Fra Mauro in Canberra: Mapping Our World exhibition


The National Library of Australia, external shot featuring Mapping Our World exhibition banner. Photo by Darren Smith, 2013.

The National Library of Australia is treating us Antipodean folk to a very rare opportunity — namely, to see one of the most outstanding surviving mappae mundi from the Renaissance, Fra Mauro’s richly illuminated map of the world that dates back to 1459.

At some two metres in diameter, Fra Mauro’s mappa mundi is the world’s largest extant map from early modern Europe. The map adopts the south orientation used by early Islamic cartographers rather than the traditional Ptolemaic north orientation with which we are much more familiar. Still, Fra Mauro’s work draws on the tradition of medieval mappae mundi. As with the famous Hereford mappa mundi, the map plots out details of lands both familiar and unfamiliar to the early modern European. These include accounts from the journeys of Venetian merchant and traveller, Nicolo de’Conti, as recorded by the Florentine scholar, Poggio Bracciolini.

Usually housed in Venice’s Museo Correr, Fra Mauro’s map has crossed the very seas it set to chart to be included in the National Library’s current exhibition, Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia.

As the name suggests, the exhibition traces the cartographic history of Terra Australis and, eventually, Australia. The journey begins with the world of the ancients and ends with Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of the continent he named Australia.

The collection of maps reflects the shifts in European exploration during the early modern period – starting with Italian cartographers such as Fra Mauro, to the Portuguese and Spanish, then the Dutch mapmakers (seemingly responsible for charting much of the Spice Islands and west Australian coast), and finally the English. In this sense, the exhibition is just as much a wonderful odyssey through Europe’s age of exploration, at least how it played out in the region.

Aside from the Fra Mauro map, other highlights include: Abel Tasman’s journal; the Boke of Idrography (presented to Henry VIII); an intricate world map by the Benedictine monk Andreas Walsperger (1448); a fifteenth-century Ptolemy manuscript; magnificent and controversial ‘Dieppe’ charts; and one of only four surviving copies of Mercator’s groundbreaking 1569 projection.

The exhibition is open until 10 March 2014. Entry is free but bookings are essential. The exhibition was very busy when I was there in December, so it’s worth booking online in advance. (While you are there, the nearby National Gallery of Australia also has an exhibition worth seeing – Gold of the Incas. A remarkable collection of artifacts from Peru’s pre-Hispanic cultures.)

For more information on Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, click here.

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