CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), under the spell of classical antiquity

Exhibition: 24 April - 16 August 2015

Information from the museum, 27 January 2015

Ortelius is generally recognised as having created the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terarum (Theatre of the World), published in Antwerp in 1570. He is also believed to be the first person to have questioned the early historical maps, proposing instead that the continents had been joined together before drifting apart to their current position. Ortelius also had a passionate interest in the history of classical antiquity and Biblical history.

In his first edition of the Theatrum, he already refers to place names in antiquity, and this subsequently results in a separate publication in 1587, the Thesaurus Geographicus. And again in his Parergon, a collection of his historical maps that he had previously published in various editions of the Theatrum, he portrays ancient history, sacred and secular, and shows the extent of the Roman Empire in Europe. With the help of his celebrated museum collection, including an extensive library and rich array of Roman coins, he reconstructed – among other things – Caesar’s conquest of Gall, and the journeys of Odysseus, Aeneas and the Argonauts. And in the texts which accompanied his maps, he always listed the sources he used.

Ortelius also literally travelled in search of history. That he visited Italy is borne out by his celebrated Itinerarium per nonnullas Galliae Belgicae partes. But also closer to home, he came looking for traces of classical antiquity in Tongeren, Trier and Metz. Towards the end of his life, he was preparing the publication of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a copy of a map of the road network across the Roman Empire dating originally from the 3rd or 4th century.

He was also a keen numismatist, and his collection included coins dating back to the latter years of the Roman Empire. Coins, and especially Roman coins, brought to life the history of those times, and his Deorum dearumque capita ex antiquis numismatibus Abrahami Ortelii geographi Regis collecta was published in 1573. For Ortelius, history and cartography went hand in hand. For him, geography was ‘the eye of history’.

It is not without reason, therefore, that Ortelius with his passion for the history of classical antiquity, finds his place in the Rockox House. Rockox (1560-1640) and Ortelius (1527-1598) were friends. They shared a passion for collecting coins. Rockox had all Ortelius’s major publications in his library, and a portrait of Ortelius hung in Rockox’s own ‘art room’ (or gallery).

This exhibition will include a range of these historical maps together with some printed works showing Ortelius’s reconstructions. Visitors will be able to follow how Ortelius collected his knowledge and then visualised it in map book form.This exhibition in the Rockox House is a joint venture with the Plantin-Moretus Museum / Print Collection in Antwerp, co-organised by Dr Dirk Imhof, curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum and Hildegard Van de Velde, curator of the Rockox House Museum.