Geographical maps are a mirror of what we, humans, know about the world around us. They make it possible to contrast the achievements of modern science with the knowledge of our ancestors. The first cartographic images that appeared thousands of years ago were primitive and limited in every way, in terms of both their reliability and the size of the territories depicted on them. Up to the Middle Ages, the geography of the European world had been confined to a tri-continental zone. Most of those maps were works of art rather than navigational tools.
During Medieval times, unknown lands and seas provided fertile soil for mapmakers’ imagination. It was widely believed that in mare incognitum and terra incognita (Latin for “unknown seas” and “unknown lands”) there were bound to be some dangers, and for this reason thanks to the influence of folklore and the Bible, sea monsters and other fictional creatures began to appear on maps.
In the late Middle Ages, two branches of cartography began to develop side by side. On the one hand, cosmographers studied the structure of the Universe in general and produced so-called mappa mundi (Latin for “maps of the world”). Those maps were of theoretical significance, but lacked any practical application. Nonetheless, they helped shape people’s notion of the world.