Flipping through next week’s Radio Times, I was intrigued to see that ‘Book of the Week’ on Radio 4 for the week of 28 March is Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North, by the Italian historian Andrea di Robilant, recently published by Faber. (There are online reviews in the Independent and the FT.) An English translation of the Zen brothers’ own account, edited by the redoubtable Richard Henry Major (who was made a Knight Commander of the Crown of Italy by Vittorio Emmanuele II for his work) was published in 1873 by the Hakluyt Society, and we reissued it last year.
In his book, di Robilant attempts to follow the journeys of the Venetian brothers Antonio and Nicolò Zen to the northern seas of Europe – and possibly even to America. The original account is very short (only 35 pages in our edition), and allegedly written by Antonio at the end of the fourteenth century. The manuscript, so the story goes, was later partly destroyed by a descendant (another Nicolò) when a boy – ‘not knowing the value of these papers’ – but he later reconstructed the text, and an accompanying map, and had it published in Venice in 1558. Since then, controversy has (mildly) raged over the document’s authenticity: it was widely regarded as genuine in the eighteenth century, but in 1836, Admiral Zahrtmann of the Danish Navy presented a paper to the [British] Royal Geographical Society ‘of the most learned and elaborate character . . . the object of which is to prove that the whole story is “false” and “a tissue of fiction”, emanating from the pen of Nicolò Zeno junior in 1558’.
Zarhtmann’s arguments were widely regarded as compelling and conclusive, and the Zen brothers were for a time totally discredited. But Major’s work puts forward cogent arguments for the veracity of the original narrative. As with his other editions for the Hakluyt Society (see the complete list here), his introduction (102 pages) draws on many other early accounts of the north Atlantic (including Ivar Bardsen’s ‘Description of Greenland’, which is provided, in the original Latin and in translation, in an appendix), on research into place-names and geography, on the known capabilities of ships and seamen at the time, and on common sense.
He remarks in the Preface: ‘In the present instance, we have the peculiar phenomenon of a most true and authentic narrative, which must henceforth, it is to be hoped, hold a high position among ancient historical records of travel, having been, in conjunction with the map that accompanies it, the cause of a vast amount of error and misconception, and the subject of so much discredit as to have been finally condemned’. So Major convinced himself, and probably many others: it will be interesting to read (or listen to) Di Robilant’s account of his own expeditions in the (hypothetical) wake of the Zeni. (And memo to self, visit the right Palazzo Zen (it’s not the one near the Frari, apparently) next time I’m in Venice, to see where the voyage began.)