Venice has 'captured' the heart, mind and imagination of so many writers, poets, artists and historians. Venice is one of my favourite subjects in art, literature and history, and I am always eager to learn more and look more at this unique and special place. This Venice blog is my way of collecting the wealth of images, poems, prose and impressions of Venice.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

From Venice to Australia – Fra Mauro’s map of the world

We currently have a venerable Venetian visitor in Australia: Fra Mauro’s Map of the World (1448-1453) is on loan from Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana for the exhibition Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia at the National Library of Australia (until 10 March 2014). 

National Library of Australia's exhibition banner - nla.gov.au
This is an extraordinary opportunity to see Fra Mauro’s map right here in Australia.  The map is considered to be a masterpiece of medieval cartography, and aside from travel to Rome for conservation work, the map has not left Venice for almost 600 years.

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.  

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