Geography travel atlases represent their own genre in art history. The term "atlas" refers to a map collection that is organized in a particular order. For this reason, travel atlases most often contain a world map, maps of the continents or special regions. The concept "atlas" in and of itself was first used in the work of Gerard Mercator in Germany in the 16th century. The predecessors of the modern atlases in the form of map works, on the other hand, was used already in the Middle Ages and were printed in Italy during the Renaissance. Abraham Ortelius published the first modern atlases in Antwerp in the year 1560. In general, geographic travel atlases had their major flowering in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Because the atlases of that time were artfully decorated, they are not to be understood by any means to be simply works of geographic representation. The title pages were carefully divided typographically and creatively, and the portfolios themselves were adorned with decorative ornaments. The coats-of-arms of the region often embellished the portfolios; city views were shown in birds-eye perspective. Furthermore, in the 17th century many artistic elements such as for example a frame or a cartouche were added. At the same time, metaphorical accompaniments found their way into the travel atlases: so for example the four elements, symbolic representations of the twelve months or characteristic features of the foreign cultures of the lands charted were portrayed.
The first known decorative elements on a topographic map appeared already in the 10th century in a manuscript from Isidor from Sevilla, in which the personifications of the four winds were depicted in the four corners riding on a sack-like object. Artistic adornments on geographic travel atlases served among other things to soften the purely utilitarian function of the maps, to emphasize the enthusiasm people had for discovery, and finally to fill in the empty spaces on the maps in an artistic way.
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