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Wonderful world: Mercator's Atlas, 1613

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was an engraver, craftsman, mathematician and cartographer, born in 1512 in Flanders. His best-known work was this volume of maps, the first to have borne the name ‘Atlas’ after the Titan of ancient Greek myth, who was said to hold up the world on his shoulders.

World map from Mercator's Atlas, printed and hand-coloured by Jodocus Hondius

In 1569, Mercator devised a rectangular map with straight lines of latitude and longitude crossing at right angles, intended to be a new way of representing a round globe on a flat sheet of paper. This ‘Mercator Projection’ swiftly became the standard map projection used for nautical purposes, because of its ability to represent sailing routes of constant course as straight lines. Although the Mercator projection uses a linear scale which is equal in all directions, it does exaggerate the size of landmasses near the poles, making countries such as Greenland appear far larger than they really are. Despite this, Mercator’s map became the most widely used projection in the world and is still used today.

Map of 'Polus Arcticus', the North Pole, from the Atlas

After Mercator’s death in 1594, his family sold the original engraving plates to many of his maps. These were bought in 1604 by the Belgian publisher and engraver Jodocus Hondius. Mercator’s work had, for some time, been overshadowed by that of Abraham Ortelius. It was Hondius who brought Mercator back into public recognition by printing this lavishly coloured volume of Mercator’s maps, produced in Amsterdam 1613. Hondius embellished Mercator’s original work, updating his maps and even contributing thirty-six new ones himself. The final work was credited to Mercator alone, but the image below shows the collaborative nature of the project, featuring Mercator and Hondius seated together surrounded by globes and cartographical instruments.

Gerardus Mercator (left) and Jodocus Hondius (right) in a scene of post-mortem collaboration

The dog seen below is the printer’s mark of Hondius, and acts as a ‘rebus’ or an allusional device that uses an image as a play on words: in this case ‘hound’ for Hondius. The globe bears the motto ‘I use, I describe, I adorn, I censure and I choose faithfully’ representing the scholarly and artistic merits of this atlas.

The 'watchful hound', printer's mark of Jodocus Hondius

This atlas, along with many other items tracing the history of exploration and map-making from the 13th century onwards, can be seen in the Old Library on Saturday 15 March from 10:00-16:00 as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. For more information, contact Ryan Cronin by email: or by telephone 01223 338711.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 10 March 2014 by Ryan Cronin, Press, Publicity and Communities Officer.