23 July 2015

Fra Mauro's map: an instrument of the imagination

'If you walk to the western corner of St Mark's Square, climb up the stone steps of the Museo Correr, pay 16 euros, saunter through nineteen rooms of marble, coins and globes, you end up at a glass door. This is the Biblioteca Marciana, the civic library built in the 1530s to house a vast collection of Greek and Roman manuscripts and later a copy of every book printed in Venice. And there, between the museum and the library, visible through the glass door but accessible only with special permission from an attendant, is the work of a Venetian monk named Fra Mauro, who somehow, in 1459, knew more about what was where in the world than anyone else.

Mauro lived and worked on the Venetian island of Murano, already famous for its glass by the time he established his cartographer's studio there in the 1440s. He had travelled more than most, and some of his early naval and trade charts were drawn from experience. His circular world map (coloured ink on parchment, about two metres in diameter) was constructed for King Alphonso V of Portugal, and although the original no longer survives, we are fortunate that a copy was made for a Venetian lord.

The map contains almost three thousand place-names and a vast amount of explanatory text, and although it contained the usual misplaced rivers and regions, it was a geographical masterpiece. It is also - almost definitively - transitional, hovering between the old world and the new, and between the medieval depiction of the earth as one round "planisphere" and the dual-hemisphere projection that emerged in the sixteenth century. It is the last great map of a former age, history as soon as it was framed. Venice's role as "the hinge of Europe" was beginning to come to an end, and Mauro's vision of a world enclosed within a fishbowl would also lose its dominance. Columbus would set sail within a couple of decades, and Mercator would chart his voyages on a map enticingly open to the navigable oceans'.

- Simon Garfield, On the Map, London, 2013, p.75-6.

'My map ... was only one version of reality. It would only be of any use if it were employed as an instrument of the imagination. It occurred to me that the world itself should be seen as an elaborate artifice, and the expression of a will without end'.

- Fra Mauro, quoted in Peter Ackroyd, Venice, Pure City, London, 2009, p.345-6.

Images of the Fra Mauro map on display in the Museo Correr at St Mark's Square, Venice, 13 June 2015:

Fra Mauro's map

South is at the top

The mysterious far east, informed by Marco Polo's travels

Mare Indicum, the Indian Ocean

See also:
BlogThe Sunday morning train to Verona Porta Nuova, 15 June 2015
Blog: The tyranny of distance didn't stop the cavalier, 1 February 2011
BlogVenice in peril, 18 February 2007
Post a Comment