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Maps are the Record of Humans' Imagination of the World

The Fra Mauro Map, 1460

One of the most significant word maps now hangs in the Correr Museum in Venice, Italy. This map is seven feet in diameter, inked on velum, and covered with over 3,000 inscriptions in old Veneziano, the language of Venice. It was created by an obscure Venetian monk named Fra Mauro who worked with a team of cartographers, artists, and calligraphers in the middle 1400s at the monastery island of San Michele just off the north shore of Venice. Finished in 1459, this map was a masterpiece of both cartography and artistry, and it is the oldest Medieval map that has survived.

This map was also an inflection point in human history. Fra Mauro’s map was the first to show definitively that a ship could circumnavigate Africa at the southern tip and sail into the Indian Ocean, thereby opening sea trade between the West and the East. And it described people and goods across many cultures pointing out to Westerners that there were many other lifeways around the world. But most of all, this map was the first time that a cartographer moved away from religious mythology and ideology and embraced the science of geography. As such, Fra Mauro’s map foreshadowed the slide in Western culture from the insular Middle Ages into the enlightenment of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

The ubiquitous nature of mapping suggests that diagraming our landscape is an ancient feature of human cognition and behavior and that we owe much of our evolutionary success to that ability. Maps appeared in the human record before there was writing, and even before there were systems of numbers. Because these drawings were used to represent something else, they were a means of communication and memory and a way to bridge languages and cultures. Among the many maps created by people over time and across cultures, one mode stands out as the most imaginative and creative, and the least practical—the world map. These maps don’t show the way to get home, guide a traveler, or even inform accurately what belongs to whom.

World maps are purely artistic in that they have always been made for grand effect. Mappamundi are also products of their times because they chart the history of geography and other knowledge and so these sweeping, impractical showpieces also echo the society in which they were produced; they are talismans of culture, the storytellers of human experience. Their story is our story, and that’s why they matter.

The first world map is a tiny bit of smashed-up clay, called the Babylonian map of the world, about the size of a human hand when glued together, and it dates between 500-700 B.C.E. The reconstructed tablet is composed of 8-10 pieces with a hole in the center, which presumably marks the center of the Babylonian Empire. It is incised with rays and circles representing the Euphrates River and a horizontal rectangle that represents the city of Babel. The following centuries produced various world maps in Greece, the Roman Empire, the Arabic world, and some Asian world maps. These maps were made as ancient sailors and navigators began to travel long distances for exploration and trade, and they reflected how their cultures saw the world.

Eventually, the cartographers in Western culture used maps as supporting propaganda to reinforce Christian beliefs and to instill fear of the unknown by portraying mystical creatures, warning about barbarians, and highlighting uninhabitable and presumably dangerous places. And of course, all these early cartographers had no idea that there were two more continents on the other side of the globe, continents already inhabited by people who had walked, sailed, or rowed there long ago. These Medieval Western world maps were encyclopedias of knowledge, but that knowledge was biased and narrow.

Fra Mauro’s map was constructed during the Late Middle Ages, an exciting time for Western culture. The West was just on the cusp of breaking out of its known geography and sailing to far-flung places. But this Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) was not so much about exploring new and interesting places as a purposeful financial move. When Europeans moved out of their geographic comfort zone, they were incited by nascent capitalism, that is the desire to pick up goods and resources from foreign places and sell them back home or elsewhere at a profit.

That burgeoning of capitalism was underscored by a focus on technological improvements in trade ships and navigation. Because of Fra Mauro’s map, for example, one could now imagine circumnavigating Africa and entering the Indian Ocean, which had previously been imagined as a closed sea. As a result, trade with the East could be much more efficient and financially profitable by rounding the tip of Africa rather than sticking to land routes across Asia. And this map visually described other sea routes for trade and how they might connect to form one vast trading network.

Also, Fra Mauro's map was reflective of the various intellectual revolutions that had begun flowering. Like no world map before it, this one was brimming over with information from other places and cultures, suggesting there was a wide world out there waiting to be explored and understood. In that sense, Fra Mauro’s map was the first encyclopedia of the known world, and it pointed to a vast diversity of peoples and practices.

Fra Mauro’s map is not just a map of the known world in the mid-1400s. It is also a reflection of the tipping point that brought Western culture out of the Dark Ages into the light of modernity. His creation was a road map to expansion, discovery, trade, prosperity, and domination. And it gave birth to a long series of later world maps. In other words, this map was like a pebble thrown into a pond, creating various unpredictable but sizable waves of rings that spread out from the impact of that pebble; it changed world history, how world maps have since been used for various purposes, and established the scientific discipline of cartography.