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The Fra Mauro Map: The Google Earth of the Medieval World
For almost everyone born in the last half-century, it’s hard to imagine a time before we knew exactly what the Earth looked like. Any map created in our lifetime has had actual photographs of the Earth for reference, so it’s pretty hard to get them wrong. Even for our parents and grandparents who lived before the Space Age, modern cartography had become extremely precise, and maps from their time look more or less the same as the ones we have today.
The Fra Mauro Map is the most accurate map of the world before the famous Earthrise photo taken by the Apollo astronauts
Fra Mauro, an Italian cartographer who lived in the Republic of Venice, was a monk of the Camaldolese Monastery of St. Michael where he maintained a cartography workshop.
With strong dedication, long before the famous Earthrise photo taken by Apollo astronauts, he created the most detailed and accurate map of the world, the Fra Mauro Map, which is considered the greatest memorial of medieval cartography.
It was made around 1450, and it looks like a circular planisphere drawn on parchment and set in a wooden frame that measures over two by two meters. It took several years to complete and was very expensive to produce.
The map was not created by Fra Mauro alone, but by a team of cartographers and artists who were led by him. All together, they created the largest extant map from early modern Europe.
The map includes Asia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic. It was likely influenced by Arabic accounts, as the map is oriented with South at the top because upon close examination of the map, the outline of the Mediterranean Sea, the boot of Italy, and the Black and Caspian Seas are clearly visible.
The map contains hundreds of detailed illustrations and more than 3000 descriptive texts. For the illustrations, Mauro used a range of expensive colors: red, brown, blue, turquoise, green, and black are among the pigments used. The descriptive texts describe the various geographical features on the map as well as related information about them.
Four smaller spheres surround the central circular map of the world:
- The top left sphere is a cosmological diagram – a map of the solar system according to the Ptolemaic system.
- The top right is a diagram of the four elements – earth is followed by water, fire, and air.
- The bottom left is an illustration of the Garden of Eden. Significantly, Fra Mauro took the step of placing the Garden of Eden outside the world, rather than in its traditional place in the extreme east.
- The bottom right depicts the Earth as a globe. It shows the North Pole, the South Pole, as well as the Equator and the two tropics.
Castles and cities are identified by pictorial glyphs representing turreted castles or walled towns, distinguished in order of their importance. Image by: Wikipedia/Public Domain
At that time, only those who traveled could describe distant lands. Mauro listened to their stories and painted a portrait of our planet. The text on the map mentions many of these travel accounts. One of the primary sources were accounts of the journeys of Italian merchant and traveler Nicolo de Conti and the book of travels of Marco Polo, in particular about East Asia.
The 15th-Century Monk Who Crowdsourced a Map of the World
If you had landed in Venice during the mid-15th century, you might have been accosted by a monk with a prominent nose and baggy, smurf-like hat. Ignoring your exhaustion and atrocious body odor after a long sea journey, he would have dragged you to a nearby tavern and cross-examined you about your travels. What was the weather like? What kind of precious gems were mined? What animals did you encounter, and how many heads did they have?
The monk was Fra Mauro, a 15th-century version of Google Earth. Famous for his cartographic skills, he had been commissioned by King Alfonso of Portugal to produce a map of the world.
Earth according to Fra Mauro. Public Domain
The Portuguese were eager explorers and wealthy clients, and in the days before satellite imagery, Venice was a cartographers’ heaven. Arab traders and world explorers passed through the port, giving Fra Mauro an incomparable source of gossip and tall tales about the world. The fall of Constantinople, occurring a few years before the map was finished, would also have provided a rich source of well-traveled refugees, presumably willing to swap their stories for some bread or beer.
Crowdsourcing a map had never been easier, and Fra Mauro took full advantage. He interrogated these travelers with an inquisitiveness verging on belligerence, cross-checking their tales against the extensive library in his monastery in the Venice lagoon. He used their information to draw the map itself and pepper it with almost 3,000 annotations.
Some of the thousands of annotations on the map. Public Domain
Fra Mauro loved a good story, and his map is packed with pictures of amber, rubies, pearls, diamonds, manna, and “other notable things”. He was also fascinated by exotic animals and practices. Seven-headed serpents roam the province of Malabar in India, troglodytes run wild in East Africa, and the Barents Sea near Norway harbors fish that can “puncture the ships with a spike they have on their backs”.
More exotic treasures include a lake on an island in the Indian Ocean that can turn iron into gold. In the accompanying annotation, Fra Mauro hastily explained that he didn’t believe a word of this story, and included it “just to do justice to the testimony of many people.” Given that he repeated this particular tale in three different places and drew a spectacular gold lake in the middle of the Andaman Islands for good measure, his skepticism seems ambiguous to say the least.
To modern eyes, the monsters, lakes of honey-wine, and cannibals suggest credulity. In fact, however, the annotations on the map are full of doubt and skepticism. In both India and Africa, Fra Mauro gives no credence to the wild tales of “human and animal monsters,” noting that none of the travelers with whom he spoke could confirm the stories. “I leave research in the matter,” he concluded sarcastically, “to those who are curious about such things.”
Fra Mauro’s depiction of Africa. Public Domain
Fra Mauro was also exceptional in his rejection of religious and classical authority. Europe was not a haven of religious tolerance at the time the Spanish inquisition started just 20 years after the map was completed. Mapmakers, consequently, focused on keeping the Church happy rather than worrying about minor geographic details. Medieval maps showed the location of Noah’s Ark, discussed the depravity of pagans, and illustrated the hideous giants Gog and Magog, lurking in the far North and eagerly awaiting the apocalypse. Fra Mauro, by contrast, took a rigidly empirical approach. The Garden of Eden was relegated to a sidebox, not shown in a real geographic location. He sternly noted that the tradition that the Gog and Magog lived in the Caucasus Mountains “is certainly and clearly mistaken and cannot be upheld in any way,” since plenty of people lived in and traveled to the mountains, and they would have noticed any monstrous giants living nearby.
Adam and Eve made an appearance on the bottom-right corner of the map. Public Domain
Fra Mauro also criticized various classical authorities. Like a cheeky schoolchild—or a commentator on an online forum—Fra Mauro prefaced his criticism by saying that he didn’t want to seem contrary but couldn’t help it that everyone else was wrong. Ptolemy got the size of Persia wrong, mislabeled Sri Lanka, and didn’t realize that you could sail all the way around Africa. Regarding the circumference of the Earth, Fra Mauro cited a couple of expert opinions and concluded dismissively that “they are not of much authenticity, since they have not been tested.” His robust skepticism marked a transition away from medieval traditions towards the intellectual excitement of the Renaissance.
As a result, Fra Mauro’s map was the most accurate ever made at the time. It wasn’t just his piercingly accurate national stereotypes the Norwegians were “strong and robust,” while the Scottish were “of easy morals.” He was the first to depict Japan as an island, and the first European to show that you could sail all the way around Africa. The latter finding drew on reports from unfortunate traders blown by a storm ‘round South Africa, learning that it was circumnavigable and liberally endowed with 60-foot birds, capable of picking up elephants. Through depicting the riches, navigation routes, and people around the world, Fra Mauro didn’t just describe terrain, but played a part in encouraging further exploration and analysis, leading up to the famous Age of Exploration and the discovery of the Americas.
Ships at sea on the map. Public Domain
Modern interest in Fra Mauro’s map was sparked by Placido Zurla, a monk at the same monastery, who published a lengthy study in 1806. Since then, it’s been widely recognized that Fra Mauro was way ahead of his time for his accurate geographical knowledge, willingness to challenge authority, and emphasis on empirical observation.
The map is accurate enough to guide researchers to as-yet undiscovered archaeological sites. For example, Fra Mauro’s contacts in the Ethiopian Church allowed him to map medieval Ethiopia in surprising detail. He accurately portrayed a number of geographical features the Awash River, mountain ranges surrounding Addis Ababa, and the Ziquala mountain and monastery (which is still there, 500 years later). Alongside geographical features, Fra Mauro plotted ancient cities that for centuries scholars assumed never existed. This assumption is challenged by archaeologists today, who have found unmistakable signs of past habitation in the sites that Fra Mauro indicated. Although no excavation has started, obsidian shards and pottery pieces litter the landscape, and small walls, old grindstones, and worn foundations are visible under moss and bushes.
If he were alive today, Fra Mauro would probably be disappointed to know that lakes of gold and wine existed just in the imagination of the travelers he interviewed. He would, however, be happy to know that his map is proving more accurate than skeptical cartographers gave it credit for, and that it still acts as a starting point for research and discovery.
Map Monday highlights interesting and unusual cartographic pursuits from around the world and through time. Read more Map Monday posts.
Fra Mauro's Mappamundi
Long before the famous Earthrise photo taken by Apollo astronauts, creating an image or map of the entire known world was a singular human endeavor. Imagine a half a millennium earlier when only those who had traveled could describe distant lands. Imagine watching the hustle and bustle of merchants and sailors returning to the port of Venice. What stories could they tell to paint a portrait of our planet?
Fra Mauro, a Venetian monk and cartographer from the mid-15 th century, made it his life’s work to chart the course of merchants and travelers in order to create the most definitive map of the world. Accounts from travelers interviewed by the monk are found throughout the map as citations of integrity. No sailor’s tale was too mundane or merchant chart too crude for Fra Mauro. He wanted to chart the known world as traversed from the Mediterranean to the horn of Africa and to the far reaches of the Orient.
Fra Mauro’s map was likely heavily influenced by Arabic accounts, as the map is oriented with South at the top. This may seem confusing to our contemporary view of the world, but upon close examination of the map, the outline of the Mediterranean Sea, the boot of Italy, and the Black and Caspian Seas are clearly visible. The well-known Apollo 17 image of Earth was originally photographed with South at the top and turned around to be more recognizable to our North-oriented sensibilities. (Interestingly, a lunar crater and surrounding formations were named Fra Mauro in honor of the monk. This area was the intended landing site for Apollo 13, and was later visited by astronauts on the Apollo 14 mission.)
While Fra Mauro’s map had characteristics of other medieval maps of the period—a circular format with pictorial representations of cities and towns—he wanted to break from the divinely inspired maps of the Dark Ages. There were no embellishment of dragons and monsters, Jerusalem was not at the center, and the map was not oriented with East at the top where Garden of Eden was often depicted. Even locations defined and recorded by Ptolemy were not automatically given a reference on Fra Mauro’s map.
He opposed literary and cartographical tradition of other mappaemundi such as the existence of the legendary giants Gog and Magog from the region around Mount Caspian. He excluded these giants from his map because none of the first-hand travelers’ accounts he had heard mentioned these mythical creatures in the region.
Deciding what to include and what to exclude on a map has always been at the discretion of the cartographer or the one who commissions a map. This is true even today with images (maps) created from satellite data. This Blue Marble was created using data from the MODIS instrument onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites. Data from months of observations were combined to create a view of the planet without clouds.
For this Geographia pairing, we use an orthographic projection of the Blue Marble data slightly tilted and cropped to mimic the Fra Mauro map. The comparison is stunning when you consider that Fra Mauro compiled his data from the travel tales of myriad 15 th century sailors.
James Cowan, A Mapmaker’s Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, Mass. 1996
Fra Mauro’s Mappamundi, accessed 10 Jan. 2014
Mike Gentry, NASA Johnson Space Center Photo Librarian/Researcher. Personal communication to G. Butcher, 14 January 2014: “This is the way the astronaut framed the photo, as it is an actual contact file (albeit low resolution) of the original Hasselblad image.”
The Blue Marble image was created using MODIS data. Caption by Ginger Butcher.
Sūrat al-ard lil-Sharīf al-Idrīsī al-mutawaffa sanat 560, reprinted 1951
Al-Idrisi was born in Morocco, travelled in North Africa and Europe, and entered the service of Roger II King of Sicily for whom he made this map as part of The Book of Pleasant Journeys to Faraway Lands also known as The Book of Roger ( Tabula Rogeriana ). Arab geographers had translated Ptolemy&rsquos Geography by the end of the 9th century, 600 years before it was done in Europe. Along with travelers&rsquo accounts, it was a source of information for al-Idrisi&rsquos maps. This is only a small section of the larger map it is oriented with south at the top and, unlike descriptive Medieval European maps that are filled with imagery and text, it is solely concerned with portraying the geography of the Earth. His maps were the most accurate maps of the known world for three centuries.
Genoese World Map, 1457, reprinted 1912
This curious and colorful map from an unknown author is a great example of the meldings of the Medieval, portolan, scholarly descriptive, and Ptolemaic styles. There are the Medieval mappae mundi visual depictions of information, the Ptolemaic grids and orientation to the north, and the navigational rhumb lines of the portolans. The geography is much more recognizable than that of its contemporary, the Fra Mauro map. The depiction of India and all of Asia is much clearer. Much of the imagery is based on the descriptions of Marco Polo&rsquos and Niccolo dei Conti&rsquos travels in Asia.
Il Mappamondo di Fra Mauro, reprinted 1956
Fra Mauro&rsquos map is an excellent example of the evolution of European mapping from the mappae mundi style to ones with greater influence of contemporary seas charts and Arabic geographic knowledge. Fra Mauro states in the map that the narrative of Marco Polo was a major source for information. Mauro was a monk in the Camaldolese monastery on the island of Murano in Italy, so his exhaustive descriptions are all based on travelers&rsquo accounts. The descriptive elements of the mappae mundi are plentiful, but the map is oriented with south which is more common in Renaissance maps. The map is very large and measures over six feet in diameter. It was commissioned by King Alfonso of Spain who supplied him with the latest sea charts. You may be interested in the fictional account of the making of this map, A Mapmaker&rsquos Dream.
Boke of Idrography, reprinted 1981
Jean Rotz, son of a Scottish nobleman, was a mariner and nautical chart maker of the Dieppe (France) school of mapmakers. This map of south and southeast Asia is oriented with south at the top. The map was part of a manuscript nautical atlas The Boke of Idrography was dedicated and presented to Henry VIII.
Nansenbushū bankoku shōka no zu, 1710
This map was created by Rokashi Hotan and is the first Japanese printed map to depict the whole world, though its focus is Asia with India at the center. This reproduced section of the map from our original copy shows parts of central Asia and India. Hotan based his map on the story of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang&rsquos travels in India. The map is done in the traditional Buddhist cosmographical style and includes the mythological Lake Anavatapta where the Buddha was conceived, and the Ganges, Indus, Bramaputra, and Sujei Rivers flow from the heads of a fox, elephant, lion, and a horse.
Orbis antiqvi tabvlae geographicae secundum Cl. Ptolemaevm, cum indice philologico absolutissimo omnium locorum, montium, fluminum, &c. in tabulis occurrentium, situm, nomina recentiora, & alia eò pertinentia, lineis per ipsas ductis, accuratissime indicante in vsvm geographiae veteris stvdiosorvm (Asiae XII), 1730
No maps of Ptolemy&rsquos exist and it is uncertain whether he actually made any. The Ptolemaic atlases that were created based upon his writings were arranged in a consistent order based upon the textual arrangement and descriptions of Geography. There are twelve maps of Asia, and maps X, XI, and XII cover parts of what is modern day India. Taprobana, the name given to present day Sri Lanka and sometimes to Sumatra, was map XII. This is a reproduction from our original map from Gerhard Mercator&rsquos version of Ptolemaic maps Orbis antiqvi tabvlae geographicae secundum Cl. Ptolemaevm. Mercator was best known for his revolutionary world map 1569 and his great Atlas Sive Cosmographiae (1585).
The First Volume of the 5,453 Names of the Buddha,date unknown
This Tibetan manuscript was acquired by Walter Koelz on a 1932-33 expedition to Tibet and Northern India for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
The title of the text, written in gold on black background on the first page, is "The First Volume of the 5,453 Names of the Buddha"--these are the names of the Buddha recorded during the translation of the Kangyur (bka' 'gyur) from Sanskrit to Tibetan. The Kangyur is one of the two traditional divisions of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon (along with the Tangyur), which includes the sutras and tantras accepted by the tradition as spoken or directly inspired by the Buddha (according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism).
The manuscript is hand-written (as opposed to woodblock printed) in U-chen (dbu can) script, in black ink within red borders.
Maps and Society: ‘What Is a Map? The Case of Fra Mauro's Mappamundi'
Lectures in the history of cartography convened by Catherine Delano-Smith (Institute of Historical Research), Tony Campbell (formerly Map Library, British Library), Peter Barber (Visiting Fellow, History, King&rsquos College, formerly Map Library, British Library) and Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute). Meetings in London, when these are physically possible, are generously supported by the Antiquarian Booksellers&rsquo Association.
For the 2020-2021 academic year all meetings will be virtual unless otherwise informed.
Fra Mauro map
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Fra Mauro Map - History
This stunning oblique Apollo Metric photograph shows the Apollo 14 landing site explored by Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell in January 1971 as viewed from the Apollo 16 Command Service Module Casper in April 1972. The rough, craggy looking materials you can see in the center of the frame are the Fra Mauro formation, named after nearby Fra Mauro crater. The Fra Mauro formation is ejecta from the Imbrium basin-forming event, which is just over the horizon to the north .
Figure 1. Annotated Apollo 16 Metric Mapping Camera frame showing the Fra Mauro formation south of the Imbrium basin (Apollo Image AS16-M-1420 [NASA/JSC/Arizona State University])
The Fra Mauro site was one of only two highlands sites to be visited during Project Apollo, and the samples collected at the Apollo 14 landing site continue to provide lunar scientists with important insights into the geology of the lunar highlands. Nearly all of the Apollo 14 samples are breccias (or rocks formed from pieces of other rocks, often held together by an impact-melt matrix). Breccias were also found later to be the primary rock type at the Apollo 16 landing site, and consequently are now known to be ubiquitous in the lunar highlands. Since the Fra Mauro formation is ejecta from the Imbrium basin-forming event, age-dating the samples returned by Shepard and Mitchell in terrestrial laboratories indicated that the Imbrium basin formed approximately 3.85 billion years ago, providing a crucial absolute age date for the formation of the Imbrium basin, a crucial event in the lunar geologic timescale.
Despite the momentous discoveries made by the Apollo 14 and Apollo 16 crews, there is still much we do not know about the lunar highlands. In particular, lunar scientists are eager to use the remote sensing data returned by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other ongoing lunar missions like Kaguya and Chandrayaan-1 to look for evidence of highlands rock types which may be underrepresented in the current Apollo sample collection. Since we only explored two locations in the lunar highlands during Apollo, it is possible that there are lunar highlands rock types which have not yet been sampled. By identifying the location of any under-sampled rock types on the lunar surface using orbital data, the scientific results obtained by these new lunar scouts will help to determine the places on the Moon where we need to send future human explorers.
For more information:
Apollo 14 Sample Overview at the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Apollo Over the Moon: A View From Orbit (1978) H. Masursky, G. W. Colton, F. El-Baz, eds. NASA SP-362. Wilhelms, Don E. (1987) The Geologic History of the Moon, U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1348.
15th‐Century Monk Who Made Maps Gave His Name to Lunar Landing Area
Fra Mauro began pioneering work 514 years ago on what was to become the most ac curate map of the earth the world had ever known.
Yesterday, two American as tronauts began explorations of that region of the moon named for that 15th‐century Italian cartographer. The symbolism was appropriate.
For, from what relatively lit tle is known about the obscure Brother Mauro, he was a stu dious, forward‐thinking man, a monk who devoted his life to the careful study of geog raphy and mapmaking, a man who, according to some experts, has never received proper cred it for his cartographic contribu tions to man's explorations of his world.
Fra Mauro's map, which was titled “Mappa Mundi,” was, for instance, the first to show that it was possible to sail around the southern tip of Africa. This was 30 years before Bartholo meu Diaz made the trip.
His map was among the first that did not center the world on the Holy Land. It was the earliest to name Zimpagu, land later known as Japan.
Curiously, he also included another island called Ter restrial Paradise, a strange, rugged land of mountains and valleys, much like the lunar area that now bears his name. This may have led later lunar cartographers to name the re gion for him.
For the astronauts it was their most difficult landing site yet. It is a narrow valley be tween two clusters of craters and near an area of ridges and hills, some 8.000 feet high.
It was chosen originally for the abortive Apollo 13 mission because of scientific interest in its being a possible source of rocks much older than those that had been retrieved by previous lunar landings.
Fra Mauro's map was com missioned in 1457 by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portu gal, whose interest in things maritime stimulated much of the earlier explorations, includ ing Diaz's trip. The Prince was apparently attracted by Fra Mauro's reputation and title “Incomparable Geographer.”
According to Dr. William G. Niederland, a Manhattan psy chiatrist who has spent his spare time for 20 years study ing Fra Mauro and other early geographers, the monk be longed to the Camaldulenses order and lived in a monastery on Murano Island in Venice's lagoon.
Unlike many map makers of the time, Dr. Niederland said, Fra Mauro relied less on his imagination and more on avail able documentation, especially interviews with many mariners who frequented Venice.
Such maps were major works of art in those days, the intri cate, colorful designs often tak ing more than a year to com plete.
Completed In 1459
Fra Mauro's map is believed to have been completed in 1459, a year before the monk's death. Like other maps of the time, it was probably consid ered a classified document at first. It may have also con tributed to Columbus's sailing plans 33 years later.
The original map is missing and may have been destroyed in a earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755, according to Dr. Niederland.
But a colorful copy by Fra Mauro and an assistant, Andrea Bianco, hangs in anteroom of the Marciana Library in Venice. Drawn in the shape of a wheel, it measures some 6 feet across.
“Fra Mauro was one of the great pioneers preceding the age of discovery,” said Dr. Niederland. “He was a modest, retiring monk, but he was an original thinker.”
He was so original that he put south at the top of his maps. But then the astronauts didn't get to the Fra Mauro region on the first try either.