587-1652) was an engraver, mapmaker, and publisher during the Dutch Golden Age. Born and raised in Amsterdam, Visscher was also known by the name Nicolas Joannes Piscator which sometimes appeared on his work. Visscher learned from his father how to etch and print engravings to help the family business of mapmaking and it became one of the largest mapmaking businesses during his time. During the Protestant Reformation, the Visscher family produced and illustrated maps and landscapes of biblical locations to stay relevant and increase clientele. As a nod to the family name of Visscher, which originated from the prior family business of fishing, the Visschers would often include bodies of water, or a fisherman somewhere hidden in their illustrations acting as a delightful trademark. Over Claes Visscher’s lifetime he etched over two hundred copper plates and helped create the standard in illustrating maps with decorative elaborate borders. Visscher’s family mapmaking business continued to operate under the management of his sons even after his death in 1652 at the age of sixty-five.

Fredrick de Wit 

Frederik de Wit (1630-1706) was born in Gouda, Netherlands and became a skilled publisher, printer, and printmaker. In 1648 de Wit moved to the Netherlands where he studied under the apprenticeship of Willem Blaeu. De Wit was much younger than his competing Dutch mapmakers. To put it into perspective, he was born the same year that Willem Blaeu’s map the Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula was published. By 1654, de Wit started his own business where his career prospered and published the Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula as both a map and a folio in 1660. Towards the end of the 17th century, he became one of the largest publishers in Amsterdam and sellers of old antiquity. De Wit had made over 150 maps before his death in 1706 at the age of seventy-six.