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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.