Venetians discovered North America? Not that insufferable wanderer, Cristoforo Colombo, as my third grade teacher taught me?
According to Andrea Di Robilant’s new book, Irresistible North, Venetian noblemen Nicolo and Antonio Zen sailed to North America and back and came home with a t-shirt to prove it. Well, not really. But in the late 1300s they drew a map showing their travels. Later many others studied and used this map when making their own maps, and then in 1558 another Nicolo Zen, great-great-great grandson of the first, printed the map in a widely circulated book.
However, the map was later labeled a hoax. Mudslinging ensued.
Di Robilant follows the trail of this map and Nicolo the Younger’s book, from Venice to the locales pictured on it–places named Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrovelanda, Estotilanda, and Icaria. His journey of discovery is as fun to read about as the Zen family’s adventures–di Robilant tells of visiting a steaming mountain, a grumpy librarian, and an blind storyteller, among others. And he tries to decipher where were these odd-sounding places and how do they relate to the real world that the Zens visited? The original tale is complex and obtuse, yet di Robilant is able to link it with his narrative and somehow make it all quite comprehensible.
If you like the unscrambling of myths, you’ll enjoy Irresistible North. Or if you’ve ever enjoyed the books and adventures of Tim Severin, this is for you, too. Di Robilant previously brought us A Venetian Affair, about the forbidden love between Venetian nobleman Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, told through their letters that came to di Robilant through his family. (Memmo was a good friend to Casanova, which is how I came to know di Robilant’s work.)
The Zen map, by the way, is posted on the Frank Jacobs’ blog Strange Maps, which has been featured lately on NPR and other media sites. See the map and Jacobs’ posting here:
Watch out next time you take a left–you never know if you might end up in some place called Estotilanda. And it won’t be a Zen moment.