Riding the wave


The world map of Fra Mauro in the Marciana Library

The world map of Fra Mauro - kept at the Marciana Library in Venice, and reproduced in facsimile by the Government Printing Office and Mint (Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato) in 2002, in a limited edition of 499 numbered copies - is considered one the greatest monuments of late Medieval mapping, for the complexity and grandeur of its achitecture.

The author is a Camaldolite monk from San Michele di Murano, whose portrait appears on a coin bearing the inscription "Frater Maurus S. Michelis Muranensis de Venetiis ordinis camaldulensis chosmographus incomparabilis.

Very little is known of his life: he is identified with a Brother Maurus mentioned in two documents of 1409 and 1433, and we know that for a time he lived in a convent in Istria, in order to map its property. The records of his monastery mention the costs of materials needed for chart-making, and the names of two assistants of his, one of whom is Andra Bianco, well-known as a chart-maker.

It is therefore assumed that Fra Mauro was the leader of a mapping workshop, to which a chart is ascribed, now in the Vatican Library, published by Roberto Almagia in Monumenta Cartographica Vaticana, vol. I (Vatican City 1944), as well as a globe made in 1459 for Alfonso V, king of Portugal, which have been lost.

Probably Fra Mauro died in 1459 because in October of that year it was established that his works were to be kept under lock at the monastery of St. John at the Giudecca.

The world map of Fra Mauro (upper right quadrant), in the facsimile reproduction by the Government Printing Office and Mint,
of which a copy is at the Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute in Genoa.

The Mapamundi is roughly circular (cm 196 x 193), inscribed in a square of about 223 cm in side. In the upper corners and in the lower right corner there are large captions with geo-cosmographic information and three spheres, while in the left lower corner there is the Earthly Paradise.

On the back there is written that the Mapamundi was completed on August 26, 1460, but it is likely that the original version was earlier than 1450, because of some anachronisms, including, in particular, a caption next to Constantinople, which speaks of it as the seat of the Western Roman Empire, ignoring the conquest by the Turks.

The Earthly Paradise, in the left lower corner

The Mapamundi has neither scale, nor wind-rhumbs; on the edge of the circle there are the names of the cardinal points and intermediate points, while the map is oriented with the South at the top, a common practice in ancient cartography, probably of Islamic origin.

It is painted on parchment and represents all known lands, surrounded by the ocean. One feature that leaps to the eye is the abundance of captions, some very long, probably written after the completion of the map, since they are placed on the drawing of the waves.

Prof. Tullia Gasparrini Leporace, who transcribed the captions and edited the comment to the facsimile reproduction by the Poligrafico, found that some are drawn on pieces of parchment glued on the background, perhaps to cover previous writing or drawings.

Another relevant feature is the presence of empty cartouches, which suggests that the Mapamundi was never fully completed.