As I’ve discussed more than a few times, the sole support for the claim that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and Baron of Roslin sailed to America is the 1558 Zeno Narrative, which tells of the Zeno Brothers’ trip to an imaginary island in the years around 1400. This can only be made to agree with Henry’s life by special pleading and the wild assumption that the Zeno Brothers mangled the name Sinclair (or of Orkney) into that of Zichmni, the far-voyaging hero of the Narrative. Richard Henry Major, the most famous advocate of the Henry = Zichmni theory, put down the differences to the hyperbolic and excitable nature of Italians, who had no mind for truth: “the southern mind [has] a tendency to a certain amount of hyperbole...”
The fact that the Zeno Narrative is a hoax seems like a pretty open and shut case, but I discovered that there is a complicating factor often discussed in the Holy Bloodline and Sinclair conspiracy literature. Apparently the voyage of the Zeni to America is recorded in the Venetian nobleman Marco Barbaro’s Genealogie patrizie, an undated manuscript that records the family histories of the Venetian noble houses. Here’s what he said, speaking of Antonio Zeno:
He wrote with his brother, Nicolò the Cavalier, the voyages of the islands under the Arctic Pole, and of those discoveries of 1390, and that by order of Zicno, King of Frisland, he went to the continent of Estotiland in North America. He dwelt fourteen years in Frisland, four with his brother Nicolò, and ten alone. (trans. Richard Henry Major)
Templar-Holy Bloodline-Sinclair speculators assert that this manuscript was written in 1536, which proves, they say, that the Zeno story could not have been fabricated by Nicolò Zeno the younger, the author of the 1558 book, but must have been a genuine tradition reported by the younger Nicolò and Marco Barbaro.
What a mess it is trying to untangle this.
The Barbaro manuscript is undated. It is currently held at a library in Vienna, and so far as I am aware has never been translated. The Venetian dialect original was transcribed and published in 1887, but I don’t have access to this edition. Because it is undated, different books give a range of dates for the text. I’ve seen different scholars write that it was composed in 1526, 1536, 1566, “the sixteenth century,” and “midcentury.” This does not inspire confidence.
Barbaro was born in 1511, so the 1526 date is highly doubtful and almost certainly a mistake. He died in 1570, so the other dates can’t be excluded through biography. Published excerpts from the Barbaro manuscript include material down to at least 1566, a date discussed in his genealogy of the family of Marco Polo, so the manuscript cannot have been finished before then. Additionally, Barbaro make reference to “America” as the name for the northern landmass of the New World, a name that history does not record as belonging to North America until Gerardus Mercator so named it on 1538 map.
So, where did the 1536 date come from? As far as I can tell, those books that do give a source for the date are almost all mid-nineteenth century volumes, and they all cite an editor’s footnote in an 1818 Italian book on Marco Polo. I haven’t seen that volume, so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like this is one possible source for the 1536 date—especially given what I learned next. Richard Henry Major repeated the date in his influential preface to his translation of the Zeno Narrative, and all later Templar-Sinclair-Jesus speculators took their information directly from him. Major, in turn, took the date from Capt. C. C. Zahrtmann’s skeptical account of the Zeno narrative from 1835, which gives the 1536 date and attempts to puzzle out how it was possible. Zahrtmann proposed that Nicolò the younger inserted the lines into the Barbaro manuscript as the two families were related and they were of similar ages (21 and 25) in 1536. Zahrtmann never says where he in turn got it from, but he cites Cardinal Placido Zurla’s Di Marco Polo e degli altri Viaggiatori Veneziani più, the same book cited elsewhere as the source for the 1536 date, as well as Zurla’s book on the Zeni, Dissertazione Intorno ai Viaggi e Scoperti Settentrionali di Nicolò et Antonio, Fratelli Zeni. Zurla, in his two books on the Zeno Narrative, apparently asserted that Barbaro had begun his genealogy of the Zeno family in 1536. In his Dissertazione, Zurla merely asserted that
…the family tree of the Zeni family was drawn up by the Venetian patrician Marco Barbaro and inserted into T. VII of his MS. work, Discendente patrizie, a copy of which is owned by the eminent Venetian nobleman Lorenzo Antonio da Ponte… Barbaro worked on writing this until 1536, i.e. before Nicolò Zeno the younger compiled his History, which was in 1557, as we saw; and moreover, Barbaro is supremely renowned for his assiduous studies and his accuracy in such matters. (pp. 29-30, my trans.)
Zurla notes that this was before the younger Zeno’s Narrative was published, but Zurla gives no information about how he derived the 1536 date, one that is belied by the dates given in Barbaro’s text. It is also unlikely that a 25-year-old was composing a monumental genealogy, or had been working on it for many years. I’m thinking Zurla was just wrong, perhaps (at the risk of sounding too much like Major) misreading bad handwriting in recording the wrong date. This is perhaps more likely since Zurla said he was working from a copy, not the autograph original.
In the 1810s, Zurla, a Venetian patriot, was criticized for taking liberties with material in his 1816 first book on Marco Polo, a book that was said to have earned him his Cardinal’s hat. Zurla apparently overly interpreted material to make Marco Polo more heroic and give Venice pride of place as the center of medieval innovation.
I don’t have access to Zurla’s 1818 Marco Polo book, so I’m not sure if there is better evidence for Barbaro in there, but if there really were any evidence the Barbaro manuscript had been written in 1536, surely modern scholars who have worked with it would be able to make a more definitive dating than “middle sixteenth century.”
But what frosts me is that every book I’ve checked—dozens of them, both Victorian and modern—repeats the exact same material in nearly the exact same words—largely Major’s. And not just English books—French and Italian texts use virtually the same language, too! FOR MORE THAN ONE HUNDRED YEARS. Certainly if you are going to claim that your book rewrites history on the basis of the Zeno Narrative, it behooves you to at least try to find out where the facts come from, not just repeat and repeat what other alternative writers wrote.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.