Mercator's atlas of Europe


Gerardus Mercator was perhaps the best-known mapmaker of all time. Rather than undertaking expeditions and mapping on the ground himself, however, he was an armchair cartographer. In his search for truth and accuracy, he preferred to ask his numerous correspondents for the latest geographical information. He would then query and edit it, using his considerable skills as a mathematician and calligrapher to present the information graphically and attractively, if soberly, on his maps.

His fame rests primarily on the map projection named after him. Although not entirely original, it first appeared in print in his world map of 1569. Since then, and despite attempts to replace it, it has become the accepted 'true' image of the world for most people.

Mercator's Atlas of Europe was the first book of maps to be referred to as an 'atlas'. In about 1571 the tutor to the heir to the duchy of Cleves, who was preparing for a European tour, realised that he needed good maps of Europe. He turned to his friend Gerardus Mercator, who lived in the duchy's capital. Mercator took advantage of the opportunity to develop his ideas for an atlas consisting of accurate maps at a limited number of scales.

In order to produce it, he cut up several examples of his own wall maps of the world (1569), Europe (1554) and Great Britain and Ireland (1564), adapting them to a book format, adding hand-drawn scale-bars and titles. He supplemented them with printed maps published in 1570 by his friend and rival Ortelius, and with the only known maps drawn by Mercator himself. Mercator's Atlas was finally published in 1589 and 1596.

This trial atlas was unknown until it came to light in a Belgian second-hand bookshop in the 1960s.

To see more of the Mercator atlas of Europe please go to our award winning Turning the Pages™.


Full title:
Mercator's Atlas of Europe
1589 and 1596
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Maps C.29.c.13

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