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ZENO, NICOLÒ and ANTONIO, two Venetian brothers, reputed to have sailed to the north Atlantic c. 1380, to have made voyages to several islands in the north Atlantic, and even to have reached Nova Scotia; Nicolò b. c. 1326, d. c. 1402; Antonio d. shortly after 1403.
Their supposed voyage is based on a book published by a member of the Zeno family in Venice 1558, entitled Dello scoprimento dell’ isole Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda e Icaria fatto sotto il Polo artico da’ due fratelli Zeni, M. Nicolo il K. e M. Antonio. According to this account, Nicolò and Antonio sailed to the north Atlantic about 1380 and entered the service of a local potentate there named Zichmni. While in his service, and sometimes accompanied by him, they made voyages to several islands in the north Atlantic, and even reached Nova Scotia, according to various interpretations of the Dello scoprimento. The narrative, however, is a crude fabrication and there is no other evidence for the presence of the brothers at any time in the north Atlantic. On the contrary, historians have established the fact that Nicolò spent the greater part of his life in the public service of Venice, including the years when he is supposed to have been with Zichmni. Nor did he die while in his service, as the narrative states, for he made a will in Venice in 1400 and died about 1402. Antonio died shortly after 1403.
The importance of the Zeno fabrications lies, not in the narrative, but in the map of the north Atlantic appended to this. It was accepted as genuine for more than a hundred years after its publication in 1558 and its mythical islands and fantastic names found their way onto several maps, including Mercator’s map of 1569 and that of Ortelius, 1570, and misled geographers and mariners for many decades, for example, Frobisher who seems to have thought that the east coast of Greenland was the “Frisland” of the Zeno map. It has, however, been shown conclusively that the Zeno map was based on the 1537 map of the northern regions executed by the Swede Olaus Magnus and on the 15th-century map of the Dane, Claudius Clavus. The search for the northwest passage may have been at least in part prompted by study of the Zeno map.
The literature on the Zeni brothers is voluminous and the number of those who have accepted their story as genuine is astounding. Many have, accordingly, attempted to identify Zichmni with a historical character. The most widely accepted identification is that made by J. R. Forster in 1784 when he argued that Zichmni was actually Henry Sinclair, 1st earl of the Orkneys, who was born in 1350 and died in 1404. Even if one overlooks the absurd contents of the Zeno narrative, there is not a shred of evidence, as F. W. Lucas conclusively showed in 1898, to suggest that Henry Sinclair made any transatlantic voyages (not to mention the discovery of Nova Scotia) or that he had either Nicolò or Antonio at his court. Thus the Zeno affair remains one of the most preposterous and at the same time one of the most successful fabrications in the history of exploration.
J. R. Forster, History of the voyages and discoveries made in the north, translated from the German . . . (London, 1786). F. W. Lucas, The annals of the voyages of the brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno (London, 1898). A. da Mosto, “I navigatori Nicolò e Antonio Zeno,” Ad Allesandro Luzio gli archivi di stato italiano: miscellanea di studi storici (2v., Firenze, 1933). Nordisk familjebok: konversationslexikon och realencyklopedi (Stockholm, 1922). Oleson, Early voyages, 108–9. The voyages of the Venetian brothers Nicolò & Antonio Zeno, to the northern seas, in the XIVth century, comprising the latest known accounts of the lost colony of Greenland and of the Northmen in America before Columbus, tr. and ed. R. H. Major (Hakluyt Soc., 1st ser., L, 1873).