Fra Mauro’s Great Map of the World in Venice

In 1450, only two years after Andrea Bianco drew his sketch of the Atlantic, an associate of his in Venice named Fra Mauro presented an amazing planisphere of the world, his great Mappa Mundi. We do not know if Andrea Bianco helped create this version of the map. But records show that he participated in drawing a second version, which was illustrated a few years later for King Afonso V of Portugal.

Fra Mauro, Great Map of the World, between 1448 and 1453.(1)

Fra Mauro placed south at the top. You will find the boot of Italy [upside down] in the middle of the Mediterranean on the right side. The tracing below is rotated 180 degrees for readability. For a very high resolution image, which is really fun to study, check out the link in our Notes section below.

Mauro was not really the friar’s name. His studio of scribes and copisti [copyists] was on Murano Island, which is part of the archipelago that forms Venice. Fra Mauro’s Mappa Mundi was an international attraction. Today it has been hailed as the “greatest memorial to Medieval cartography.” At least two copies were drawn. One was commissioned by the Signoria of Venice [the city-state’s government(2)]. Today, “when not on tour,” it is on display in the Museo Coreer in Venice(3).

The Great Mappa Mundi is a good example of a planisphere. Geographically, it is fairly correct. But details – edges of coves, mountains, walled towns, and turreted castles – are decorative. Mauro and his team illustrated it on the finest grade parchment using the most expensive techniques and pigments. They set it in a gilded frame that is over six and a half feet square. It is the largest map of the period known to exist. More than 3000 captions [the white banners with red text] describe places in the Ecumene, accompanied by hundreds of illustrations. The map took several years to produce, not to mention how many years Fra Mauro and his assistants must have spent researching for it(4).

The second copy was the one we just mentioned that was commissioned by King Afonso V of Portugal that Bianco helped with. Records indicate it was completed on April 24, 1459, and sent to Lisbon. For a while it was housed in the royal São Jorge Palace, which sits on the tallest of the port’s seven hills overlooking the city, but then it disappeared.

We would like to point out a few things:

You will note eight marks around the circumference labeling direction. Most of them name the winds from ancient times, such as Septemtrion for the North Wind and Auster for the South Wind. The names for east and west, Oriens and Occidental, are related to celestial observations. Oriens came from the French Latin oriri, which meant rising – as in the direction of the rising sun, or east. Occidental came from the Latin word occident, which meant going down, as in the side of the world where the sun sets, or west. Today, the Orient means the East, and Occidental means the West.

Fra Mauro’s Ecumene extended north as far as Iceland. He mentioned Grolanda [Greenland] by name in one of his captions. [Apparently he did not know where to draw it.] He was the first to indicate Japan in the eastern ocean, which he labeled Isola de Cimpagu [a variation of Marco Polo’s spelling, Cipangu.]

Note the bay under Mauretania in the area of the Senegal River on the west coast of Africa. We have seen that bay before on Pietro Vesconte’s map in c1420 and on Andrea Bianco’s map in 1436. That information will fool the Portuguese into thinking they can follow the Senegal River to Egypt’s Nile River to reach Ethiopia. If such a route existed, it would avoid traveling through the prickly, Muslim-controlled Middle East.

Fra Mauro placed Madagascar at the southern tip of Africa rather than off the east coast, where it really is. He named the island Diab. Because of the ocean currents on the Indian Ocean, probably few Arab navigators explored the coast below Magadascar. Fra Mauro obtained his information from people who had approached Africa from the east, not from the west as Vasco da Gama will do.

Fra Mauro named the southern tip of Africa Ethyopia Austral, which meant Southern Ethiopia. He placed the trading port of Saffola at the eastern end of Diab [Madagascar], rather than on the mainland of Africa in the Mozambique Channel. The map illustrates how in 1450, cartographers, and therefore the Portuguese, knew those places existed and knew about the Mozambique Channel. The only missing information was the geography farther south.

The spheres in the four corners contain important information. The circle in the upper left corner is a cosmological diagram of the solar system taken from Ptolemy’s Geographia. The upper right sphere is a diagram of the four elements: earth, water, fire and air.

The bottom left corner shows Earth as a globe with the North pole, the South pole, the Equator, and the two tropics – Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. And the bottom right corner is an illustration of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. According to Wikipedia, the placement of Eden outside the Ecumene is historically significant. The usual position was in the Far East.

King Afonso V was probably most interested in the story Fra Mauro included on his planisphere about an expedition of Chinese zonchi [junks or boats] that, thirty years earlier, in 1420, traveled under the southern tip of Africa from east to west. Historians note that Fra Mauro could have learned about the Chinese expedition from Niccolò da Conti. Da Conti was a nobleman and merchant from Venice. He had been traveling through the Far East for twenty-five years. He was in Calicut, India, when the Chinese expedition departed. And he returned to Venice in 1440 just ten years before Fra Mauro’s map appeared.

This is a close-up of the southern end of Africa [austral means south] with the zonchi sailing around it. Because of the original rotation of the map, the zonchi is traveling over Africa, rather than under.

Fra Mauro wrote(5), “Around 1420 a ship, or zonchi, from India crossed the Sea of India towards the Island of Men and the Island of Women, off Cabo Diab, between the Green Islands and the shadows. It sailed for forty days in a south-westerly direction without ever finding anything other than wind and water. According to these people themselves, the ship went some 2,000 miles ahead until, once favorable conditions came to an end, it turned round and sailed back to Cabo Diab in seventy days …”

Fra Mauro’s reference to the Island of Men and the Island of Women came from The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo described the Island of Men and the Island of Women as two islands, one populated exclusively by men and one populated exclusively by women. The only time the two sexes traveled between the islands was when they wanted to procreate. It is believed the islands were mythical.

Fra Mauro wrote a description of the tremendous Chinese junks: “The Zonchi that navigate these seas carry four masts or more, some of which can be raised or lowered, and have forty to sixty cabins for the merchants and only one tiller. They can navigate without a compass because they have an astrologer who stands on the side and, with an astrolabe in hand, gives orders to the navigator.”

Fra Mauro explained that it was because of the Chinese expedition and Strabo’s story about Eudoxus of Cyzicus, that he came to believe the Indian Sea connected to the Western Ocean by a waterway under Africa.

We do not know how much King Afonso V knew about Fra Mauro’s planisphere and the story of the Chinese zonchi before he received his own copy of the Great Mappa Mundi in 1459. But we can be certain Henry the Navigator learned about the waterway under Africa.


  1. Fra Mauro, World Map, c1450. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source:
  2. Signoria referred to the small archipelago at the heart of Venice, ruled by a doge, or duke. Rialto is the main island where the principal buildings and market lay. The Signoria of Venice controlled all shipping and trade.
  3. This planisphere was rediscovered in the St. Michael monastery where Fra Mauro had his studio and, when not on tour, is currently on display in the last room of the Sale Monumenti of the Museo Correr in Venice. A copy made by British cartographer William Frazer in 1804 is currently on display in the British Library in London.
  4. It was while Fra Maura’s studio was researching the Great Map of the World that Andrea Bianco was in Venice dashing off his map of the Atlantic. Bianco probably sent it, or a copy of it, to Fra Mauro.
  5. Quote source:

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