Historical Context

The world map of Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) presents a circle divided into three large geographic areas: Europe, Africa, and Asia. This compositional schema recalls the forms and functions of the so-called T-O world maps, typical of the classical and late-classical eras, such as the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636). These schema are mnemonic figures intended to establish the structure of the inhabited world without pretending to faithfully represent its actual geographic extension and form.

The world map has a geometric center, used to trace the thin red circle which circumscribes the entire image, and a symbolic center, the city of Jerusalem, positioned slightly to the west of the geometric center. Taking into account the overall population density of the inhabited lands in the West, Fra Mauro held that Jerusalem would figure as the center of the world. In the map this city is pointedly indicated by a wind rose similar to the eight arranged around the circumference.

Obedient to classical cosmography, Fra Mauro represents many islands along the circumference, thus indicating a transitional zone between explored and unexplored territories, between inhabited lands and the great surrounding ocean. Beyond that border is the great darkness that impedes navigation, entrapping ships in dense, viscous waters without hope of escape. Rather than venturing into those waters, Fra Mauro writes, “it is better to die”.