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.

Medieval St. George seal matrix found in French château

A previously unpublished and unknown bronze seal matrix of Saint George slaying the dragon has been discovered at the royal Château of Villers-Cotterêts in northern France. George’s armor stylistically dates the piece the early 15th century.

The chateau was built in 1528 by King Francis I. Its greatest fame comes from having been the location where King Francis I signed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, the edict that replaced Latin with French in all official acts of law and government, in August of 1539. It is the oldest French law still in force in French courts today.

Archaeologists have been excavating the royal estate since 2020. The seal was discovered in a coal pouch in a room in the north wing of the castle. Seal matrices were extremely important in the Middle Ages, the sole means of confirming the authenticity of a signature, and as such were customarily destroyed or buried with the owner after death. For one to be tossed in with the coals it was almost certainly lost by accident, perhaps by someone warming himself at a fireplace, and was inadvertently discarded with the ashes by staff.

The seal matrix is circular with a pierced mount on the back from which the seal could be worn on a chain around the neck or tied to a belt. It is hollow engraved on the obverse with a mounted horseman in full plate armor. Under the legs of the rearing horse is a dragon. It is bordered with a beaded edge and inscribed “IP PRI/EUR / DEVILLERS / LESM / OINE”.

The inscription indicates the seal belonged to the prior of the Saint George monastery in Villers-les-Moines which was a half-mile stroll from the Chateau of Villers-Cotterêts. Very little is known about this priory, which makes the discovery of the prior’s seal even more historically significant.

Largest starfish offering found at Templo Mayor

Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate Mexica offering containing 164 starfish at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. This is the largest number of starfish ever found in a ritual context. One of them is uniquely well-preserved, a magnificent specimen of Nidorellia armata, commonly known as the chocolate chip star, 22 cm (8.7 inches) wide with all of its internal structures still intact.

Offering number 178 was discovered late last year in the circular building known as the Cuauhxicalco, described in 16th century accounts as the place where the rulers of Tenochtitlan were cremated. It is the largest ritual offering ever discovered in the Templo Mayor precinct, combining symbolic elements of earth and water, like the remains of a female jaguar armed with an atlatl (spear-thrower) and large numbers of marine organisms including coral, puffer fish, snail shells and the aforementioned starfish.

Stratigraphy places the offering in the sixth stage of construction, dating it to around 1500, the end of the reign of great military leader Ahuitzotl and the beginning of the reign of his successor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. This was the last hurrah of the Aztec Empire before the arrival of the Spanish.

During the government of Ahuízotl, the Mexicas established trade routes, along with their military expansion in various parts of Mesoamerica, hence the presence in Tenochtitlan of corals brought from the Gulf of Mexico, starfish from the Pacific Ocean, and a female jaguar that could have been brought from distant regions such as Soconusco, a territory located between what is now Chiapas and Guatemala.

Based on historical sources, such as the Matrícula de Tributos , and previous findings, PTM archaeologists are clear that the offering is related to war, not only because of the atlatl that the jaguar carried in a claw, but because of its location in the Cuauhxicalco, building aligned with the southern side of the Templo Mayor, consecrated to Huitzilopochtli, god of war.

Báez Pérez explains that in their worldview, the Mexica related starfish and jaguars with the night sky and the night, this feline being an image associated with the god Tezcatlipoca, in his nocturnal representation.

“A good part of the Mesoamerican peoples believed that the origin of the world was linked to the sea, therefore, marine organisms were treated as relics. In the case of the Mexicas, their military power allowed them to bring thousands of marine objects and recreate an entire aquatic environment in Tenochtitlan itself.”

The offering is so complex and dense that archaeologists are still recovering all of its elements, fragment by fragment, so they can be analyzed in laboratory conditions. The final count of starfish may well rise even higher. Archaeologists believe perfectly-preserved starfish was placed in the offering pit first on a layer of fiber. The weight of the jaguar and copious other offerings then pressed the fellow into the fiber and kept the organic matter from decomposing as it did for the other 163 starfish. It is still in situ while the team determines how best to remove it en bloc to ensure both it and the sediment on which it was found come out together.

Porta Maggiore underground basilica illuminated

The public has been given a bright new glimpse at the unique basilica of mysterious purpose under Porta Maggiore just outside Rome’s ancient Aurelian walls thanks to the installation of a state-of-the-art illumination system. It is a very brief glimpse — the basilica was only opened from the 18th to the 20th — before the next stage of conservation begins. There is a too-short but wonderful video of conservators cleaning the richly-colored frescoes and of the superb white stucco reliefs on the walls and vaulted ceilings visible in whole new detail under the new lighting.

The new lighting system was inspired by the original one, using LED lights of different colors to suggest the natural illumination that bathed the basilica from the skylight of the vestibule. The apse, which is now white, was originally painted with extremely expensive Egyptian Blue pigment. It was stripped in antiquity, but the LEDs give a hint of the blue that once was.

Built deep under ground level in the 1st century A.D., the basilica has the traditional three-aisled form with aisles divided from the nave by two rows of three square pillars. It is not, however, traditional in purpose. Basilicas were secular buildings in Rome, dedicated to civic purposes like law courts and imperial audiences. It wasn’t until Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. that he chose to adopt the architectural form in the construction of new Christian churches, so this Julio-Claudian basilica was presciently anomalous. It’s also the only underground basilica ever found.

Its purpose is unknown. It was not a temple. It was not a catacomb. The stucco decoration — mythological scenes including the abduction of Ganymede, Orpheus and Eurydice, Paris and Helen, Chiron teaching Achilles, the head of Medusa — attests to it having had a religious function. Scholars have suggested it may have been a family tomb or a nymphaeum, but the prevailing thought now, based on common motifs in some of the stucco decoration, is that it was a place of worship for elite members of a Neopythagorean mystery religion. If so, they didn’t get to worship there for long. It was infilled with rubble a few years after it was built.

The basilica’s archaeological importance is not reflected in its fame, as it has had little opportunity to be exposed to a public that has a million other ancient marvels to choose from in Rome. Conservation has been a constant problem from the moment it was rediscovered. The sinkhole that alerted to its existence damaged the ceiling. Train vibrations and water infiltration damaged the walls, plaster and frescoes.

A major push for conservation to prevent further deterioration finally succeeded in funding the complete restoration of the interior of the Basilica of Porta Maggiore. The conservation project has been ongoing for more than 15 years. In 2015, the work has progressed sufficiently to allow the basilica to be open to the public on a limited basis. The pandemic shut down even that limited access, but thankfully conservation was able to continue and experts were able to remove efflorescence, carbonation spots and patinas of microorganisms endemic in the damp hypogeal space from the frescoes and stuccoes on the entrance wall, pillars of the left aisle and the vestibule.

Garden ornament is lost Canova masterpiece

A statue of the Recumbent Magdalene made by Neoclassical sculptor par excellence Antonio Canova has been rediscovered 100 years after it was sold off and its illustrious creator forgotten. It will be going under the hammer at Christie’s in London in July with a pre-sale estimate of £5,000,000-8,000,000 ($6,580,000-10,530,000).

Recumbent Magdalene was celebrated as a masterpiece in its time. When this sculpture was commissioned by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Canova had been the most famous sculptor in Europe for three decades, creating works for popes and aristocrats, depicting Napoleon nude as Mars (the Emperor rejected it on the grounds that it was “too athletic”) and Napoleon’s sister Paulina nude as Venus (Canova had planned for her to be depicted as Diana the Virgin Huntress; she insisted on posing nude as Venus). Napoleon as fig-leafed, muscular Mars, btw, was bought by the British government in 1816 and gifted to the Duke of Wellington as the ultimate trophy for his victory at Waterloo.

Completed in the summer of 1822, the Magdalene was one of the two last sculptures the master made before his death on October 13th, 1822. The other, The Sleeping Endymion and his Dog, was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and has been on display in the Sculpture Gallery of Chatsworth House ever since. After Canova’s death, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to Lord Liverpool:

“My dear Lord Liverpool . . . You will with the rest of Europe have mourned over Canova – it is a loss truly irreparable, & which I cannot think of without tears . . . you & Duke of Devonshire [who commissioned the Endymion] have the last strokes of his chisel . . . “.

After Lord Liverpool’s death, the Magdalene passed to his son Charles. It left the family after Charles’ death when it was sold at auction in 1852 to William, the 11th Baron Ward. The catalogue listed it as “one of the finest and most highly finished works of Canova,” and it was exhibited at high-profile events for years after that. In 1920, Ward’s sold his ancestral estate and all of its contents to a carpet manufacturer. One of those contents was the Recumbent Magdalene, but somehow in this transfer of ownership, the attribution was lost.

It acquired a new identity as a garden sculpture in the 1950s and the current owner bought it in 2002 at a sale of garden statuary.

The current owners, reported by the Financial Times as a British couple, contacted the London-based advisor Francis Outred who led a team that made the discovery. A condition report finds that a crucifix on the figure’s shoulder is now largely missing, but that the work is in otherwise “very good” condition.

“This work has been searched for by scholars for decades, so the discovery is of fundamental importance for the history of collecting and the history of art,” says Mario Guderzo, a leading Canova scholar and former director of the Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova in Possagno, Italy. A plaster model of the work, made in 1819, is held at the museum.

The work will go on show this weekend at Christie’s London and then tour to New York (8-13 April) and Hong Kong (27 May-1 June). The sale coincides with the bicentenary year of Canova’s death.