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Upcoming Presentations

February 9, 2024, the Philadelphia Club, Philadelphia PA, presentation and celebration of the Venetian Carnevale


February 22, 2024, Presentation for The Italian-American Society, Philadelphia PA


Podcast on Here Begins the Dark Sea and Marco Polo, National Review/Great Books HBDS


Excerpt: The Oldest Map in the World, Lapham’s Quarterly

Essay: Maps are the Record of Humans’ Imagination of the World, History News Network

Excerpt: Medievalist New Books, Here Begins the Dark Sea

Praise for "Here Begins the Dark Sea"

A great book on a great map: Meredith Small’s book charts how Venice and one of its monks created medieval Europe’s most profound and beautiful world maps. A tour de force.”  —Jerry  Brotton, author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps and Great Map: The World’s Masterpieces Explored and Explained

Kirkus ReviewA study of one of history’s most influential maps.


In this follow-up to Inventing the World: Venice and the Transformation of Western Civilization, Cornell anthropologist Small provides a fascinating exploration of the impressively detailed mappa mundi created by Venetian monk Fra Mauro. Crafted by Mauro and his team between 1450 and 1459, the map, 7 feet in diameter, is on display in Venice, and it is both an artistic masterpiece and an encyclopedic resource that includes numerous textual explanations. Small begins by explaining the history and significance of mapmaking before moving on to chronicle the work of this particular mapmaker. Fra Mauro, whose real or full name is lost to history, was a Camaldolese monk on the Venetian island of San Michele. As the author notes, his life story is murky. “The creator of one of the greatest maps in the world remains an enigma,” she writes. Nevertheless, his map speaks for him, literally, in that many of his comments on the map are written in the first person. Small explains that Fra Mauro, though himself not a traveler, relied on eyewitness accounts for his information. Working in the trade city of Venice, he was well placed to learn about faraway places. The result is a map that visualizes Africa better than any map up to this point; it also includes places such as Japan in a time when very little was known to Europeans about East Asia. Beyond this, Fra Mauro laid out his map with a southern orientation and did not center it around Jerusalem or Europe. His map, writes the author, was “the instigator of change, the map that rejected religion and went so far as to embrace the nascent methodology and philosophy of science.” Small concludes by describing Fra Mauro’s influence on European exploration, cartography, and culture. Interesting and approachable, this book will appeal to any student of geography or world history.

Library Journal: 


This is anthropologist Small’s (Cornell Univ.) second book on late medieval Venice. The first, Inventing the World, tied together Venice’s unique social structure and the wealth of inventions that sprang from its inhabitants’ fertile minds. This book focuses on one artifact: the astonishing world map that Camaldolese monk Fra Mauro completed in 1459 under commission from the King of Portugal. It was not only big (at seven feet wide) but also, given the limitations of European travel at the time, an astonishingly accurate, stunning work of cartography that was an encyclopedia too. The hundreds of notations inscribed on it offered valuable information for travelers and merchants. While Mauro’s Africa may be misshapen, it shows a continent that could be circumnavigated to reach Asia; this had never been represented on a Western map. Small provides a history of mapmaking and speculates on why readers find them fascinating; she asserts it’s the combination of beauty and practicality that’s magnetizing. Except for Prester John, the book omits most carryovers from biblical and classical myths. VERDICT: This thoughtful and enlightening book will appeal to history and cartography lovers of all levels. 

Review from Goodreads:


In a word, stunning. In this book Meredith Small takes on the task of explaining the background and general importance of maps, then takes the reader to Venice, Italy, where with clarity, precision, and love details what is arguably the most famous map in the world. Nine years in its creation, a medieval monk by the name of Fra Mauro created the mappamundi. This map, which can be seen when one travels to Venice, resides in a place of honour through the Grand Reading Room of Sansovino.

I’m not sure what impressed me most about this book. The obvious choice is the map itself, the fact that it exists. Perhaps it is the fact that such a labour of love and inquiry still exists and stands as a testament to human inquiry, the human imagination, and our documented world. Maybe what is so grand is the obvious love that went into the research and writing of the book. Human inquiry takes many forms and shapes. For Fra Mauro it was to conceptualize the world that surrounded him. For Meredith Francesca Small it was to bring the mappamundi to the attention of the public in her book. For me, it is how much I learned about the importance of maps.

Read this book. It will help you appreciate and navigate the world that surrounds us in a new and fresh manner.

Shepherd Express, regional paper in the Midwest: 


Meredith F. Small’s book is about a map, but it’s also about the meaning of mapping. The particular map that caught her eye in a Venice museum is the strikingly beautiful 1460 view work of the Venetian monk Fra Mauro. Exquisitely painted, the pre-Columbian map shows a round world, detailing Europe and the Mediterranean accurately, and the African and Asian shores with tolerable fidelity. Missing were North and South America, Australia and Antarctica. The Europeans hadn’t traveled that far yet.


Frau Mauro’s map bristles with tiny pictures of buildings, their inhabitants and natural features alongside place names. The medieval references to “monsters live here” are presented with skepticism when included at all, leading Small to declare the map as a bridge toward scientific, factual cartography. Here Begins moves on to encompass a brief history of mapmaking from several cultures through the digitalization of today. She reminds us that a map can never be the same thing that it represents; maps simplify of necessity and reflect the biases of their authors and users.

Review, The Wall Street Journal:

‘Here Begins the Dark Sea’ Review: A Map From the Future

In 1460, a Venetian monk illustrated an epic-scale ‘mappa mundi’ that provided the most accurate depiction of the world at the time.

Around 1450, the Venetian government commissioned a monk named Fra Mauro to make a mappa mundi, a map of the world. His map is a circle nearly 7 feet in diameter, crammed with illustrations and annotations; the work took several years. When it was done, it was the most detailed and accurate map of the known world that anyone had yet made.


Fra Mauro’s map survived in his monastery on the Venetian island of San Michele and is now displayed in the city’s Museo Correr. Meredith Small starts “Here Begins the Dark Sea” in the Correr, looking at the map. She sees a “towering circle of blue and white covered with busy writing” and several landmasses. I see the single landmass of Eurasia and Africa, edged with blue seas. There are areas of white highlighting but also larger areas of wax-colored, unpainted vellum. The land’s dominant colors are a pesto-like green and the red and blue of Fra Mauro’s annotations.

Geography is in the eye of the beholder. So is the history of mapping, which Ms. Small briefly recounts. A map, she writes, is “one big symbol made up of many other smaller symbols,” organized “in a way that makes spatial sense.” Fra Mauro’s map organized state-of-the-art knowledge about the world beyond Murano, but it was also art for the state. Venice was a mercantile superpower, brokering overland trade from Asia and running a Mediterranean empire. World maps were not made for sailors, but for “intellectuals, aristocrats and members of government.” In the Venetian oligarchy, the three were much the same.

An elegiac history of Eastern Europe, the consequences of China’s economic rise, masters of the short story and more.

We know nothing about Fra Mauro before he joined the contemplative Camaldolese order on San Michele. He first appears in the monastery accounts for 1434; the 1447 ledger records a donation in support of his work on the world map. As a lay brother, he was able to “easily interact with the outside world.” In 1437, he resolved a property dispute by mapping a Camaldolese monastery in Istria (Croatia). In the mid-1440s, he gave cartographical assistance when the Venetian government changed the course of the Brenta River on the Italian mainland.

Fra Mauro probably died in October 1459, when his effects, including his preliminary drawings for the mappa mundi, were moved to a nearby Benedictine monastery. He may never have seen his masterpiece in its gilded frame: The date on its back is Aug. 26, 1460.

Function aside, the map is gorgeous. Chinese junks, Arabian dhows and Portuguese caravels bob on the bright, undulating waves. A topography of mountains, rivers and deserts rises on terra firma, with a human geography of castles, towns, churches, mosques and towers. More than 3,000 annotations in red, blue, black, green and turquoise ink are added in Veneziano, the Venetian dialect.

The ancient Ptolemy map was oriented north, like our maps and the unadorned “portolan” charts that medieval sailors used for navigation. But medieval mappae mundi were “art objects that promoted Christian dogma,” Ms. Small writes. So they typically had east and the Garden of Eden at the top, and Jerusalem at the center. Fra Mauro rotated his view counterclockwise, placing south at the top. Arab compasses were south-pointing, and so were the latest Arab maps. If form defines function in mapping, Fra Mauro’s orientation suggests the expanding worldview of the Age of Discovery. Medieval favorites such as dragons and cannibals disappear. Japan makes one of its earliest appearances on a Western map.

Fra Mauro drew his circular map on a square sheet of vellum and filled the four corners with a cosmology. The solar system is in the top left, the four humors in the top right. Earth, with its poles and equator visible, is in the bottom right. The Garden of Eden is in the bottom left; a naked Adam and Eve are “in conference with a fully clothed and haloed God” who stands at the biblical confluence of the four rivers. (Fra Mauro’s Eden scene was probably painted by a member of the Bellini family, possibly Gentile and Giovanni’s cousin Leonardo, who “had a reputation for fine works and miniatures.”) The more our world expands, the less our origins are wanted on voyage.

Fra Mauro retains many allegorical figures, and the Tower is still in Babel, but the world is becoming a field for the free play of politics and economy, and Fra Mauro’s commentaries correct and expand our knowledge of its scope. The physical world of the map is anchored and influenced by all these forces and facts, but its sacred geography is loosening. He still marks Jerusalem with a star, but the physical center of his landmass is near the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Ms. Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell, calls the map a “flexion point between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and on into the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of science,” and Fra Mauro a “heretic” who “rejected religion” and altered “both maps of the world and the world itself” by embracing “the nascent methodology and philosophy of science.” But science as we know it was born in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was under way a century before Fra Mauro started work. He made no use of Renaissance perspective, and Ms. Small mistakes the functional accuracy of his coastlines for Renaissance naturalism. It was never heretical to correct maps; the north-facing Ptolemy map was widely circulated after its republication in 1407, and Fra Mauro framed his findings firmly within a Christian cosmos. Ms. Small is an engaging guide to Fra Mauro’s times and techniques, but some of her findings are almost as fantastical as medieval marginalia

September 2023 Best Books by The Christian Science Monitor


10 Here Begins the Dark Sea
by Meredith F. Small

Cartographers owe no small debt to Fra Mauro, a 15th-century Venetian monk who created a detailed map of the world based less on legends and hearsay, and more on the eyewitness accounts of travelers, sailors, and traders. It’s a fascinating, if overly long, exploration of the history of map-making.

Review, The Explorer’s Journal: