Historical Context

More than a mere representation of the known world, this world map is a visionary project that graphically renders the potential of uniting the entire Earth through oceanic maritime routes. Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) foresaw that by circumnavigating Africa, extremely distant lands such as Cipangu (Japan), Java, and Zaiton (Quanzhou, on the China Sea, which Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) claimed to be the world’s largest port) could be connected to great cities closer to the Mediterranean, such as Aden, Hormuz, and Mecca, and even with Venice and Lisbon.

These sea routes were connected in turn to rivers and caravan routes across Persia that bound Central Asia to East Asia. With the advent of the Ming Dynasty and the interruption of the caravan roads across Central Asia, the relative vicinity of the Caspian and Black Seas offered a means of circumventing the interrupted land routes.

Two papal bulls guaranteed the Portuguese crown exclusive rights over navigation, commerce, and missionary work along the African coasts.

Basing his research on diplomatic information divulged in Italian courts by Portuguese ambassadors, Fra Mauro conceived—and represented on his map—the concrete possibility of circumnavigating Africa and reaching the Indian Ocean directly from Mediterranean ports.

Almost a half-century before the Portuguese explorers Diogo Cão (?- ca. 1486), Bartolomeu Dias (ca. 1450-1500), and Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) set out to circumnavigate Africa and finally reach Calicut (today’s Kozhikode) on the western coast of India, Fra Mauro postulated that by combining Portuguese navigation along the African coast with the voyages of Chinese junks in the Indian Ocean, it would be possible to open up a single giant sea route to join the two oceans.

Once arrived in the Indian Ocean, by sailing up the eastern coast of Africa and then veering east along the Asian coasts, it would be possible to enter the rich merchant network connecting Hormuz, Zaiton, and Java, centered especially on the spice trade.