Historical Context

The world map of Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) can be considered a geopolitical map ante litteram. By collating data drawn from literary sources and the accounts of travelers passing through Venice, Fra Mauro documented the geographic distribution of the principal kingdoms of the known world. Constantinople was still indicated as the capital of the Byzantine empire, a fact that allows us to date the map before 1453, when the Turks conquered the city and imposed a blockade on commercial traffic in the Mediterranean.

Fra Mauro held that Central Asia was still under shock from the violent conquests of Tamerlane (1336-1405), the Turkish-Mongol warlord who established the Timurid Empire between 1370 and 1405, and who interrupted European caravan routes to the East. Ethiopia, the name Fra Mauro attributed to Central and Southern Africa, is subdivided on his map into a number of Islamic and Christian kingdoms, notably including that of the mythical “Prester John”. Although it was sheer legend, this kingdom is represented in detail, based on precious information received from Ethiopian monks sojourning in Venice.

In the rendering of continental Asia, Cathay and Mangi are still indicated as the domains of the Great Khan, a sign that Fra Mauro’s sources for these remote regions were not up to date. His information derived from 14th century accounts of the voyages of Marco Polo (1254-ca. 1324) and Odorico da Pordenone (ca. 1280-1331), when in fact by his own time the Mongol-Chinese empire of Kublai Khan (1215-1294) had been wiped out by the Ming Dynasty.

India and Southeast Asia, on the other hand, although still represented according to Ptolemaic cartographic conventions, are described in Fra Mauro’s texts on the basis of the quite recent reports of Niccolò de’ Conti (ca. 1395-1469), who had visited those lands between 1416 and 1440.