Book Review


Piero Falchetta: Fra Mauro's World Map, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout 2006 (see technical description)


The famous Fra Mauro's mappamundi, a Venetian cartographic monument, from ca 1450, marks a turning point in the course of post-medieval cartography. Despite the appearance, in the beginning  of 15th century, and the rapid diffusion of Ptolemy's Geographia and its cartographic by-products, based on the "new" culture of a coordinate-driven cartographic approach, the first half of the century is still dominated by the symbiosis of the religious cartographic tradition and the anxious concurrent tradition of nautical cartography. The last worth-mentioning products of these cartographies, following Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi (1415) and  Mela's copy of Cosmographia (1417), are mainly the world maps of Bianco (1436), Walsperger (1448) and Fra Mauro Camaldolese (1450), all influenced by the echoes of Arabic cartography. In this context, Fra Mauro's mappamundi is of greatest importance not only for its dimensions but mainly for the compilation methodology followed by the "inquisitive" monk concerning his data acquisition, for the map content and the map's graphical working-out. In a certain extend, Fra Mauro's map reintegrates the geographic knowledge of his time, exhausting in a way a great era in cartographic history which ended with the advancement of mapmaking after the opening of the great oceans and the new geographic discoveries.

Fra Mauro in his masterpiece (representing the huge "island" of the still known three continents of the World, in the dominant circular form bounded by the unknown Ocean, centered in Babylon with the south direction upwards) although he possessed the "coordinate" (or geometric) approach implied by Ptolemy's Geographia which influenced deeply the geographic and cartographic thought in his times, is opting for a "thematic" cartographic approach in his mapmaking. In this context, Fra Mauro is following the medieval cartographic tradition but at the same time he is exceeding decisively its symbolic and "introversive" theological formalism. His mappamundi becomes thus, an open  encyclopedia in which updated geographic knowledge from all over the known World is meticulously documented and drawn on a map support.

The story of this monumental map-work with a uniquely exhaustive documentation and digital interactive illustrations of its content is collected in the new voluminous book Fra Mauro's World Map, a piece of intensive intellectual and laborious work by Piero Falchetta. The volume, in its 830 pages and in its CD attachment prepared by a group of experts in digital technologies, is presented by Marino Zorzi, Director of the Marciana National Library of Venice. It is organized in five main parts. In the first, Piero Falchetta introduces and analyses the history, the sources, the evidences and the models of Fra Mauro's mappamundi, extended to the Borgia map, the Ptolemy and other cartographic models, the textual sources  and the influence of Marco Polo and other authors tradition. The map content and the depicted thematics, relevant to the physical and human evidences from the known World, are treated by Falchetta in four regional entities, namely the Eastern Ocean, Asia and Russia, Africa, Northern Europe and the Islands of the Atlantic followed by the analysis of the Cosmological Notes commenting the relevant illustrations at the upper corners of the map, off the circular bound of the mappamundi. In the second part Susy Marcon (Marciana) brings elegantly in a fertile intercross Leonardo Bellini and Fra Mauro, thanks to the Earthly Paradise decorating the lower left corner of the map.

In the next part, which covers almost 65% of the whole corpus, Piero Falchetta is developing the complete cartographic lexicon of the numerous map legends providing the original transcription, the translation and detailed commentaries, organizing the paging of the geographic documentation in an analogue data-base mode. The mappamundi original toponymy cataloguing, including almost 3000 inscriptions, is referred to 125 identified countries and broader geographic regions of today's World. The volume is completed with lists of manuscript and printed sources and the references cited in the text together with three complete appendices, the index to key words in the mappamundi, the comparison of inscriptions between the Borgia and the Fra Mauro maps and the catalogue of the rivers depicted on the mappamundi, with the complete reference to the actual name and location, when applicable.

The book is accompanied by an indeed useful CD-ROM, well designed and developed for both scholars and enthusiasts, in the Centro Interdipartimentale di Rivievo, Cartografia ed Elaborazioni (CIRCE) of the University Iuav of Venice, under the guidance of Caterina Balletti and Francesco Guerra. This handy CD provides, in an interactive mode, the digital copy of Fra Mauro's World Map, offering tools for easy navigation on the map and straightforward  identification of all sites and toponyms associated to the analogue cataloguing in the text. The CD, apart of its utility, it  is a didactic example on how modern digital technologies, when intelligently implemented, could be used in assisting and promoting the study and diffusion of cartographic heritage.

In conclusion, this important book is indispensable for any cartographic library as a fundamental contribution to history of cartography and maps, as an example of systematic reading, recognition, decoding, documentation, interpretation and referencing of old maps' content, accessorized by modern digital tools. The latter is also a strong attraction not only for modern scholars but also for cartography enthusiasts, encouraging them to visit and unveil the miraculous world of historic cartography and maps.                   

E. Livieratos 

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