The world map by Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) is one of the first documents to testify to the growing importance of navigation beyond the Mediterranean and Atlantic merchant routes. The possibility of sailing the Indian Ocean for commercial purposes features as a subject of primary interest. No fewer than five great commercial sea routes are described in two cartouches that Fra Mauro positions near the Islands of Hormuz and Lesser Java. Starting from the Far East, a first route from Zaiton—today’s Quanzhou, in Fujian province, on China’s northeastern coast facing Taiwan—leads to the northern coast of Cathay.

A second route, headed west, links Zaiton to the Indian coast. Two further routes connect the Indian coast to Hormuz and Mecca, while a fifth one, combining maritime routes with river traffic, starts at Hormuz, proceeds up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and crosses Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Cappadocia, finally reaching the Genoese and Venetian commercial emporia on the Black Sea. Taken all together, these routes formed the so-called “maritime silk road”, represented for the first time in cartographic form on Fra Mauro’s map, based on the accounts of Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324), Odorico da Pordenone (ca. 1280-1331), and Niccolò de’ Conti (ca. 1395-1469).