The mapamundi of Fra Mauro

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Fra Mauro's mapamundi was created before Portuguese explorers sailed around Africa, yet it shows that at least at a certain level there was a fairly precise knowledge of the world.

"The measure of intelligence is the ability to change." - A. Einstein.

Between 1457 and 1459, and commissioned by king Afonso V of Portugal (see Afonso V, The African) the Venetian monk, Fra Mauro, created a map of the world[170]; his mapamundi, as it became known from its description in Latin (the term means "map of the world") is now considered by many as the finest expression of medieval cartography. But the map isn't just an expression of art and culture: It was done for very practical purposes that were considered top secret and shows a level of knowledge that is far beyond what is assumed for the late medieval period.

The plansiphere in question was created on a 2 x 2 m canvas (approx.) on a frame of wood; as it was normal at the time, it is custom painted, handcrafted and of course, it wasn't conceived for reprinting. The fact that it was mounted on a frame might suggest that it wasn't a piece of to-secret material but this is probably misleading: The map was commissioned by the king of Portugal not just because he was a well-cultivated man, but due to the fact that the nation was then beginning its expansion towards Africa and the Atlantic.

Indeed, since the time of Afonso's grandparents, king Joćo I and queen Philippa (see Joćo I de Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster) Portugal was becoming increasingly proactive and looking for new trade routes in order to reach India. The Portuguese royal family - the House of Avis - was better educated than most and its members were well aware of stories coming back to the ancient world about trips around the African continent, trips to India, the existence of china and the general shape of the world. So, looking for ways around Africa to circumvent Moorish nations and their virtual monopoly on spice and gold trade became a grand strategy for the Portuguese during the reign of Joćo I and Philippa.

The process was continued by the following king and his brother, prince Henrique (see Henry the Navigator), who was Afonso's uncle. And so the king of Portugal, with vast resources at hand and the intention to continue with the strategy established two generations before, had Fra Mauro make him a map of everything known.

Fra Mauro was a cartographer that had set up his shop at the monastery of San Michele di Murano, near Venice; working with Andrea Bianco. The map was finished on April 24, 1459, and shipped to Portugal along a letter from the Venetian prince to Dom Enrique (Henry the Navigator), but the original map was lost along the way.

Soon afterwards, Bianco and Fra Mauro were working on a second copy, destined for the Venetian authorities, but the monk died; Andrea Bianco, nevertheless, finished the work.

The map is very accurate and includes information provided by travelers and explorers such as Niccolo Da Conti, who visited India and Indochina some years before. Some experts and historians suggest that Fra Mauro's map has definite Chinese influences.

This is indeed, a possibility: Fra Mauro considered the story of a ship that drifted for several weeks along the coasts of Africa. This could have been one of the "Treasure Ships" of Admiral Zeng He that around 1420 made several trips between China, India and Africa, before the Chinese Empire decided to close on itself (see The Treasure Ships).

One copy of the map is publicly available, and it seems that there is only one other copy left, which belongs to a private collection.

There has been a lot of speculation about the origins of the information used by Fra Mauro and Bianco to make the map, which is remarkably precise; they most certainly could have learned about Zeng He and his armadas, and they made use of books written by ancient historians. But what is certain is that learned people of the XV century were well past beyond superstitions such as the one that describes earth as flat and being supported by elephants or turtles.

One interesting description he made was of some adventurers that found a giant egg of the Roc bird in Africa; this could have been a tale but at the time, the Aepyornis, which was a giant bird somewhat similar to a Moa, was facing extinction but still alive in Madagascar. Its eggs were fairly big, so it is possible that the tale of the Roc had some real basis.

Today, a crater on the moon bears the name of the Venetian cartographer; the Apollo XIV mission visited and explored the area.

Fra Mauro's mapamundi.
Fra Mauro's mapamundi[165].

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