Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Irresistible North

I find old maps fascinating, so this book was perfect for me. In Irresistible North, Andrea Di Robilant tells the story of the search for information on the Zen brothers of Venice. In 1558 Nicolo (the younger) Zen wrote a book entitled: On Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrovelanda, Estotilanda and Icaria made by two Zen brothers under the Artic Pole. Nicolo was the great great grandson of Antonio Zen, one of the navigators referred to in the title. This book sparked what has been come to be called the Zen map controversy.

DiRobilant discovered the book while in Venice researching another topic. He was asked a question by another tourist and that led to his acquaintance with the Zen brothers and their travels. The book was delivered to DiRobilant from the rare book collection and as luck would have it, it contained a map. The map was drawn by Nicolo and showed the islands his ancestors had allegedly discovered. Nicolo wrote the book based on letters and scraps of diaries he found. Nicolo's book was originally printed by mistake. Nicolo had given the book to a friend, a printer, to proofread. The man printed it. It became an instant bestseller for the time. Nicolo, not happy edited the book himself and had it republished.

Nicolo the elder was a rich man in the 1300s in Venice. Antonio is his younger brother. Nicolo was a spice trader who wanted to see the world. Known as Nicolo Zen, Draconis (Nicolo Zen son of the dragon) he came from a sailing family so a sailing expedition was not something new to him. They set off. Sailing away from Venice, they are blown off course in a terrible storm and discover what is termed "Frislanda." This island is marked on Nicolo, the younger's, map. It appears that what was actually discovered were the Faeroe Islands. In any event the brothers met up with Zichmini, a warrior king who saved Draconis and his crew from the natives. The Zens stay with Zichmini as they travel through the Artic seas. According to the diaries and letters, the brothers went to Engronelind (Greenland), Islanda (Iceland) and Frislanda (the Faeroe Islands) among other stops.

Nicolo, the younger's book and map were used in several other map books most notably Gerardus Mersator's map of the world - which was the first complete map of the world. The Zen book is not without controversy. Scholars from the 1500s until current times have either panned the book and declared Nicolo a liar or believed that the book was truth and the earliest written documentation of the voyages.

I liked this book. A short book, less than 200 pages, it is full of information about countries in the north Atlantic and the history of their names. The lives of the Zen brothers are interesting in and of themselves, but DiRobilant's fascination with the Zen's and their story is the real reason for the book. Pages of notes and an index at the end of the book will give the interested reader more places to go. Short but interesting, I recommend this book.

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