Tag Archives: maps

The Equator

Human brains are marvelous. Something we humans are able to do is look at a round object, like the Earth, and draw it flattened out as a map. Then, get this: other humans are able to look at the flat map and comprehend a round Earth. Yay, us!

Ptolemy was the first to think of drawing lines of longitude and latitude on a map. Longitude lines travel from north to south poles. Latitude lines travel east to west and are parallel to the Equator. Together they make a grid on a flat map. Longitude and latitude lines are man-made; they don’t exist except on maps. Longitude and latitude lines are the way we organize the Earth’s surface so we can navigate on it. You assign the lines names or numbers.

Latitude lines (also called parallels) are circles that run around the circumference of the Earth and are measured in degrees. The Equator divides the Earth into northern and southern hemispheres (hemi = half, sphere = globe). It’s at 0 degrees. The North & South poles are at 90 degrees.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Maps, we need maps!

As we’ve seen, Venice was hopping with trade on the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. With their compasses and astrolabes and lightly-built galleons, Venetian traders traveled all over the known world. Likewise, traders from all over the world stopped in Venice. Compasses work best with a map, so Venice’s map-making (cartography) business was booming.

In ad 1450, in a monastery in Venice, there lived a monk named Fra Mauro (Brother Mauro). Fra Mauro was an extraordinary cartographer and his map is the one you see pictured here. It’s about 6 feet across.

It’s not easy to recognize all the continents right away, because he drew it with North at the bottom. We’re used to seeing North at the top of maps. I’m not sure when it became standard practice to put North at the top. Over at the extreme right, you can see a little compass-rose with North pointing down. As you work your way left from there, you’ll see Spain and Portugal, the Straits of Gibraltar where Europe almost touches Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea where the boot of Italy is kicking up rather than down. The shapes of Africa and Asia are difficult to recognize, too. It would be a while before cartographers could accurately survey land masses. Africa is in the upper-right. Asia takes up almost all the the left half of the map.

The New World—the Americas and Australia—hadn’t been discovered yet.

Here’s an article about Fra Mauro, with some close-ups of his map.