by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Under the Pole

By Roderick Conway Morris
3 June 2011



The far northern regions that are the scene of Andrea di Robilant's recent travels and historical investigations are presently on the fringes of most people's consciousnesses. But they may soon be playing a more central role in the world's affairs.

With the melting of the Arctic ice-cap it looks as though the long-dreamed-of North-West and North-East Passages may soon be open to navigation and some of the remote islands and isolated settlements he visited may find themselves on major - pirate-free - maritime highways.

The subject of 'Venetian Navigators' are two, now all-but-forgotten, mariners who supposedly sailed these regions when they were virtually uncharted and very little was known about them in the rest of Europe.

Several years ago Di Robilant, while researching an altogether different topic, happened upon a miniature volume in the Old and Rare Book Collection at the Marciana Library on Piazza San Marco in Venice. It measured about six by four inches and glued into the back of it was a larger, crisply engraved wood-cut map. The author was the Venetian nobleman Nicolï Zen and the title 'On the Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engroneland, Estotiland and Icaria made by the two Zen brothers under the Arctic Pole'.

According to Nicolï Zen (whom the author dubs Nicolï the Younger, to avoid confusion with his ancestor Nicolï, one of the two brothers) his book, published in 1558, was based on some family papers.

'When I was a child I took those papers in my hands, and not knowing what they were, I tore and damaged them, as a child will do. To this day the very thought of what I did causes me the greatest sorrow', recorded Nicolï the Younger.

By the time he re-discovered them as an adult they consisted of 'five badly damaged letters and a barely legible chart', and the book he wrote, as Andrea di Robilant surmises, may have been partly an act of expiation for the earlier unwitting harm he had done to these remarkable documents.

In the decisive conflict between Venice and Genoa that ended in 1381, Nicolï Zen and his brother Carlo, descendants of one of the Republic's oldest noble families, played distinguished parts. The brothers' timely arrival from the East with a fifteen-galley fleet heralded the end of the daring Genoese occupation of Chioggia in the south of Venice's lagoon. This was the last serious threat the Venetians had to face from their great maritime rival and assured Venice naval supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean for over a century.

Venetian merchant fleets had been sailing regularly to Flanders from the early 14th century, This traffic had been disrupted by hostilities with the Genoese but resumed following Venice's crushing victory over them.

However, rather than waiting for an official government Flanders convoy, the enterprising Nicolï, enriched by booty amassed during the war, fitted out his own vessels and, in the summer of 1383, set sail for Flanders, Bruges being his most likely destination.

But, as Nicolï the Younger relates the story, in the Sea of Flanders: 'He was caught in a fierce storm and drifted for many days, tossed by waves and winds until he no longer knew where he was; at last he sighted land and unable to fight the awful tempest any further, he hit on the shore of Frislanda'.

This marked the beginning of three to four years of nautical wanderings in these northern seas, which apparently took Nicolï from Frislanda - plausibly identified as long ago as the late 18th century as an Italianate distortion of Faeroisland, the old Viking name for the Faroe Islands - south to Shetland and the Orkneys, north to Iceland and possibly Greenland.

Nicolï had sent word to Antonio, another brother in Venice, urging him to join him, and the two brothers were apparently re-united in Orkney in 1384 or the following year. By 1387, Nicolï was back in Venice, but Antonio supposedly continued to sail these seas until the end of the century, sending back to Venice letters and a map of Greenland, on which Nicolï the Younger based the map he published in his book in 1558. At that time, over a century and a half after the Zen brothers' putative voyages, Nicolï the Younger's map of Greenland at least was 'the most accurate map of Greenland available in those years, not just in Venice but anywhere in Europe', according to di Robilant.

Despite inconsistencies in both the text and the map, Nicolï the Younger's work was treated for centuries as a genuine narrative of exploration, even if more discriminating and knowledgeable readers could see that its 16th-century author had interpolated other travellers' tales, often more literary than actual, into the original eye-witness accounts provided by the surviving letters and charts of the Zen brothers.

Mercator adopted the Zen map (working from a republication of it of 1561) more or less in its entirety in his own world map of 1569. Elizabeth I's advisor John Dee used the Zen narrative and map to urge his queen to promote the founding of a 'British Impyre' (the first time this concept appeared in print) in the north-west Atlantic, which would also control access to the putative North-West Passage. And as late as 1835, Alexander von Humboldt, who had plenty of personal experience of distinguishing travellers' tall stories from scientific realities on the ground, declared that he found in the Zen narrative 'a candour and detailed descriptions of objects about which nothing in Europe could have given them an idea and which remove all suspicion of imposture.'

Humboldt was responding to a growing debate about the Zen story. In the same year the Danish captain and hydrographer Christian Zahrtmann denounced the account as 'a tissue of fiction'. Later in the century an English sceptic condemned Nicolï the Younger's book as 'a contemptible literary fraud - one of the most successful and obnoxious on record.' Indeed, for most of the 20th century hardly a voice was raised to support the possible veracity of the underlying story and Nicolï the Younger's book sank into total obscurity.

Reading Andrea di Robilant's description at the beginning of 'Venetian Navigators' of the life and personality of Nicolï the Younger - who emerges as a practical, able administrator and devoted servant of the state - that he would have occupied himself with constructing an elaborate fraud seems a somewhat unlikely scenario.

In 2008 di Robilant embarked on a journey to the Faroe Islands, Orkney, Shetland, where he found that to reach Iceland he had to go via Stansted, and finally on to Greenland. A seasoned and sympathetic traveller (he worked for many years as a foreign correspondent for 'La Stampa') he is deft at describing landscapes and the people he meets. Into his enjoyable travelogue he skilfully weaves the fruits of his researches in libraries and archives. Not the least of di Robilant's revelations is how influential Nicolï the Younger's book once was and how eagerly it was read for nearly three centuries, before finally being declared (very possibly unjustly) nothing but an elaborate hoax and consigned to the oblivion from which di Robilant has now rescued it.

VENETIAN NAVIGATORS: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North

by Andrea di Robilant

244pp. Faber and Faber

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024