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Fra Mauro’s parchment map measures about 2metres in diameter. Fra Mauro combined recently discovered parts of the world with imaginary places, all annotated with over 3,000 written comments documenting contemporary cultural and geographical knowledge. Clearly, the map was designed to be contemplated and observed over a long period of time.
Fra Mauro was a monk at San Michele in Isola in Murano. In his youth he had travelled widely as a merchant and as a soldier (including to the Middle East). He later entered monastic life and began to practise the art of cartography. Fra Mauro would certainly would have drawn from his prior knowledge of the world and he was ideally placed in Venice as a cultural and trading crossroads to hear first hand oral testimony from foreign merchants and sailors.
I confess: as a youngster, I used to find maps dull and far too detailed. Nowadays I find them fascinating - perhaps even slightly magical - as visual encyclopedias of the world as it was known.
As I write, I am reminded that this part of the world in which I'm sitting - tap, tap, tapping on my laptop - is not included on Fra Mauro's 15th century map: this was still 'terra incognita'. There is no documented European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia until James Cook reached here on 19 April 1770 on his extraordinary voyage of discovery aboard HMB Endeavour.