Fra Mauro world map digitized to the nines

The visionary world map created by 15th century monk Fra Mauro has been digitized and can now be explored in detail online with a fantastic depth and breadth of explanatory material in Italian, English and Chinese.

Made in the monastery of San Michele in Isola around 1450, the map took a whole new approach to cartography, eschewing the purely symbolic representations of a world centered on Jerusalem or Rome common in medieval European maps before then. It is based on the Geography of Ptolemy and contemporary marine charts, and includes thousands of annotations derived from ancient sources, medieval scholars, explorers like Marco Polo and Niccolò de’ Conti and eye-witness reports Fra Mauro got from travelers to Venice and visiting Ethiopian monks. It is brilliantly illuminated, densely packed with iconographic imagery representing cities, castles, roads, ships, even shipwrecks. Leonardo Bellini, illuminator and nephew of famed painter Jacopo Bellini, painted an image of the Garden of Eden in one corner.

The map was displayed at the monastery — initially in the church itself — and rapidly became an icon of Venice’s status as a flourishing center of global commerce and art.  It stayed there for 350 years until the suppression of monasteries under Napoleon in 1810 when it was transferred to the city of Venice. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

The digital edition of Fra Mauro’s world map embraces its creator’s embrace of data abundance. A collaboration of the Galileo Museum in Florence, the Marciana National Library and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the map can be explored virtually in as little or as much depth as you’d like. Click section 2 to focus in on the interactive map and click around at your discretion, but fair warning: it is an overwhelming amount of information to absorb. I highly recommend starting at the beginning with the introduction and clicking through the sections in order.

Just to give you a quick glimpse of the density of content here, check out one single menu item, the cartouches in the Geographic Space category. It highlights, transcribes and translates every one of the 2,922 cartouches that describe cities, countries, regions, bodies of water, roads, bridges, trade routes and so much more. Scroll down the menu a little further to explore Marco Polo’s travel itinerary linked with the contemporary locations on Google Maps.

Most of the menu selections have interactive audio and video. Just click on the play buttons to launch detailed explanations of what you’re seeing. (I found the Legendary Places view entertaining). Subsequent sections contextualize the map, its significance at the time, how it was reproduced, its place in a timeline of other illuminated world maps (all of which are also digitized in high resolution so you can hunt through even more medieval cartography) and the enormous influence of Ptolemy on the world map. Fra Mauro’s Marine Chart gets its own dedicated section.

Last but certainly not least is a Digital Library that makes my nerdy heart go pit-a-pat. Every entry is a book about geography and travel hyperlinked to a digitized version of the tome in question. The digitization truly redefines deep dive.

2 thoughts on “Fra Mauro world map digitized to the nines

  1. so inspired by your headline, I looked up the origin of the phrase “to the nines”. No one knows for certain, but the most probable origin seems to be that it is a reference to the Nine Muses

  2. The “Erdapfel” is a terrestrial globe produced by Martin Behaim from 1490–1492 and the oldest surviving terrestrial globe.

    It is constructed of a laminated linen ball in two halves, reinforced with wood and overlaid with a painted map. Indeed, the “written annotations” are readable much better in just two dimensions:

    As far as the “Western Hemisphere” is concerned, America is clearly missing. However, there are islands in the West mentioned and depicted that “Brendan” had visited “in the year 563”, and also “antilia” is depicted, according to the text also referred to as “septeritade” (Behaim had moved from Nuremberg to Lisbon, hence the “Portuguese Franconian”).

    He annotates that the coordinates (“nach der lang und nach der braite”) were those from the ancient “Cosmologia Ptolemaei”. For issues with the Ancient Greek projection to modern GIS systems check out:

    500 years earlier, the Vikings had visited the new found land, and there are written records, the ‘Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum’, the “Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg” (1073 to 1076AD by Adam of Bremen).

    Bk.IV covers the arctic North (‘Descriptio insularum aquilonis’). Here, in chapter 39 the globe structure is described and “Winland” (North America) is mentioned, apparently reported to Adam by the king of the Danes:

    ..Tercia est Halagland insula vicinior Nortmanniae , magnitudine ceteris non impar. Haec in estate circa solsticium per quatuordecim dies continuos solem videt super terram et in hieme similiter per totidem dies sole caret. Stupenda res et incognita barbaris, qui nesciunt, disparem longitudinem dierum contingere propter solis accessum et recessum. Nam propter rotunditatem orbis terrarum necesse est, ut solis circuitus accedens alibi diem exhibeat, alibi recedens noctem relinquat. Qui dum ascenderit ad aestivale solsticium, his qui in borea sunt dies prolongat noctesque adbreviat; descendens autem ad hiemale solsticium, simili ratione facit australibus. Hoc ignorantes pagani, terram illam vocant sanctam et beatam, quae tale miraculum praestet mortalibus. Itaque rex Danorum cum multis aliis contestatus est hoc ibi contingere, sicut in Suedia et in Norvegia et in ceteris quae ibi sunt insulis.

    Praeterea unam adhuc insulam recitavit a multis in eo repertam oceano, quae dicitur Winland, eo quid ibi vites sponte nascantur, vinum optimum ferentes. Nam et fruges ibi non seminatas habundare, non fabulosa opinione, sed certa comperimus relatione Danorum. Post quam insulam, ait, terra non invenitur habitabilis in illo oceano, sed omnia, quae ultra sunt, glacie intolerabili ac caligine immensa plena sunt. Cujus rei Martianus ita meminit: Ultra Thilen, inquiens, navigatione unius diei mare concretum est. Temptavit hoc nuper experientissimus Nordmannorum princeps Haraldus. Qui latitudinem septentrionalis oceani perscrutatus navibus tandem caligantibus ante ora deficientis mundi finibus, inmane baratrum abyssi retroactis vestigiis vix salvus evasit.

    ..The third enclosure is Halagland closer to Nortmannia, in size not different from the others. Around solstice, this one sees in Summer for fourteen days the sun constantly over the land, and in Winter similarly for the same amount of days it completely lacks any sun. It is this a shocking and strange thing to the Natives, who do not know that the uneven length of days is caused by the access and recess of the sun. Moreover, the round shape of the globe necessitates that the course of the accessing sun brings day, and otherwise the recessing sun leaves night. As it accesses to summer solstice, it prolongates the days and shortens the nights to those that are in the North; and while it descends to winter solstice, it brings the corresponding to those in the South. Unaware of that, the pagans call that land holy and happy, because it presents those miracles to the mortals. This has now been confirmed by the king of the Danes and many others happening there as it does in Sweden and in Norway and the rest of the islands over there.

    “Additionally, he lets us know about a newly found island among the many in that ocean, which is referred to as ‘Winland’, because grapevines grow there on their own, bearing the best vines. That over there the abundant crops are not sown, we get to know not only from fanciful opinion but from the true account of the Danes. Beyond that island, he says, habitable land is not found in that ocean, instead all territories beyond are full of intolerable ice and immense fog. On this, Martianus comments as follows: One day of sailing beyond Thule, he says, the sea is frozen. Harald, the most enterprising leader of the Normans, recently tried that. He who searched with his ships the northern latitude at last backed down safely from the nebulous harsh extreme end of the world, hardly avoiding the vast abyss of Hell by reversing his track.”


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