The Zeno Map & Narrative

Zeno's boatbuilding family

Zeno came from a boatbuilding family

The story of Prince Henry St Clair's voyage to North America was written by the Venetian Nicolò Zeno in 1558. Zeno (1510-1565) was a historian and prominent citizen who served on many public bodies in Venice. His book, known by the mercifully short 'The Zeno Narrative' (its full title being: The Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engronelanda, Estotilanda, and Icaria, made by two brothers of the Zeno family, namely, Messire Nicolò, the chevalier, and Messire Antonio, with a special drawing of the whole region of their discovery in the north), included - as advertised in the title - a map of the islands and countries of the North Atlantic, known simply as the Zeno Map. The Zeno Narrative was translated into English in 1873 by Richard Henry Major.

Zeno's source - or so he claimed - was letters written by two of his ancestors, another Nicolò, known as the Chevalier, and his brother Antonio, who had served in the fleet of a Prince of the islands north of Scotland. The Zeno Narrative's author was a descendant of Antonio, who died in 1406. Nicolò said that only fragments of the letters survived - confessing he had torn many of them up as a child, which he greatly regretted in later life.

Tantalisingly, Antonio's letters (as given in the Zeno Narrative) also refer to a book he had written that described the lands they visited in greater detail, but no one knows what became of it.



The Zeno family (also called Zen, Zenone and Geno) were one of the most distinguished, and oldest, clans of Venice, with a pedigree stretching back to the 8th century. Their stock had risen even higher in the late 14th century.

At the end of 1380 when Venice was blockaded by the Genoan fleet it seemed that it would have to surrender. The city was rescued by the arrival of a fleet led by Captain Carlo Zeno, who in swashbuckling style drove off the blockaders and saved the day. A great hero, he became Captain General of the Fleet - with the nickname 'Carlo the Lion'. His two brothers, Nicolò (one of the victorious captains in Carlo's fleet) and Antonio were the writers of the letters on which the Narrative was purportedly based.

Briefly, the Zeno Narrative tells how in 1390 Nicolò Zeno sailed to the northern seas on a mission for the City of Venice and was shipwrecked on an island to the north of Scotland that was ruled by a prince named 'Zichmni' - whose description perfectly fits Prince Henry St Clair. When Nicolò and his men were taken into Prince Zichmni's service, he wrote to his brother Antonio in Venice asking him to join him. The two brothers sailed with Zichmni. Nicolò died, but Antonio remained as the captain of the prince's fleet, eventually accompanying him on an expedition to a new land far to the west.

However, the first reference to the voyage actually appeared 22 years before the Zeno Narrative in a 1536 book by another Venetian, Marco Barbaro, called Discendenza Patrizie (Patrician Ancestors), which gave brief biographical notes of famous Venetians. His entries for Nicolò and Antonio Zeno read:

Nicolò the Chevalier, of the Holy Apostles Parish, called the Old - in 1379 captain of a galley against the Genoese. Wrote with brother Antonio the voyage to Frislanda, where he died.

Antonio wrote with his brother Nicolò the Chevalier the voyage to the islands near the Arctic Pole, of their discoveries of 1390 by order of Zichno, King of Frislanda. He reached the continent of Estotiland in North America. He remained fourteen years in Frislanda; that is, four with his brother, and ten alone.

Barbaro's book shows at least that the idea that Antonio Zeno reached a new continent - by Barbaro's time now known as America - was around in Venice two decades before the appearance of the Zeno Narrative. Barbaro also implies that the Zeno brothers had written an account of their adventures.

Nicolò Zeno's book was ignored for 200 years as Venetian propaganda, an attempt to secure his own people the credit for discovering the New World.

The Zeno Map

The map was clearly drawn in the 16th century, as it has longitude and latitude lines, which were not used in Antonio Zeno's day. Nicolò Zeno said that the map was based on his ancestor's original, although it was 'rotten with age'. Parts were copied from earlier 16th-century maps, but it included islands that had not been previously recorded - which had been visited and charted by the Zeno brothers.

The Zeno Map

The Zeno Map

Significantly, the land called Estotilanda is in the correct position for Newfoundland, and its coastline is a close match.

Being the most accurate map of those regions then available, it was used by explorers in the north Atlantic.

Estotilanda appeared on maps and globes for at least another hundred years. Elizabeth I's astrologer and spymaster, the magician Dr John Dee, believed that Estotilanda was real, even arguing that its inhabitants were descendants of colonists sent by King Arthur - and therefore British subjects.

Author Andrew Sinclair states, 'The accuracy of the Map reinforces the plausibility of most of the Narrative.'

According to the Zeno Narrative....

After briefly relating the earlier history of the family from about 1200, the Zeno Narrative focusses on the story of Nicolò and Antonio, the brothers of the famous Venetian naval hero Carlo Zeno.

Nicolò Zeno decided to sail to the northern seas on what seems to have been a mission of behalf of Venice - perhaps to gather information that might give his government a commercial advantage. The Narrative gives the year of his departure as 1380, but this is clearly a printing error: there are records of Nicolò's activities in Venice until 1388, and Marco Barbaro's earlier account gave the date as 1390, which is more likely.

According to the Zeno Narrative Nicolò undertook his voyage because he wished to find out as much as he could about the world, in order to better serve the City of Venice. But it is more likely that he really wanted to gather information about the fish and fur trades, as well as the northern fleets and sailing practices.

Perhaps this was a deliberate move to forge a trading alliance with the Norse kingdoms, something that would have appealed to both parties. The Scandinavian shipping trade was suffering because of the stranglehold of the Hanseatic League and the Venetians' because of the Moslem control of the Levant. Both were looking for new sources of trade - a ravishing and rich new world to plunder.

This idea is supported by the fact that the oldest brother, Carlo the Lion, was sent as an ambassador to England and France in 1396, just before Antonio's putative voyage to America. If correct, it would explain some of the Narrative's evasiveness and obscurity. It has even been suggested that Nicolò Zeno's claim to have torn up the original letters as a child was 'calculated misinformation' by the Venetian state, who even in the 16th century were seeking to exploit the discoveries of Prince Henry and the Zenos and who still had the original letters, and perhaps even the book with more detailed information mentioned in the Narrative.

According to the Narrative, a storm drove Nicolò's ship ashore on an island he called Frislanda, presumably one of the Faroe Islands or Fair (or Fer) Isle, which lies between Shetland and Orkney. Here (after being rescued from the islanders) he and his crew were taken under the protection of the local prince, a powerful lord who was also highly cultured and educated.

Nicolò Zen called this person Zichmni, but it has been argued that this was a corruption of St Clair. Zichmni is also described as 'Duke of Sorano'. Pohl argues that Sorano is a corruption of Roslin, while Andrew Sinclair believes that it refers to Caithness.

Nicolò Zen entered Zichmni's service, assisting him in various battles to extend his control of the islands. He also wrote to his younger brother Antonio in Venice asking him to fit out a ship and join him. (Pohl believes that Antonio was actually Nicolò's son, on the grounds that while there is no record of a third Zeno brother, there is evidence of Nicolò's son Antonio.)

The two Zenos assisted in Zichmni's campaign for the next two or three years - Nicolò acquitting himself so well in Zichmni's service that he was knighted and made captain of the fleet.

Once they had subdued the islands, Nicolò made a voyage of discovery to 'Engroneland', which has been identified as Greenland. Here he accurately described an establishment that has been identified as the Augustinian monastery of St Olaf (Nicolò said St Thomas). He particularly described the system by which water from hot springs was channelled into the monastery for heating. This detail was regarded with scepticism until 20th-century archaeologists found just such a system in St Olaf's.

Shortly after his voyage to Greenland, Nicolò fell ill and died. Antonio remained in Zichmni's service, being elevated to the position formerly occupied by Nicolò, in charge of the fleet.

A new voyage was inspired by a tale brought back by a fisherman who claimed that, 26 years before, he was driven by a storm to an island called Estotilanda, some 1,000 miles to the west of Frislanda. With five companions, he was shipwrecked on the shore, and taken to a 'fair and populous city' ruled by a 'king'. The fisherman's tale - a lengthy extract of which was included in one of Antonio's letters to his brother Carlo in Venice - includes some extraordinary descriptions of his experiences over the next 26 years in Estotilanda and a country to the south called Drogio. The King of Estotilanda had books in his library in Latin (which, however, none of the natives could read), and other shipwrecked Europeans lived there. Further south there were 'cities and temples dedicated to their idols, in which they sacrifice men and afterwards eat them. In those parts they have some knowledge and use of gold and silver.' This sounds very much like the Aztec culture of Central America.

The land described by the fisherman bears no resemblance to the parts of north America - Novia Scotia and Newfoundland - directly to the west of the Orkneys.  But, significantly, neither does it match the description of the Estotilanda that Zichmni and Antonio Zeno visit later (which does sound like Nova Scotia). If the Zeno Narrative was just a work of fiction, we would expect Antonio's experiences to outdo those of the fisherman in terms of the fantastic wonders and weird beasties.

However, the fisherman's mysterious land sounds much more like the civilisations of Central and South America.

The Zeno Narrative quotes Antonio as saying of the fisherman: 'He says that it is a very great country and, as it were, a new world.'

Zichmni determined to lead an expedition to this new land - much to Antonio's surprise, as he expected to lead the mission himself. There was an immediate setback when the fisherman, who was to be the expedition's guide, died just three days before it set sail. Nevertheless, Zichmni went ahead.

Eventually, after a hazardous journey, the fleet arrived in Estotilanda, a land of forests and rivers. They entered a harbour, from which they could see in the distance 'a great hill that poured forth smoke'. Zichmni sent out 100 soldiers to explore. They returned 8 days later to report that:

…the smoke was a natural thing proceeding from a great fire in the bottom of the hill, and that there was a spring from which issued a certain substance like pitch, which ran into the sea, and that thereabouts dwelt a great many people half wild, and living in caves. They were of small stature and very timid.

The scouting party also reported that there was a good, safe harbour near the 'smoking mountain'. Zichmni decided to move his fleet there and establish a camp on land. However, some of the men wanted to return home, not wanting to be stranded there for the winter. Zichmni decided to let them go, keeping only the rowing boats (presumably intending to build new sailing ships for his own return voyage). He appointed Antonio as the captain for the return fleet, who was reluctant to return but had no choice but to accept the command.

The Narrative ends with Antonio's return, leaving Zichmni to explore the new land. However, Antonio must have received news after Zichmni's return - as he refers in his last letter to him building a colony in Estotilanda. The Narrative quotes Antonio's last letter to Carlo Zeno:

Those things you want to know from me about the people and their habits, the animals and the countries nearby, I have written in a separate book, which, please God, I shall bring with me. In it I have described the country, the monstrous fishes, the customs and laws of Frislanda, of Islanda, of Estlanda, of the Kingdom of Norway, of Estotilanda and Drogio. Lastly I have written the life of our brother, Nicolò the Chevalier, with the discovery he made and all about Engroneland. I have also written the life and exploits of Zichmni, a prince who deserves immortal memory as much as any man that ever lived for his great bravery and remarkable goodness.

Antonio Zeno returned to Venice in 1404, where he died two years later.

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