Leen Helmink Antique Maps & Atlases


Ortelius - Iaponia Insulae Descriptio

Certificate of Authentication

This is to certify that the item illustrated and described below is a genuine and
original antique map or print that was published on or near the given date.

Dr Leendert Helmink, Ph.D.

Antique map of Japan by Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius

First Published

Antwerp, 1595

This edition

1598 French


35.8 x 48.6 cms


Copper engraving

Stock number





Influential map of Japan, based on the work of the Jesuit Ludovico Teixeira. The map is the first reasonably accurate and recognizable European depiction of Japan and was to remain the standard for more than half a century. Little was known of this mythical and remote island. Korea is shown as an island. Three decorative ships and two cartouches. The verso text is derived from Maffei's accounts of the Far East. Quoting verbatim from the 1606 English edition:

"Upon the East it is opposite to New-Spaine [Mexico], remote from it not above 150 leagues" and "The country for the most part is full of snow all the yeare long" but also "They have many orders and lawes of feasting and drinking, which are performed very curiouslie & with strange and exquisite ceremonies. They have no manner of wine, nor vines amongst them. A kind of artificiall wine they make and presse out of rise: yet they are especially delighted, more than with any other kind of liquor, to drink water almost scalding hot, putting it into the powder of an hearb they call Chia, ..".

"A new epoch in Western cartography of Japan begins with the inclusion of this map in the 'Theatrum'. Ortelius had received it along with a map of China in a letter of 20 February 1592 from the Portuguese Jesuit and mathematician Luis Teixeira, who was the cartographer to the court of the Spanish king. Texeira, who himself had never been to Asia, let alone Japan, informed Ortelius that he had copied this new map, which he had just received, without alteration. The actual author, then, clearly had direct or indirect knowledge of Japanese sources, since the map contains information that the Europeans could not have obtained from their own experience at this time. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku are depicted with approximately correct proportions for the first time. The strict east-west orientation of Honshu, as well as its overall form with, among other things, the exaggerated size of the Noto Peninsula, recall Japanese screens of the period. On the other hand, Kyushu and the wedge-shaped Shikoku resemble Portuguese models [...]. The Japanese influence is particularly clear in the choice of place-names. Eastern and northern Japan, in particular, are enlivened with names of places that the Portuguese had not yet visited at this time. On the other hand, many of the names that had frequently appeared hitherto, such as Osaka, Azuchiyama, and Yamaguchi, are missing. Even Nagasaki is only referred to as 'Bungo'. Finally, characteristic of the type established by Teixeira, which was to find many imitators, is Korea's appearance as an island tapering to a point toward the south."

(Walter OAG 19).

"The first map of Japan published in a European atlas."

(Moreland & Bannister).

"Although as early as 1617 the more accurate map of Japan by Blancus appeared, this map retained influence until more than 50 years after another milestone map of Japan appeared, viz. the Martini map of 1655."

(van den Broecke).

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)

Abraham Ortelius is the most famous and most collected of all early cartographers. In 1570 he published the first comprehensive collection of maps of all parts of the world, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ("Theatre of the World"), the first modern atlas as we know it.

"Abraham Ortel, better known as Ortelius, was born in Antwerp and after studying Greek, Latin and mathematics set up business there with his sister, as a book dealer and ‘painter of maps'. Traveling widely, especially to the great book fairs, his business prospered and he established contacts with the literati in many lands. On one such visit to England, possibly seeking temporary refuge from religious persecution, he met William Camden whom he is said to have encouraged in the production of the Britannia.

A turning point in his career was reached in 1564 with the publication of a World Map in eight sheets of which only one copy is known: other individual maps followed and then – at the suggestion of a friend - he gathered together a collection of maps from contacts among European cartographers and had them engraved in uniform size and issued in 1570 as the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Atlas of the Whole World). Although Lafreri and others in Italy had published collections of ‘modern' maps in book form in earlier years, the Theatrum was the first uniformly sized, systematic collection of maps and hence can be called the first atlas, although that term itself was not used until twenty years later by Mercator.

The Theatrum, with most of its maps elegantly engraved by Frans Hogenberg, was an instant success and appeared in numerous editions in different languages including addenda issued from time to time incorporating the latest contemporary knowledge and discoveries. The final edition appeared in 1612. Unlike many of his contemporaries Ortelius noted his sources of information and in the first edition acknowledgement was made to eighty-seven different cartographers.

Apart from the modern maps in his major atlas, Ortelius himself compiled a series of historical maps known as the Parergon Theatri which appeared from 1579 onwards, sometimes as a separate publication and sometimes incorporated in the Theatrum."

(Moreland and Bannister)

"The maker of the ‘first atlas', the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), started his career as a colorist of maps. Later, he became a seller of books, prints and maps. His scientific and collecting interests developed in harmony with those of a merchant. He was first and foremost a historian. Geography for him was the ‘eye of history', which may explain why, in addition to coins and historical objects, he also collected maps. On the basis of his extensive travels through Europe and with the help of his international circle of friends, Ortelius was able to build a collection of the most up-to-date maps available.

The unique position held by Ortelius's Theatrum in the history of cartography is to be attributed primarily to its qualification as ‘the world's first regularly produced atlas.' Its great commercial success enabled it to make a great contribution to ‘geographical culture' throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century. Shape and contents set the standard for later atlases, when the centre of the map trade moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam. The characteristic feature of the Theatrum is that it consists of two elements, text and maps. Another important aspect is that it was the first undertaking of its kind to reduce the best available maps to a uniform format. To that end, maps of various formats and styles had to be generalized just like the modern atlas publisher of today would do. In selecting maps for his compilation, Ortelius was guided by his critical spirit and his encyclopaedic knowledge of maps. But Ortelius did more than the present atlas makers: he mentioned the names of the authors of the original maps and added the names of many other cartographers and geographers to his list. This ‘catalogus auctorum tabularum geographicum,' printed in the Theatrum, is one of the major peculiarities of the atlas. Ortelius and his successors kept his list of map authors up-to-date. In the first edition of 1570 the list included 87 names. In the posthumous edition of 1603, it contained 183 names.

Abraham Ortelius himself drew all his maps in manuscript before passing them to the engravers. In the preface to the Theatrum he stated that all the plates were engraved by Frans Hogenberg, who probably was assisted by Ambrosius and Ferdinand Arsenius (= Aertsen). The first edition of the Theatrum is dated 20 May 1570 and includes 53 maps.

The Theatrum was printed at Ortelius's expense first by Gielis Coppens van Diest, an Antwerp printer who had experience with printing cosmographical works. From 1539 onwards, Van Diest had printed various editions of Apianus's Cosmographia, edited by Gemma Frisius, and in 1552 he printed Honterus's Rudimentorum Cosmograhicorum... Libri IIII. Gielis Coppens van Diest was succeeded as printer of the Theatrum in 1573 by his son Anthonis, who in turn was followed by Gillis van den Rade, who printed the 1575 edition. From 1579 onwards Christoffel Plantin printed the Theatrum, still at Ortelius's own expense. Plantin and later his successors continued printing the work until Ortelius's heirs sold the copperplates and the publication rights in 1601 to Jan Baptist Vrients, who added some new maps. After 1612, the year of Vrients's death, the copperplates passed to the Moretus brothers, the successors of Christoffel Plantin.

The editions of the Theatrum may be subdivided into five groups on the basis of the number of maps. The first group contains 53 maps, 18 maps were added. The second group has 70 maps (one of the 18 new maps replaced a previous one). In 1579 another expansion was issued with 23 maps. Some maps replaced older ones, so as of that date the Theatrum contained 112. In 1590 a fourth addition followed with 22 maps. The editions then had 134 maps. A final, fifth expansion with 17 maps followed in 1595, bringing the total to 151."

(Peter van der Krogt, Atlantes Neerlandici New Edition, Volume III)