Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North, by Andrea di Robilant, Faber, RRP£14.99, 244 pages
A curious book was published in Venice in 1558. Its author was one Nicolò Zen, a well-known official of the Venetian republic. In it, he made the extraordinary claim 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 – a whole century before Christopher Columbus’s American landfall.
The book included a map depicting the places allegedly visited by the brothers. Though clearly inaccurate, this navigation chart, if genuine, is significant for offering the earliest known cartographical representations of the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland and the eastern coast of Canada.
Contemporaries had few doubts about the authenticity of Zen’s account of his ancestors’ travels. The cartographer Gerard Mercator incorporated some of the Zen map’s features into his own famous world map of 1569. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite astrologer, seized on the Zen narrative to convince the monarch to support voyages of exploration.
As late as 1701, charts still included references to the Zen “discoveries”. But as the golden age of exploration waned, and as mapmakers depicted the new world with increasing precision, the Zen narrative and its unusual map became footnotes in the history of geographical discovery.
They would have languished in antiquarian obscurity were it not for a Danish geographer, Captain Christian Zahrtmann, who in the mid-19th century set out to prove that the tale was little more than “a tissue of fiction”. In a report to the Royal Geographical Society, he declared: “It is not from the south that we can expect elucidations on the older north.” Was the book a factual (if wildly erroneous) account of geographical observations predating Columbus or was it, as another critic claimed, “one of the most successful and obnoxious [literary frauds] on record”? This is the question that historian Andrea di Robilant sets out to answer in Venetian Navigators.
Di Robilant is, from the outset, prepared to give Nicolò the younger the benefit of the doubt. He has few compelling reasons to do so, except that it is such a great yarn – one that, if true, would up-end much of what we know about the age of discovery. While he comes to no definitive conclusions, by the end of his research he has fallen even more firmly into the camp that claims the Zen voyages might have actually happened.
Pursuing clarity about the voyages, di Robilant visits libraries and archives in Venice, Tórshavn (Faroes), Kirkwall (Orkney), Lerwick (Shetland), Iceland’s Reykjavik, and Nuuk in Greenland. Most of the scholars he meets believe that the Zen story is “pure rubbish”, or “the handiwork of a two-bit Venetian swindler”.
But di Robilant’s own journeys give him – and us – a good feel for the barren landscapes that the Zens might have encountered. We are introduced to extraordinary characters such as Villi, a blind Icelandic farmer who spends an afternoon discussing Icelandic poetry with di Robilant, and Silverio Scivoli, an Italian who arrived in Greenland 30 years earlier as a touring pianola player and moved in with a local woman.
“I am inclined to believe that Nicolò the younger was a first-class muddler, not a fablemonger,” di Robilant writes, “and that the story he tells of his forefathers offers fascinating glimpses into the past.” Di Robilant’s book is a bit muddled too – unsure, whether to lean towards scholarly antiquarianism or towards the first-person travelogue.
The author is right, however, in suggesting that the Zen narrative and the debates it generated open a window on to the ways in which knowledge (geographical, in this case) is generated and appropriated. In setting out to elucidate a cartographical mystery, di Robilant has also shed light on the 16th century mind, caught somewhere between the middle ages and the Renaissance.