Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North
Strands of serendipity weave through the various levels on which this book is written: to start with di Robilant’s chance encounter with an American in Venice which prompted him to investigate two 14th-century Venetian brothers, Nicolò and Antonio Zen, whose travel records were finally printed – with a map – a century and a half later by another Nicolò Zen (the Younger). The account even includes a description of Antonio Zen’s journey to what may have been Newfoundland.
Di Robilant’s own travels to the Faeroes, Orkney, Iceland and Greenland as he retraces the Venetians’ voyage, and attempts to unravel truth from fiction, also have their fair share of chance discoveries and meetings. When the account was printed in the 16th century, Nicolò the Younger resorted to ‘padding generously’ and including bizarre details, which resulted in the journey being discredited as a hoax by later critics. Nonetheless, the Zen map retained a long-lasting influence and was used by Mercator and John Dee, among others. Much of the material is intriguing – how Augustine monasteries benefited from thermal springs in Iceland, for instance – but I found the whole marred by the difficulty of balancing the possibly authentic Venetian account, the 16th-century fabrications and the modern travelogue.