What did the world look like in the last ice age?

The amazing historical map that changed cartography

This map is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which provides historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.

In a one-paragraph story called About accuracy in science (Rigor in science), Jorge Luis Borges imagined an empire in which cartography had reached such a degree of precise science that only a map on the same scale as the empire would suffice.

The Fra Mauro Mapa Mundi (c. 1550s), named after the monk and cartographer Camaldolite created by the Venetian workshop, is not nearly as large, at 77 inches (196 cm) in diameter. But its influence and importance as a bridge between medieval and Renaissance thought certainly rivaled Borges’s imagined map.

One of the “wonders of Venice”

Venice was the undisputed trading power of the Mediterranean, with trade routes linking East and West, extending to Flanders, London, Algeria and beyond.

This network was protected by fleets of warships built at the famous Arsenal di Venezia, the largest production facility in the West, whose workforce numbered in the thousands. Arsenalotti Ships were built on an assembly line, centuries before Henry Ford.

The Lion of Saint Mark guards the land gate of the Arsenal di Venezia, and except for the usual open Bible in his hands offering peace, this book is closed, reflecting its military purpose. Source: Wikipedia

The Mappa Mundi (literally “map of the world”) is one of the wonders of Venice, and its fame has reached the Holy Land. It is a circular sphere drawn on four pages of parchment, mounted on three poplar boards and supported by vertical beams.

The map is painted in rich red, gold and blue; This last pigment was obtained from rare lapis lazuli imported from mines in Afghanistan. At its corners are four spheres showing the celestial and sublunar worlds, the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and the illumination of the Garden of Eden by Leonardo Bellini (active 1443-1490).

Japan (called Simbago Island on the left edge) appears here for the first time on a Western map. Contrary to Ptolemaic tradition, it also shows that it was possible to circumnavigate Africa, marking the first European voyage around the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.

NASA described the historical map as “astonishing” in terms of its accuracy.

Historical map between two worlds

Medieval maps, such as the Hereford Mapa Mundi (c. 1300), were usually oriented with the east at the top, because that is where the Garden of Eden was thought to be located. However, Fra Mauro chose to direct it south, perhaps following Muslim geographers such as Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi.

It is noteworthy that the Garden of Eden lies outside the geographic scope and Jerusalem is no longer at the center, although it is still marked by the Flower of the Wind. Nearly 3,000 place names and descriptions are written in the Venetian vernacular, rather than Latin.

At the same time, as much as Fra Mauro’s map represents a departure from the past, it also retains traces of the medieval Christian worldview. For example, the map includes the Kingdom of the Magi, the Kingdom of John the Prester, and the Tomb of Adam.

T and O mapa mundi pattern

isidore Seville, the science of the origin of the words (c. 600-625). Source: Wikipedia

The circular globe also follows the medieval TO diagram, first described by Isidore of Seville, with Asia occupying the upper half of the circle, and Europe and Africa occupying the lower two quadrants (Fra Mauro converts the “T” on its side to reflect a southern orientation). Around the circle, there are many islands, and beyond them is the “Dark Sea” where only shipwrecks and misfortune await.

Fra Mauro’s legacy

Fra Mauro died sometime before 20 October 1459, and unfortunately his contributions became unknown shortly thereafter; Until 1748, it was believed that Mapa Mundi was a copy of Marco Polo’s lost map.

In 1811, after the suppression of religious orders in the Napoleonic era, the original was transferred from the Fra Mauro Monastery in San Michele to the National Library Marciana, where it can be viewed today.

Two digital versions have also been produced by the Galileo Museum and the Engineering Historical Memory Project, where readers can get a glimpse of a fascinating piece of cartographic history.

A historical globe illustrated globe map designed in the 1550s in Venice, Italy by Fra Mauro.

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