After Europeans realized that Christopher Columbus had discovered new lands, not a new path to Asia, as he had claimed, national jealousies helped inspire a range of claims that other European groups had made the same journey earlier and should be granted pride of place. Many these claims are familiar: Irish monks under Saint Brendan, Welsh explorers under Prince Madoc, and the Norse. The last on that list had the virtue of also being true.
In 1558, a Venetian named Nicolò Zeno published a book and an accompanying map claiming that his ancestors, Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, brothers of the naval hero Carlo Zeno, had made voyages of equal importance to Columbus, and a century earlier to boot, earning Venice a place at the pre-Columbian table and a triumph over its rival Genoa, home to Columbus. The book supposedly summarizes the correspondence of the two brothers about their adventures—correspondence which was conveniently destroyed before scholars could examine it when the younger Nicolò Zeno tore the original manuscripts to pieces. Oddly, the book freely mixes supposed quotations from the letters and first person narration by the later author, all cast in the same first-person voice, as though one writer took on three personalities.
According to the younger Nicolò’s book, one of the Zeno bothers (also called the Zen or Zeni), Nicolò, sailed to England in 1380 (which is true) and became stranded on an island called Frisland (which is not true), a non-existent North Atlantic island larger than Ireland. In the book, the elder Nicolò claims to have been rescued by Zichmi, a prince of Frisland. Fortunately for him, everyone he meets speaks Latin. Nicolò invites his brother Antonio to join him in Frisland, which he does for fourteen years (Nicolò dying four years in), while Zichmi attacks the fictitious islands of Bres, Talas, Broas, Iscant, Trans, Mimant, and Dambercas well as the Estlanda (Shetland) Islands and Iceland.
Later, after Nicolò had died in 1394, an expedition lost for twenty-six years arrives and reports having lived in a strange unknown land filled with ritual cannibals, whom they taught to fish. In fact, rival island groups fought a war in order to gain access to the travelers and learn the art of fishing. Worse, despite being the arctic “they all go naked, and suffer cruelly from the cold, nor have they the sense to clothe themselves with the skins of the animals which they take in hunting.” Antonio Zeno is still there and joins Zichmi on a voyage to the west in search of these strange lands. They encounter a large island called Icharia, whose residents’ speech Zichmi understands. Finally, they travel to Greenland, where Zichmi remains with a colony while Antonio returns to Frisland.
On the surface of it, the story seems ridiculous—any survey of the Atlantic admits many of the islands are fakes (though defenders suggest Nicolò the younger misread references to Icelandic settlements as referring to islands since Iceland is called Islande)—but it was one of the most successful hoaxes in the history of exploration. The sixteenth century mapmakers Orelius and Mercator reportedly used it as a source, and Sir Martin Frobisher took it with him on his voyage to the Arctic. One part of the reason for this is that the Zeni were real people, and they really did undertake voyages in the north. There was a foundation on which the younger Nicolò drew in fabricating the story. The other reason for the success is the infamous Zeno Map.
Before we look at the map, let’s stipulate the Zeni narrative as presented in 1558 is a hoax. The real Nicolò Zeno (the elder) had been a military governor in Greece from 1390-1392 and was on trial in Venice in 1394 for embezzlement. He lived until at least 1402, despite having “died” in Frisland in 1394.
The map seen above was for a long time considered the most important chart made in the 1390s, showing the North Atlantic in stunning accuracy for its day, despite the appearance of several islands that simply do not exist. Of particular note is the accuracy of the shape of Greenland, better than any other fourteenth century chart. Of course, no copy of the map exists prior to its appearance in Nicolò Zeno’s 1558 book.
But even from the first, there were several troubling issues. For one thing, the map showed latitude and longitude, something not included on medieval maps. Some dismissed these as a later interpolation. Second, the accuracy of the map varies wildly from land to land. Greenland’s shape is highly accurate, while Iceland’s shape is very much inaccurate. Frisland—which does not exist—has been identified with the Faroe Islands, but only at the cost of sacrificing any claim to the map’s tremendous accuracy, since the two lands look nothing alike.
Martin Frobisher, in exploring the Arctic in 1577 in search of the Northwest Passage, relied on the hoax map, and as a result of its mistaken latitudes—listing Greenland’s south tip at 65 degrees instead of 60, he mistook Greenland for Frisland--twice!—in 1577 and again in 1578, and extolled how accurately the map of Frisland matched the coast he reached, which was really Greenland!
John Davis, on his subsequent trip to the Arctic in search of the same Northwest Passage, at least recognized that the Zeni map’s Frisland did not match the coast he found, so he claimed to be the discoverer of the new island of Desolation. Sadly, it was again Greenland, which he completely misunderstood because he was using a hoax map to guide him. The island of Desolation, which never existed, was then placed on Hondius’ great chart of the world and the Molyneux Globe. The fictitious passage between Desolation and Greenland was named Frobisher’s Strait, and Henry Hudson though he found it when he sailed up the east coast of Greenland at 63 degrees, believing himself still south of Greenland proper. Also, when Spitzbergen was discovered, it was mistaken for part of Greenland for the same reasons!
Modern scholars, having researched the map, concluded that it is derived from a haphazard compilation of earlier charts, including Olaus Magnus’ Carta marina (1539), printed in Venice; Cornelius Anthoniszoon’s Caerte van Oostlant (1543); and derivatives of Claudius Clavus’ early map of the North (c. 1427), including Greenland, which appears nearly identical in shape and orientation on the Clavus-derived 1467 map of Nicolaus Germanus as its counterpart on the Zeno map.
Many believe that the younger Nicolò Zeno faked the voyage of his ancestors to help give Venice a prior claim to the discovery of the New World, older than that of Genoese rival Columbus. Some still hold that Zeno merely garbled his ancestors’ real-life voyage to the north, exaggerating or misreporting real events. The weight of evidence is that the Zeno affair is yet another episode in the chronicle of fake history passed off as the real thing.
But here’s the takeaway: How can we be expected to believe, as alternative writers would have it, that Europe possessed secret maps of America and Atlantis dating back a thousand years or more if they couldn’t manage to determine whether Frisland actually existed?
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.
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