Understanding Atlas Terminology

  • Atlas -- a collection of maps that possess three defining traits (1) the dominance of graphic elements (2) the rough uniformity of map format, design, and presentation throughout the work; and (3) the standardization (generally) from copy to copy in each addition, of composition and arrangement of atlas components (van der Krogt, p.18-9). Gerhard Mercator was the first to use the term in regards to maps. As he states in the preface to his Atlas (1595), “I have set this man Atlas, so notable for his erudition, humaneness, and wisdom as a model for my imitation.” The mythical Atlas that Mercator uses as his inspiration was the great-grandson of Sol, the sun god in Roman mythology, and tutor to Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions (Crane, p.275). It was only later that it became the Titan Atlas holding up the world.
  • Appendices/appendix atlas -- Appendix was used by the Hondius, Janssonius, and Blaeu firms for atlases that contained a printed title page and index. Contrary to convention, the maps in the Appendices had no text on the reverse side, or verso, of the map. They were geographically incomplete; by themselves the maps would not cover  one particular part of the world or constitute an entire atlas. The Appendix atlases of Hondius and Janssonius are very rare and often had a temporary binding so that they could be disbound and the maps added to other atlases.  (van der Krogt, p.123).
  • Threatrii/theatrum --a term long used to describe maps or atlases of the world. The map or atlas acted as the stage upon which the world was presented, creating a “theater” for the audience. It was first used in early modern times by Abraham Ortelius for the title of his work, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World), considered by many to be the first modern atlas. Theatrum, as used by Henricus Hondius and Johannes Janssonius, refers to their three part experimental atlas of France (1631 and 1633), Germany (1632), and Italy (1635).
  • Composite/composed atlas, or atlas factice -- a custom atlas, typically compiled at the behest of a private person(s), and not commercially produced by a publisher.

Crane, Nicholas. Mercator: the Man Who Mapped the Planet. New York: H. Holt, 2002.

Koeman, C, and P. C. J. van der Krogt. Koeman's Atlantes Neerlandici. New ed. 'T Goy-Houten: HES & De Graaf Publishers, 1997.

Defining the Project

Results and Next Steps