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Ortelius's gorgeous cornerstone map of Africa

Place/Date: Antwerp / 1570
Title: Africae Tabula Nova
50 x 37.6 cm (19.8 x 14.8 in)
Hand color
Condition Rating


In his authoritative cartobiliography of Renaissance and Early Modern maps of Africa, Betz refers to this map as one of the cornerstone maps of Africa, alluding to the great influence this map had in how Europeans imagined the shape and characteristics of the African continent until well into the seventeenth century.

Ortelius designed the map using elements of three famous contemporary maps: Gastaldi’s 1564 wall map, Mercator’s 1569 wall map, and likely the 1562 map of Africa by Forlani. He also made use of several written sources, including Ramusio in Navigationi et Viaggi (1550), Joao de Barros in Decadas da Asia (1552), and Leo Africanus in Historiale description de l’Afrique (1556).

Of these sources, Ortelius followed most closely Gastaldi, whose 1564 map is the most influential map of Africa of the 16th century. He did, however, introduce several significant changes, making the Cape of Good Hope more pointed, appreciably reducing the eastward extent of the continent (by about 1,700 km, to 7,000 km), and contracting the distance from Ceuta to Cairo (by about 1,600 km, to 3,500 km). As Betz notes, these distances are quite close to the actual measurements today: 6,800 km for east-west axis and 3,450 km from Ceuta to Cairo.

For the source of the Nile, Ortelius follows the common two-lake Ptolemaic conception with one important exception: an omission of the Mountains of the Moon, which on many maps are depicted as source for the lakes. Here again he seems to be following Gastaldi, who does not explicitly name the mountains.

Most of the nomenclature is taken from Gastaldi. An interesting example of the use of placenames is the term Zanzibar. Ortelius uses a general Zanzibar in southwest Africa to, presumably refer to the people and area of East and Southern Africa, and Zenzibar for the island off the coast.

The map is decorated with a classical strapwork title cartouche, with two statues of women and four lions’ heads. Additional decorative elements include a grand sea battle (copied from Diego Gutierez’ wall map of the Americas) and sea monsters, including a ghost monster barely visible in the sea off the Arabian peninsula.

This is the second state with BI=LE=DUL=GERID (an historical region south of the Atlas Mountains) added above and below the Tropic of Cancer.

Latin text on verso. Engraved by Frans Hogenberg.


Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius was a cartographer and geographer, conventionally recognized as the creator of the first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World). He was one of the most notable figures of the Dutch school of cartography during its golden age (approximately 1570s–1670s).

Condition Description

A nice example on watermarked paper with marginal soiling and damp stains confined to the top blank margin.


Betz, Richard L. The Mapping of Africa: A Cartobibliography of Printed Maps of the African Continent to 1700. Goy-Houten: Hes & De Graaf, 2007, #12.2. Norwich, I., and Pam Kolbe. Maps of Africa: An Illustrated and Annotated Carto-bibliography. Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1983, #10.

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