The 16th Century marked the early phase of the Age of Discovery. The horizons of the world were being expanded, and European explorers, traders, and missionaries pushed distant boundaries from the Americas to the Spice Islands of South East Asia. Combined with the explosive growth of the printing press, this growing knowledge of the world created much of the opportunity for significant advancements in cartography to take place—contributed to by some of the men listed in this article.
Over the span of the century, there were scores of cartographers at work across Europe who achieved some level of productivity and renown. It is my goal with this article to call out only some of the better-known, more consequential, or just plain ole’ more interesting.
Martin Behaim (1459 – 1507)
While Behaim may only be counted as on the very edge of the 16th century, his contribution to cartography has become so ubiquitous that his inclusion in this list is well warranted. The son of a wealthy Bohemian merchant who had settled in Venice, Martin likewise became involved in commerce, first in Flanders, but later landing in Portugal and the court of King John II.
It was there in Lisbon that Behaim’s cartographic interests blossomed: first by his interactions with navigators and explorers (including Columbus and Magellan, if the apocryphal accounts are true), then later under the tutelage of astronomer Regiomontanus. From these series of interactions, Behaim came to create and commission the first terrestrial globe circa 1492. This round, three-dimensional representation of the Earth, now so common to us in the 21st Century, can be traced back to Martin Behaim.
Calling it the “Erdapfel,” or Earth Apple, Behaim’s globe did not feature any of Columbus’ discoveries, but instead shrunk (as we now know) the Atlantic and filled it with a number. While full of errors, its creation on the eve of the Age of Discovery makes it a remarkable artifact with a significant legacy and impact.
Gemma Frisius (1508-1555)
Frisius is one of the more renowned globe-makers of the generation or two following Behaim and best known for two globes he produced in the 1530s (with assistance from his student, Mercator). As a member of the faculty of the University of Leuven, he taught a number of subjects and was able to produce his globes and other scientific instruments, which were praised by many scientists for their accuracy – including Tycho Brahe.
In addition to his cartographic efforts, Frisius was the first to describe a method of triangulation for use in surveying (still used today) as well as being the first to describe how an accurate clock could be used to determine longitude.
Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598)
A contemporary and friend of Mercator’s, Ortelius began as a map illuminator (engraver and painter of other’s original cartographic works) in the Low Countries, where he would eventually join the Guild of St. Luke and rise to the position of royal geographer to Phillip II. He is most well known as the father of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) which was first published in 1570.
The Theatrum proved to be immensely popular. By the time of his death in 1598, twenty-five editions had been published, first in Latin but eventually growing to seven language translations. The first edition began with eighty maps, but by the 1612 time of the thiry-first edition, the collection had reached 167 maps total.
Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594)
Born Geert de Kremer in Flanders, Mercator is a cartographer best known for the invention of his eponymous map projection. Though much maligned in cartographic circles in the present day, his projection was a breakthrough and valued especially to mariners and navigators. In time, he came to be the most well-known cartographer in Europe.