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The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography

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Historical map of the world depicted as a circular planisphere crafted in the 1450s in Venice, Italy by Fra Mauro.

The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography

This map is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which presents historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.

In a one-paragraph story called On Exactitude in Science (Del Rigor en la Ciencia), Jorge Luis Borges imagined an empire where cartography had reached such an exact science that only a map on the same scale of the empire would suffice.

The Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (c. 1450s), named for the lay Camaldolite monk and cartographer whose Venetian workshop created it, is not nearly as large, at a paltry 77 inches in diameter (196 cm). But its impact and significance as a bridge between Middle Age and Renaissance thought certainly rivaled Borges’ imagined map.

One of ‘the Wonders of Venice’

Venice was the undisputed commercial power in the Mediterranean, whose trade routes connected east and west, stretching to Flanders, London, Algeria, and beyond.

This network was protected by fleets of warships built at the famous Arsenale di Venezia, the largest production facility in the West, whose workforce of thousands of arsenalotti built ships on an assembly line, centuries before Henry Ford.

A stone Lion of Saint Mark from the pediment of the Arsenale di Venezia, holding a closed book in its in paws.

The lion of St Mark guards the land gate to the Arsenale di Venezia, except instead of the usual open bible in its hands offering peace, this book is closed, reflecting its martial purpose. Source: Wikipedia

The Mappa Mundi (literally “map of the world”) was considered one of the wonders of Venice with a reputation that reached the Holy Land. It is a circular planisphere drawn on four sheets of parchment, mounted onto three poplar panels and reinforced by vertical battens.

The map is painted in rich reds, golds, and blues; this last pigment was obtained from rare lapis lazuli, imported from mines in Afghanistan. At its corners are four spheres showing the celestial and sublunar worlds, the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and an illumination of the Garden of Eden by Leonardo Bellini (active 1443-1490).

Japan (on the left edge, called the Isola de Cimpagu) appears here for the first time in a Western map. And contradicting Ptolemaic tradition, it also shows that it was possible to circumnavigate Africa, presaging the first European journey around the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.

NASA called the historical map “stunning” in its accuracy.

A Historical Map Between Two Worlds

Medieval maps, like the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300), were usually oriented with east at the top, because that’s where the Garden of Eden was thought to be. Fra Mauro, however, chose to orient his to the south, perhaps following Muslim geographers such as Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi.

Significantly, the Garden of Eden is placed outside of geographic space and Jerusalem is no longer at the center, though it is still marked by a windrose. The nearly 3,000 place names and descriptions are written in the Venetian vernacular, rather than Latin.

At the same time, as much as Fra Mauro’s map is a departure from the past, it also retains traces of a medieval Christian worldview. For example, included on the map are the Kingdom of the Magi, the Kingdom of Prester John, and the Tomb of Adam.

T and O style mappa mundi

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (c. 600–625). Source: Wikipedia

The circular planisphere also follows the medieval T-O schema, first described by Isidore of Seville, with Asia occupying the top half of the circle, and Europe and Africa each occupying the bottom two quarters (Fra Mauro turns the ‘T’ on its side, to reflect a southern orientation). Around the circle, are many islands, beyond which is the “dark sea” where only shipwreck and misfortune await.

Fra Mauro’s Legacy

Fra Mauro died some time before 20 October 1459, and unfortunately his contributions fell into obscurity soon thereafter; until 1748, it was believed that the Mappa Mundi was a copy of a lost map by Marco Polo.

In 1811, the original was moved from Fra Mauro’s monastery of San Michele to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, following the suppression of religious orders in the Napoleonic era, where it can be viewed today.

Two digital editions have also been produced by the Museo Galileo and the Engineering Historical Memory project, where readers can get a glimpse into a fascinating piece of cartographic history.

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Economy

Mapped: Countries With a Shrinking Consumer Class by 2030

Despite the consumer class growing worldwide, some countries are predicted to see a decline in the number of consumers over the next decade.

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Map showing countries predicted to see a decline in the number of consumers over the next decade.

Visualizing Countries With a Shrinking Consumer Class by 2030

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Over 100 million people are expected to be added to the consumer class worldwide just in 2024.

Despite this, some countries are actually predicted to see a decline in their number of consumers over the coming years.

In this visualization, we list key countries that are losing consumers, using data from 2023 from the World Data Lab.

Demographic Changes Impacting Consumption

Under the definition used here, a consumer is classified as someone who spends at least $12 per day. Currently, more than half of the world’s population is considered to be in the consumer class—about 4 billion people in 2023.

According to World Data Lab research, demographic changes are the major factor driving increases and reductions in the number of consumers globally.

In Japan, where the most significant anticipated decline in consumer numbers is expected by 2030, the diminishing workforce and decreasing consumer base are mostly the consequence of the country’s low birth rate.

CountryDecrease in Consumer Class Size by 2030
🇹🇼 Taiwan-124,000
🇧🇬 Bulgaria-135,000
🇩🇪 Germany-152,000
🇵🇹 Portugal-178,000
🇮🇹 Italy-480,000
🇯🇵 Japan-3,600,000

Currently, more than half of all municipalities in Japan are designated as depopulated districts, with schools shutting down and over 1.2 million small businesses owned by older individuals or families lacking successors.

In Europe as well, a decline in both birth rates and an aging population is impacting consumption. Italy is expected to lose almost half a million consumers by the end of the decade. Births in Italy dropped to a historic low below 400,000 in 2022, and Italy’s dearth of babies is considered a national emergency.

The emigration of working-age individuals can also shrink a country’s consumer class. For instance, between 2019 and 2022, Taiwan’s population shrank by roughly 300,000.

As the age of the average consumer grows, the demand for healthcare services, leisure activities, and retirement-related offerings will increase.

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