Historical Context

Among the many types of ship represented by Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464), common sailing ships were the lateen ship and the square-rigged ship. In contrast to the galleys built in the Arsenale, these ships were constructed in private dockyards. It was these that carried most merchandise, especially voluminous cargoes such as salt, timber, and construction materials.

The lateen ship had a single deck with two masts upon which were raised triangular sails termed lateen. The lateen ship was approximately 19 meters long, 9 meters wide, and 3 meters high at the deepest point of its hull (62 feet x 19.5 x 9.8). The square-rigged ship was still more robust: 20 meters long, almost 10 meters wide, with a 5-meter hull (65.6 feet x 33 x 16.4) which allowed for an additional deck (forecastle) that accommodated more cargo. This ship presented greater resistance to the force of the waves, making it better adapted to Atlantic navigation.

Of the ships of the era of Fra Mauro, Michael of Rhodes (?-1445) identifies the square-rigger as a Mediterranean innovation based on a type of ship, long used in Flanders and the nations of the Atlantic coast, called the cog. These were especially robust vessels, capacious but easy to maneuver, with a lower hull, a mainmast with a square sail, a secondary mast with a triangular sail, and a single rudder. Compared to galleys, sailing ships were shorter and wider, required a smaller crew, and had more space for cargo.