In 1450, Venetian monk Fra Mauro created what cartography experts say may be the first known "modern" world map. Two hundred fifty years later, a copy was made that now resides in the cartographic collection of the British Library.

But this map is interesting for reasons beyond its age. As Brain Pickings' Maria Popova notes, this global depiction was created during the golden age of display maps, "the period between 1450 and 1800, when maps were as much a practical tool for navigation as they were works of art and affirmations of cultural hegemony or social status."

In other words, these ancient maps often served as forms of propaganda (some would argue that most maps still do); and in a collection entitled Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, British Library cartography curators Peter Barber and Tom Harper explain the various ways that this and other ancient maps were used for reasons other than their sheer navigational utility:


[The Fra Mauro World Map] points south because 15th-century compasses were south-pointing. It shows the Portuguese discoveries in Africa and questioned the authority of medieval and classical sources. Intended for display in Venice, it emphasizes the feats of Marco Polo. The British East India Company commissioned this copy, thus implying that Britain was heir to the Portuguese empire.

A hi-res version of the map can be found here, but those looking for an even more incisive look at the map and its history should check out this outstanding interactive applet, hosted by The British Library. [Spotted on Brain Pickings]