Maps have been a part of human history since pre-Christian times. Some of the first cartographic images were produced in Babylonia as well as in ancient Egypt and Greece. For thousands of years, people have created maps in order to be able to define and explain the world and to orient themselves in it.
In the Middle Ages, the first world maps appeared in Europe, the so called Mappae Mundi. These maps, which were prevalent from the 8th to the 15th Century, were mostly produced by monks. They were religious images presenting a spiritual image of the world. A typical feature of these maps was the position of Jerusalem in the centre of the world which was always shown as a round form.
From the 13th Century on, nautical maps, so called Portolan charts, were produced. The representation of the world in modern maps can be traced back to Claudius Ptolemaeus (“Ptolemy”), a scholar and philosopher who lived in the 2nd Century AD in Egypt. With his work Geographia, he provided instruction for charting the entire surface of the earth which was known at the time.
With the “rebirth” of antiquity during the Renaissance, the work of Ptolemaeus was rediscovered. His work became wide spread at the end of the 15th Century after moveable type printing had been invented.
As the result of geographic exploration during the Age of Discovery, beginning c. 1500 AD, cartography gradually came to represent reality more accurately. Mercator’s work also contributed to the increased accuracy of cartography. Cartographers began to include more and more new maps in their atlases, but still included the maps of Ptolemy. Ptolemy was an important reference point for mapmakers up until the 17th Century.
In the second half of the 16th Century, the technique of copper engraving replaced the woodcut technique which, up until that time, had predominantly been used for the production of maps. Copper engraving made more detailed images possible.
The world atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Antwerp, 1570) by Abraham Ortelius, is considered the first world atlas in book form. However, the first cartographic work which used “Atlas” in the title was that of Gerard Mercator: Mercator’s Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (Duisburg, 1595).
In 1604, the Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius bought the copper plates of Mercator. This was a step which greatly contributed to the creation of the 17th Century as a time of prolific mapmaking in Holland. Hondius published the maps of Mercator in several editions and added numerous maps of his own. After his death, his assistant Johann Janssonius continued the publication of maps by Mercator and Hondius. He also added his own maps. The main competitor of Janssonius was Willem Blaeu, a cartographer who also worked in Amsterdam.
The supremacy of Holland in the field of mapmaking expired with the end of the 17th Century. France now became the more important centre for map production and publication. Nicolas Sanson and Rigobert Bonne, for instance, published important atlases.
In the 18th Century, Germany became a centre of map production. Most prominent among German map-makers were Johann Baptist Homann in Nuremburg and Mattias Seutter in Augsburg.
The maps of the 16th to 18th Centuries were, for the most part, richly decorated artworks which were often splendidly coloured and opulently adorned by title cartouches and figural embellishments. This, along with the age of such prints, makes antiquarian maps a treasured collector’s object.
From the 19th Century on, geographical and scientific accuracy became more important in the production of maps. As a result decorative elements were minimized and therefore the aesthetic value for collecting these maps is usually low.