The Mappa Mundi by Fra Mauro was a major cartographical accomplishment of the mid-fifteenth century, a stunning masterpiece of the early Age of Exploration which compiled much of the geographical knowledge of European cartographers of its time in addition to knowledge from ancient sources. The map is a circular planisphere drawn on parchment and set in a wooden frame. It measures over 2 by 2 meters and is oriented south, encompassing Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean. Published in the 1450s, it is considered the most extensive and accurate depiction of the world as known to Western Europe of its era. The map is so remarkably accurate that it has been favorably compared to modern satellite images of the planet.
As a young man, Fra Mauro had been a soldier and merchant of the famed Venice Merchant Fleet. His travels with the fleet around the Mediterranean and the Middle East resulted in his becoming interested in mapping, and he eventually settled in the monastery of San Michelle on the island of Murano, in the Venice Lagoon, where he became a lay brother. Once settled, he opened a workplace for creating maps and in the early 1450s he was commissioned by King Afonso V of Portugal to create a map of the world.
King Afonso V of Portugal
Fra Mauro’s proximity to Venice enabled him to be in constant communication with captains, sailors and explorers returning from voyages to previously unknown parts of the world, and when commissioned by Afonso, Fra Mauro had already established himself as a talented and well-connected cartographer. The wealth of the Portuguese, and their determination to be masters of mercantile throughout the known world made them excellent clients for a growing group of cartographers. Portuguese purses were full, and modern, up-to-date maps were a necessity in their quest to dominate international trade.
The magnificent map is oriented south, in keeping with Fra Mauro’s own portolan charts and with Muslim cartographic tradition of the era, rather than the widely accepted Ptolemaic north orientation commonly used by other mapmakers. His map combines accepted cartographic theories from the past with the most current contemporary information available, that obtained from his ongoing interviews in Venice’s taverns and inns of travelers recently arrived from far-off lands and newly discovered places.
Fra Mauro used the information gleaned from these travelers and adventurers to create a map laden with illustrations of all manner of things, including various precious and rare stones such as amber, rubies, pearls and diamonds. Manna from the heavens is depicted. Exotic animals and local traditions were of itnerest to him and he shows serpents in India with seven heads and troglodytes in eastern Africa. The Barents Sea features fish which he states 'could puncture ships with the spike on their backs'. While he was skeptical about many claims and stories, he was at the same time eager to share the information on his map.
Having taken careful notes of the reports of the various travelers whom he had interviewed, he then checked them against sources and references in the well-stocked library of his monastery. The information gleaned enabled him to create a map with nearly three thousand annotations written in his hand explaining the features and places depicted. He states that the planet's circumference, generally accepted to be 22,500 or 24,000 miglia, had not been verified, yet modern technology has proven it to be surprisingly close.
History of the map
The map was created at the monastery of San Michele in Isola on the island of Murano around 1450, and represented a break from tradition as it assumed a new approach to cartography. Symbolic representations of the world, commonly centered on either Jerusalem or Rome were eschewed by its maker. Though not always accepting Ptolemy’s work in full, Fra Mauro based the map on the Geography of Ptolemy, along with contemporary marine charts. It includes thousands of annotations derived from ancient sources, medieval scholars, explorers like Marco Polo and Niccolò de’ Conti, along with the eye-witness reports already described which he obtained from travelers to Venice and from visiting Ethiopian monks. It is brilliantly illuminated, densely packed with iconographic imagery representing cities, castles, roads, ships, and even shipwrecks. Its castles and cities are identified by glyphs representing turreted castles and walled towns, and are distinguished in order of their importance. Leonardo Bellini, nephew of famed painter Jacopo Bellini, painted an image of the Garden of Eden in one corner.
The map was displayed at the monastery — initially in the church itself — and rapidly became an icon of Venice’s status as a flourishing center of global commerce and art. It stayed there for 350 years until the suppression of monasteries under Napoleon when it was transferred to the city of Venice. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.