The 'Atlas' by Mercator and Hondius

Cuba or Cyprus?

The renowned geographer, engraver and instrument maker Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) published a world atlas from 1585 onwards, which would be the first to obtain the name Atlas in the long run. It became a popular atlas which was to have many editions. In the edition of the Mercator atlas presented here, published in Amsterdam in 1606 by Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612), something strange is the matter. For the island of Cuba looks suspiciously like Cyprus…!

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Detail band Atlas van Mercator, 1606

Title of honour

From a historical-cartographical point of view, the period between ca. 1550 and ca. 1675 is also known as the ‘Dutch Era of Cartography’. In fact, this ‘title of honour’ is only reserved for the commercial, printed Dutch maps. After all, all throughout Europe high-quality regional maps were made at that time. However, these maps were only for local use and were not traded worldwide. By contrast, Dutch maps travelled far and wide beyond their own country borders.

Cartography from the Southern and Northern Netherlands

The Dutch commercial cartography up until the end of the 17th century can be divided in two periods: the Southern Netherlands period lasting until ca. 1600, with Antwerp as the production centre, with a few decades overlap followed by the Northern Netherlands period in which the production of maps and atlases was concentrated in Amsterdam.

Gerard Mercator

Portrait Mercator

Within the Low Countries Gerard Mercator was without any doubt the founder of the commercial map production. In 1530 he registered for a study in philosophy at the University of Leuven. Still being a student he moved from Leuven to Antwerp. In 1534 Mercator finished his philosophy study to dedicate himself to mathematics and the commercial-technical application of the theoretical knowledge he had gathered over the years. He also set out to learn more about making copper engravings. This formed the breeding ground for Mercator’s cartographic production.

Academic cosmographer?

Mercator’s maps, globes and atlases would find their way all over the 16th-century world. However, Mercator viewed himself more as an academic cosmographer than as someone who had to earn his money trading maps. As a result his cartographic legacy is rather small: a pair of globes, five wall maps and an unfinished cosmography. The major part of Mercator’s cartographic production took place in Duisburg in the German Rhineland where he settled in 1552. There he managed to create his most remarkable works in the field of cartography, while still leaning on the designs made and skills acquired earlier in Leuven. Thanks to his trade relations with Plantijn, Mercator’s products were important examples to later map makers in the Low Countries.

The atlas as a commercial product

Engraved title page Atlas van Mercator, 1606

Besides the Antwerp citizen Abraham Ortelius, Mercator has played an important role in the development of the modern atlas as a successful commercial product. Ortelius was the first to publish a book that could be called a modern world atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570); Mercator published a book work with maps (1585-1595) which was given the name Atlas for the first time. The first big world atlas in Amsterdam appeared in 1606 when Jodocus Hondius edited a new publication of Mercator’s Atlas.

A scientific atlas

The atlases by Ortelius and Mercator reflect their backgrounds: the atlas by Ortelius was first and foremost a commercial product, whereas Mercator had a more scientific work in mind. Compared to Ortelius Mercator worked more slowly, but more critically. His maps were, apart from presenting a perfect picture, the result of a meticulous study of the basic material which was finally turned into a new cartographical product.

Kaart van Europa in de Atlas van Mercator, 1606


Mercator had the ambitious plan to produce an extensive cosmographic work about the creation and the origin of the cosmos. According to the introduction to his Chronologia (1569) this cosmography would consist of five volumes:

  1. The creation of the world. The text of this volume was published in the introduction to the Atlas (1595) after Mercator’s death.
  2. Description of the universe. This volume was never published.
  3. Description of the countries and the oceans in three parts:
    • Modern geography (Tabulae Geographicae). Incompletely published in the Atlas.
    • Maps by Ptolemy. Published in 1578.
    • Antique geography. Never realised.
  4. Genealogy and political history. This volume only appeared in the form of texts accompanying the maps in the Atlas.
  5. Chronology. Published in 1569.


Mercator only partly succeeded in his intentions to create a cosmography. He postponed the publication in the hope that more information would become available in the meantime. In the end only about half of the cartographical part of his cosmography was realised. The first 28 maps appeared in his Ptolemy edition of 1578. Next, in 1585, Mercator presented the first three issues of his ‘modern geography’ containing 51 maps: 16 of France, 9 of The Netherlands and 26 of Germany, followed by 22 maps of southeastern Europe in 1589. The planned world atlas with a total of about 120 maps never saw the light of day.

Kaart van de Britse Eilanden in de Atlas van Mercator, 1606

‘Completion’ by son Rumold

After Mercator’s death in 1594 his son Rumold (ca. 1545/50-1599) published as large a part as possible of his father’s posthumous cosmography. He combined the four parts of Tabulae Geographicae with 34 completed but never published maps (Iceland, British Isles and the North European and East European countries). To put this package on the market as soon as possible, Rumold added his own world map of 1587 and small map of Europe. He also had his cousins engrave maps of the other three well-known continents.

The 1595 publication

This set containing a total of 107 maps is the second part of the cosmography ('Pars Altera Tabula [...]'). Furthermore, Gerard Mercator had left a manuscript in which he described the story of the Creation. Rumold added this as the first part. The complete work was published in 1595 under the title Atlas Sive Cosmographicæ Meditationes De Fabrica Mvndi Et Fabricati Figvra. To avoid putting the owners of the first four parts of Tabulae Geographicae to great expense, Rumold made it possible to order the recently added parts separately (preliminary pages, story of the Creation and the 39 additional maps).

Various co-authors

Epitaphium in the Atlas van Mercator, 1606

The Duisburg magistrate Walter Ghim introduced the Atlas with a biography of Gerard Mercator. Rumold Mercator signed the preface (‘Amico Lectori’), while his cousin Johannes Mercator (ca. 1562-after 1595) is only mentioned as the author of two poems in the introduction (‘Epitaphium in obitum Gerardi Mercatoris’ and ‘In atlantem Gerardi Mercatoris avi sui’). However most maps, published for the first time in 1595, were engraved by him. Gerard Mercator Junior signed the maps of Africa and Asia. Michael Mercator is mentioned as the engraver of the map of America.

Shutting down the family business

In spite of the over a hundred maps Mercator’s 1595 Atlas could not be called a complete work. For instance, there are no maps of Spain and Portugal and neither do we find regional maps for continents outside Europe. Rumold intended to fill in these gaps, but died young in 1599. His cousins Johannes Junior and Gerard Junior hardly showed any initiative in the field of cartography after 1595. A last edition of the Atlas rolled off the Duisburg presses of Bernard Buyss, but it never became a commercial success. That is why liquidating the business in 1604 and selling the copperplates against an acceptable price was a sensible decision of Gerard Mercator Junior.

Detail band Atlas van Mercator, 1606

The sale of the copperplates

In the permission which Gerard Mercator Junior acquired in 1604 to sell the copperplates, the price of 2,000 thalers is mentioned. So probably an auction was never held, but a fixed price was agreed upon with a buyer. This buyer was probably not Jodocos Hondius as has been thought for a long time, but Cornelis Claesz. He is said to have tried to expand his list with an atlas in folio format. That is why Claesz initially cooperated with Joan Baptista Vrients who acquired the publication rights of Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in 1601. However, Claesz. soon realised that in cooperating with Vrients he would always remain the dependent party. Perhaps that is why he entered into negotiations with the Mercator heirs. Claesz. must be seen as the driving power behind the production of the first edition of the Atlas in the Northern Netherlands. Probably the copperplates came into the hands of Jodocus Hondius only after the death of Claesz. in 1609.

The 'Geographia' by Hondius and Claesz.

So a considerable number of copperplates moved from Duisburg to Amsterdam in 1604. We can safely say that the collection contained the 28 copper plates of the maps for the Ptolemy publication and the 107 copperplates of the maps for the Atlas. A little time later, in 1605, Hondius and Claesz. published the Geographia with Latin as well as Greek texts. It was the first book with a Greek text that was printed in Amsterdam. The printer was Jan Theunisz. Hondius had a classic background and it was not until he was 39 that he took up a study of mathematics at the University of Leiden. Probably encouraged to do so by the half-brother of his wife, the classicist Petrus Bertius (1565-1629).

Straat Magelhaen in de Atlas van Mercator, 1606

New maps in the 1606 edition

A year after the Geographia the first large Amsterdam world atlas was put on the market: Gerardi Mercatoris, Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes [...] excusum in aedibus Iudoci Hondii Amsterodami. In this atlas from 1606, which the Utrecht University Library shows here in all its glory, all 107 maps from the 1595 edition were included, as well as 37 new maps, skillfully engraved by Hondius, of various authors. Seven maps described the Iberian peninsula, correcting the earlier omission in the Atlas by Mercator. Furthermore, regional maps of Africa were included (four), Asia (eleven) and America (five), so that finally we can speak of a real world atlas. Six new maps of European regions were also included in the atlas. Remarkably, Hondius added four new continent maps, but did not remove the old ones.

Cyprus instead of Cuba

Map of Cyprus in the Mercator Atlas, 1606

The 1606 edition of the Mercator-Hondius atlas is not extremely rare. A few dozen copies are known. However, there are several varieties and peculiarities. In the Utrecht copy shown here the map of Cyprus has been included twice. One time at the right place at the description of the island, and one time incorrectly at the description of Cuba! To err is human, also when making an atlas. In this case the printer used the wrong copperplate when printing the map on the overleaf of the text pages which had been made earlier via another technique, namely letterpress printing. Or a mistake must have been made during the collection of the map prints needed, if the texts had to be printed afterwards. The latter way of working was quite unusual however. As far as we know, only the Utrecht copy contains the mistake of the switched Cuba-Cyprus map. But that is not to say that incorrect placements and switched maps did not occur in other old atlases. In a copy of the same edition of Mercator’s atlas, housed in the University Library of Odense, the continent map of Africa has been switched with the one of America.


And there is another reason why the Utrecht copy of the Atlas is remarkable. On the overleaf of the title page we find a handwritten fragment which may be connected with its provenance. From this fragment it appears that a certain Balthasar van der Perre, probably from Utrecht, must have been the owner of the atlas around 1630.

‘Op 9e Augusti, 1633, is, Balthasar vander Perre, getrouwt met Barbara Mirou tot Isselstijn.
Op 30 Aprill 1635, is gebooren en gestorven mijn dochter, die begraven leijt inde Snijder Kerck.
Op 15 Aprill 1636 jarens ten acht uuren is gebooren mijn dochter Anna Maria van der Perre, daer getuijgen van sijn geweest Hendrick Mirou, Anna van der Perre, ende Maaghdelena Boetens’.

(‘On the 9th of August 1633 Balthasar vander Perre married Barbara Mirou tot Isselstijn.
On 30 April 1635 my daughter was born and died on the same day, who is buried in de Snijder Church.
On 15 April in the year of 1636 at eight o’clock my daughter Anna Maria vander Perre was born, witnesses were Hendrick Mirou, Anna vander Perre and Maaghdelena Boetens’).

Provenance in de Atlas van Mercator, 1606

Texts by Montanus

Petrus Montanus or Pieter van den Berg (1560-1625), brother-in-law of Jodocus Hondius and teacher at the Latin School, wrote the introduction to the Atlas and the texts on the verso sides of the maps.
Both the Geographia and the Atlas were at that time joint ventures of Hondius and Claesz. On the engraved title page of the Geographia both their names figure, but on the one of the Atlas there is no such uniformity. There are title pages which only mention either Hondius or Claesz. as publishers as well as title pages which show joint imprints.

Later editions of the Mercator-Hondius atlas

Pole map in the Atlas van Mercator, 1606

The second edition of the Mercator-Hondius atlas followed as soon as 1607/08. The first edition in another language, French, was put on the market in 1609. Apparently this one was regarded as the third edition, because in 1611 Editio Quarta appeared with a total of 150 maps. After the death of Jodocus Hondius in 1612 his widow and sons continued the publication of the Atlas. For instance Jodocus Junior (1594-1629) produced several new editions of the Editio Quarta between 1613 and 1619, each with the same 150 maps. Finally in 1619 the last edition of this atlas followed, to which six new maps were added.

Continuation by Henricus Hondius

After 1620 the publication of the Atlas was continued by Henricus Hondius (ca. 1596/97-1651), the second son of Jodocus senior. Various editions appeared, in 1623, 1628 and 1630. During a 25-year period following the publication of the first Mercator-Hondius atlas the Hondius family had benefited from its monopoly on atlases. There were no competitors at all, as the Vrients business stopped around 1612 with publishing new editions of Ortelius’ Theatrum. For the Hondius family there was no reason to expand or improve their atlas. The ten consecutive atlases hardly differed from each other and were only in French or Latin. Under Hondius senior the atlas was only expanded by six maps, while until 1619 no single old map of Mercator was replaced by a modern one. Henricus Hondius was the first to make some real changes: in the 1628 edition he provided some Mercator maps with his own name. In 1630, when he was probably already cooperating with his brother-in- law Johannes Janssonius, Henricus added nine new maps.

Competition with Blaeu

The expansion of the 1630 edition up to a total of 164 maps can not be viewed separately from the new competition in publishing atlases. That competition started in early 1630 between Janssonius and his neighbour Willem Jansz. Blaeu, and was characterized by the publication of an increasing number of bulky atlases and an enormous growth in the number of maps (see also the background stories at Blaeu’s Atlas maior and Toonneel der steden. By obtaining the almost forty copperplates from the estate of the very Jodocus Hondius Junior. who died in 1629, Blaeu was given the opportunity to enter into competition with Henricus Hondius and Johannes Janssonius. The relations between Jodocus Junior. and his younger brother Henricus were not that close apparently, having far-reaching consequences in the end…


Detail band Atlas van Mercator, 1606