DURING a stay in Venice a few years ago, I spent time in the Correr Museum, soaking up the city’s history. Located in Saint Mark’s Square, the museum displays imposing statues, paintings of sea battles and ancient weapons. But as I passed through the last room of exhibits, another artefact hanging alone in an alcove caught my eye. It was a map of the world – a “mappa mundi” in Latin – but it was unlike any I had encountered before.
Framed in gold and 2.4 metres in diameter, the world pictured here was a combination of rolling blue seas with cresting waves and off-white landmasses, all covered with handwritten notes. It was one of the most beautiful, and beautifully complex, things that I had ever seen.
Created by a monk called Fra Mauro 550 years ago, the map had been largely overlooked for centuries, a lamentable state of affairs considering it displays a level of accuracy absent in earlier maps. Turn it upside down – Mauro placed south at the top – and it is recognisable as a map of Africa and Eurasia.
Following my visit to Venice, I decided to find out more about this map, a project that culminated in my book Here Begins the Dark Sea. I spent more than a year delving into the literature on world maps, poring over Fra Mauro’s creation and trying to understand what he intended it to say. It turns out that it was part of the inflection point from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance because it was the…