(d. Murano, near Venice, Italy, 20 October 1459 [?])
Fra Mauro, author of the last of the great medieval world maps, was a monk of the Camaldolese order and, in all probability, head of a cartographic workshop in the Camaldolese monastery of San Michele di Murano, in the lagoon of Venice. Of his life very little is known other than that he worked at San Michele from about 1443 until his death and that his fame as a mapmaker spread as far as Portugal. There are records of payments made by the king of Portugal to the monastery in the late 1450’s, and a statement on the map reads: “I have copies of maps made by the Portuguese.”
The world map now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice is the sole surviving work that can be positively identified as Fra Mauro’s. Drawn on vellum, the circular map is 1.96 meters in diameter, and its quadrangular frame measures 2.23 meters on each side. The mapmaker’s colors are well preserved, and legends both on the map and in the corners outside its circular outline are fully legible. The map is oriented to the south on the top; a legend on the back states that is was completed on 26 August 1460, which would indicate that the last touches were added after Fra Mauro’ death in the previous year.
Fra Mauro’s map represents an encyclopedic store-house of contemporary geographic and cosmographic information. It is limited to Europe, Asia, and part of Africa and shows Iceland and the Canary Islands to the west. It includes the first mention of “Zimpagu” (Japan) on any European map; it extends to the Urals in the north; and its southern limit is probably at the latitude of Madagascar. The mapmaker and his assistants used a variety of sources: medieval navigation charts of European origin; the accounts of travelers, especially Marco Polo and the fifteenth-century Venetian merchant and traveler Niccolò de’ Conti; Arabic sailing directions and travel accounts; and, possibly, information obtained from Ethiopian delegates to the council of Florence (1438–1445).
Fra Mauro’s work is a milestone in the history of geography and cartography for the wealth of its information, both correct and distorted; its wide range of cartographic and geographic data on remote parts of Asia and, to a lesser extent, of Africa; and its clearly transitional character, from the medieval to Renaissance worldview.
The first detailed study of Fra Mauro’s world map was Placido Zurla, It mappamondo di Fra Mauro camaldolese (Venice, 1808). The authoritative reference, accompanied by a complete section-by-section color reproduction of the map and transcription of all legends, is Tullia Gasparrin Leporace, Il mappamondo di Fra Mauro (Rome, 1956), with introductory easay by Roberto Almagià.