A book with a curious and wondrous map was published in Venice in 1558. Its author, Nicolò Zen, (referred to as Nicolò the younger in the narrative) was an official of the Venetian Republic, and in the book he claimed that his great-great-great grandfather Antonio and his great-great-great granduncle Nicolò had travelled around the north Atlantic as far as the coast of modern Newfoundland in the late 14th century. This was a full century before Christopher Columbus.
`...`Truth is the daughter of Time.' Surely Marcolini, the printer, could not have chosen an allegory more suited to this tale.'
Andrea di Robilant became interested in this story after a chance meeting with an American tourist in Venice. In the 14th century, Nicolò and Antonio Zen journeyed from Venice to the North Atlantic. Along the way, visiting lands named Frislanda, Islanda, Icaria, Drogio and Estotiland, they encountered warrior princes and fought savage natives. They wrote of monasteries heated by springs, where bread could be baked without a fire, and of a `smoky mountain'. The story of their adventure travelled throughout Europe, finding its way into both the workshop of the great cartographer Mercator and the court of Elizabeth I. In 1835, the story was denounced as a `tissue of lies' and the Zens faded into oblivion.
Was it a hoax, or did the brothers really make this journey? Andrea di Robilant set out to investigate the story of the brothers Zen, and travelled from the Palazzo Zen in Venice, to the Orkney Islands, to Shetland, the Faroes, to Iceland and to an isolated monastery in Greenland. The narrative touches on some fascinating historical personages: Nicolò the younger and his publisher Marcolini; the 16th century English explorer Martin Frobisher and Dr John Dee (who owned a copy of the Zen map); the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (who replicated the map's errors) and Henry Sinclair, the 14th Earl of Orkney who is seen as the best guess for the elusive warrior Zichmni (of Frislanda) - who spoke Latin and led complex military operations.
Di Robilant himself met some fascinating characters along his journey, but no hard evidence of the Zen journey. It does seem that many of the Zen discoveries were misplaced (at the very least) but I like the author's belief that the islands discovered by the brothers, the strangely named Frislanda, Estotiland, Drogio, Icaria and Islanda were today's Orkney Islands, the Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and (possibly) Greenland.
The book is a mixture of history and travelogue and I enjoyed reading about the voyages of the brothers Zen and of the maritime glory of Venice.
`We made our approach warily because the sea behind us was in great turmoil and the land we had reached was unknown to us.'