In 1595 the third part of a ground-breaking work was published, a work which was to make history, quite literally of our view of the world: Gerhard Mercator called it an "Atlas" and by doing so, christened a certain kind of book, which still today is a synonym for a bound set of maps as well as a comprehensive and generic term for a whole science. Mercator’s ‘atlas’ was intended as a complete and comprehensive description of the whole world, a cosmography. However this undertaking could not be realized in his lifetime.
His achievement is nevertheless impressive enough in its own right: the three installments of his ‘atlas’ are a collection of maps unrivalled in their precision, classification and beauty. They shape our view of the world, even today. Mercator’s work is the benchmark for all that follow him.
A universal scholar caught in the turbulence of his era
Gerhard Mercator was born on the 5th March 1512 in the Flemish town of Rupelmonde, near Antwerp. The goldsmith Gaspard van der Heyden from Leuven and the scientist Gemma Frisius were both important influential figures during his education.
In 1537 his first work was published, a wall map of the Holy Land in six leaves. In 1544 he was lucky to avoid death, as he was convicted of heresy and was imprisoned for six months in his home town.
In 1552 he moved to Duisburg with his family to the tolerant Duchy of Kleve-Jülich-Berg where he lived and worked until his death in 1594 – as a highly respected and affluent man.
Gerhard Mercator was a truly universal scholar and worked as a mathematician, philosopher, theologian, historian, geographer and cartographer as well as a practical craftsman: as an engraver, a maker of globes and surveying instruments.
Typical for the epoch is his comprehensive correspondence with other humanists and scholars. These contacts were of a practical nature for Mercator: he collected topographical information this way, which he then included in his maps.
The Mercator Projection
Mercator’s real "claim to fame" came with his invention of the so-called Mercator Projection. This was put to the test in 1569 for the first time on the large map of the world on 21 leaves. The projection enabled the isogonic depiction of the earth and was thus invaluable to all navigators of his time.
Mercator maps became box office blockbusters. Even the majesty’s own pirate, Sir Francis Drake, sailed using Mercator’s maps. By the by Mercator did away with an old papal doctrine which stipulated that the sky was anchored at the North Pole: his map of the world from 1569 depicts the ‘Magnetberg’ on the earth and, true to reality, not at the geographic North Pole.
The Mercator projection indeed forms the basis for today’s satellite navigation. It comes as no surprise then that Mercator was, even during his own lifetime, heralded as the embodiment of the legendary Greek geographer Ptolemy, and is still regarded as the father of cartography today.
The Map as a work of art
Mercator’s Atlas of 1595 does not only impress due to its precision and system, but also due to its decidedly artistic character. Mercator’s epoch was the Renaissance and even for many centuries prior to it, information and aesthetics were not seen to be at cross-purposes.
The Italian italic script was put to use for the first time, the new way of depicting the water’surface with fish and boats, the positioning of the maps’headings in complex, almost 3D-like cartouches with an heraldic look-and-feel: these and many more aspects make the Mercator Atlas particularly special.
The Copy in the Berlin State Library
Mercator’s world atlas is the first to have used a consistent coordination system, a consistent map key, and its own individual and independent sheet line system, regardless of other drafts used. Brilliant engravings were used throughout, most of which were made by Mercator himself.
Due to this method of production, the maps were black and white. Well-off buyers would then pay separately for a personal binding and for the maps to be coloured. The Berlin copy is an "Editio Principissima": the three parts were bound exactly in the order of their publication.