If you had landed in Venice during the mid-15th century, you might have been accosted by a monk with a prominent nose and baggy, smurf-like hat. Ignoring your exhaustion and atrocious body odor after a long sea journey, he would have dragged you to a nearby tavern and cross-examined you about your travels. What was the weather like? What kind of precious gems were mined? What animals did you encounter, and how many heads did they have?
The monk was Fra Mauro, a 15th-century version of Google Earth. Famous for his cartographic skills, he had been commissioned by King Alfonso of Portugal to produce a map of the world.
The Portuguese were eager explorers and wealthy clients, and in the days before satellite imagery, Venice was a cartographers’ heaven. Arab traders and world explorers passed through the port, giving Fra Mauro an incomparable source of gossip and tall tales about the world. The fall of Constantinople, occurring a few years before the map was finished, would also have provided a rich source of well-traveled refugees, presumably willing to swap their stories for some bread or beer.
Crowdsourcing a map had never been easier, and Fra Mauro took full advantage. He interrogated these travelers with an inquisitiveness verging on belligerence, cross-checking their tales against the extensive library in his monastery in the Venice lagoon. He used their information to draw the map itself and pepper it with almost 3,000 annotations.
Fra Mauro loved a good story, and his map is packed with pictures of amber, rubies, pearls, diamonds, manna, and “other notable things”. He was also fascinated by exotic animals and practices. Seven-headed serpents roam the province of Malabar in India, troglodytes run wild in East Africa, and the Barents Sea near Norway harbors fish that can “puncture the ships with a spike they have on their backs”.
More exotic treasures include a lake on an island in the Indian Ocean that can turn iron into gold. In the accompanying annotation, Fra Mauro hastily explained that he didn’t believe a word of this story, and included it “just to do justice to the testimony of many people.” Given that he repeated this particular tale in three different places and drew a spectacular gold lake in the middle of the Andaman Islands for good measure, his skepticism seems ambiguous to say the least.
To modern eyes, the monsters, lakes of honey-wine, and cannibals suggest credulity. In fact, however, the annotations on the map are full of doubt and skepticism. In both India and Africa, Fra Mauro gives no credence to the wild tales of “human and animal monsters,” noting that none of the travelers with whom he spoke could confirm the stories. “I leave research in the matter,” he concluded sarcastically, “to those who are curious about such things.”
Fra Mauro was also exceptional in his rejection of religious and classical authority. Europe was not a haven of religious tolerance at the time; the Spanish inquisition started just 20 years after the map was completed. Mapmakers, consequently, focused on keeping the Church happy rather than worrying about minor geographic details. Medieval maps showed the location of Noah’s Ark, discussed the depravity of pagans, and illustrated the hideous giants Gog and Magog, lurking in the far North and eagerly awaiting the apocalypse. Fra Mauro, by contrast, took a rigidly empirical approach. The Garden of Eden was relegated to a sidebox, not shown in a real geographic location. He sternly noted that the tradition that the Gog and Magog lived in the Caucasus Mountains “is certainly and clearly mistaken and cannot be upheld in any way,” since plenty of people lived in and traveled to the mountains, and they would have noticed any monstrous giants living nearby.
Fra Mauro also criticized various classical authorities. Like a cheeky schoolchild—or a commentator on an online forum Fra Mauro prefaced his criticism by saying that he didn’t want to seem contrary but couldn’t help it that everyone else was wrong. Ptolemy got the size of Persia wrong, mislabeled Sri Lanka, and didn’t realize that you could sail all the way around Africa. Regarding the circumference of the Earth, Fra Mauro cited a couple of expert opinions and concluded dismissively that “they are not of much authenticity, since they have not been tested.” His robust skepticism marked a transition away from medieval traditions towards the intellectual excitement of the Renaissance.
If he were alive today, Fra Mauro would probably be disappointed to know that lakes of gold and wine existed just in the imagination of the travelers he interviewed. He would, however, be happy to know that his map is proving more accurate than skeptical cartographers gave it credit for, and that it still acts as a starting point for research and discovery.
You can read the full article on: Atlas Obscura