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Atlas and the Labors of Mercator

Posted by Alberto Bertolazzi on
Atlante e le fatiche di Mercatore

Rupelmonde Castle was dark and austere. Looking at it from afar elicited a shiver of fear, but seeing it from the inside was equivalent to peering into a monster from within. Gerhard tried not to think about it: he knew he had many important friends in the Flemish city, and everyone was working hard to get him out of those dungeons, where they had thrown him for alleged heresy. His fault? Having ended up, due to a vague friendship, on the list of suspected supporters of Martin Luther. He, Gerhard Kremer, known in the enclave of Flemish cartographers as Gerard Mercator, cared little about Luther's ideas. He was a scientist, perpetually searching for the tales of navigators and the great books that were being reprinted at that turn of the century: for example, the Geographia of the phenomenal Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a work illustrated by 27 precious geographical maps.

planet Earth

His imprisonment would end a few months later, in that leaden 1544. But he didn't know it, and he tried to find in his memories the strength and ideas to resist the cold and the mice. In his consoling thoughts, there was a word that often resurfaced: Atlas , Atlas. In the days spent reflecting, Gerhard had developed two intentions: to create geographical maps never seen before, based on a new and original projection, which would better describe the roundness of the globe on the plane, facilitating the work of navigators; and the creation of a systematic collection of modern geography, based precisely on the work of Ptolemy. He wanted to give this collection the symbolic name of Atlas .

Mercator succeeded in both aims. In his Nova et aucta orbis terrae descriptio ad usum navigantium emendata accomodata , printed in 1569, there is a compliant map that maintains the angles of the globe, ideal for navigation at the time, based almost entirely on the use of the compass. And in 1585, after long and exhausting years of research, he gave birth to the first part of the Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura . He also managed to complete the second part, before suffering a stroke that led to his death.

It was his son Rumold who published the third part, also reprinting the first two and including the well-deserved biography of his father. Following his wishes, he had the mythological Atlas depicted on the frontispiece of the definitive work, busy supporting the celestial sphere. It was in some way a tribute to the immense efforts undertaken by the great Gerhard. This is why the name of the titan later came to indicate all cartographic collections.

The drawings that accompany this article are by Sacco&Vallarino and are taken from the book Pianeta Terra - Atlante per bambini by Enrico Lavagno.

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