In the tales rendered in texts and images on the map, the sea is a place both of dreams and terror. Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) registers enthusiasm for the possibility of new navigation routes, but at the same time expresses awareness of the tragic cruelty of the sea. Scenes of galleys and Chinese junks proudly breasting the waves—as told by Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) and Odorico da Pordenone (ca. 1280-1331)—are flanked by terrible shipwrecks, whirlpools, and treacherous currents. Texts warn against approaching lost islands and dark seas where “sticky waters” impede navigation, marking the physical and metaphysical limits of human agency.
A close look at the rich imagery of the map reveals a body of illustrations that witness the drama of oceanic navigation: ships upended; galleys with broken masts at the mercy of the waves; floating debris of decks, masts, and barrels; and the pathetic remains of tempest-thrashed fleets surrounded by giant fish, jaws gaping wide. Through these portrayals of storm and shipwreck, viewers could dwell on the risk of disaster at sea, imagining scenes of panic and agony of the victims, and ships swallowed by waves off Gibraltar or in the Indian Ocean.