Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius created Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, commonly considered the first 'modern atlas', during the dawn of the Dutch Golden Age at the conclusion of the 16th century. Using sources from his contemporaries, particularly Gerard Mercator, Ortelius engraved his own versions of dozens of maps, standardized to a specific folio size. His published volume placed each map alongside text explaining cultural history and map sources, in an encyclopedic fashion.

While prior maps had been bound into books, particularly in Italy and Portugal, they lacked the standardization of map size and text content that Ortelius provided. Several sources suggest that the name 'atlas', and possibly even the initial concept of a unified atlas, belonged to Mercator; however, Ortelius’ rival did not publish one until 1585. Ortelius cited Mercator as an influence within his atlas, along with all other credible geographic sources known to him, as part of a comprehensive bibliographic section known as Catalogus Auctorum. Ortelius’ atlas provided readers with a wide selection of maps, which allowed fellow cartographers access to a variety of sources. Though Ortelius never anticipated such long-lasting success, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and its extensive bibliography sparked centuries of collaboration among map makers across the globe.