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IRRESISTIBLE NORTH by Andrea di Robilant


From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers

by Andrea di Robilant

Pub Date: May 24th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26985-0
Publisher: Knopf

Engrossing investigation of significant Age of Discovery journeys.

The letters written by the 14th-century Venetian Zen brothers, two of the earliest explorers of the North Atlantic, provided the basis for a 1588 travel narrative that included a possibly forged map of the North Atlantic, which instigated a storm of debate that continues to this day. Fast-forward 400 years and a chance meeting at a library in Venice, which piqued di Robilant’s (Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, 2008, etc.) curiosity and sent him on a quest to investigate the adventures of the two men. Interestingly, the brothers' explorations were done sequentially, rather than together. Nicolò spent nearly five years in the northern reaches of Great Britain and Iceland, establishing a comradeship with the Scottish lord Henry Sinclair. Antonio took over Nicolò’s quest and led his fleets as far as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia during the next decade. The author impressively deciphers the differences between the book published in Venice in the 16th century and the possible realities of the information gleaned from what actually was only five letters. What firmly established the fame of the Zen map was inclusion in Gerardus Mercator’s World Map of 1569, which revolutionized navigation by flattening the spherical surface of the globe into a flat plane. Academics have debated the veracity of the Zen story, and more importantly, the Zen map of the North Atlantic since it was published. However, the influence of the Zen map cannot be overstated, particularly as it was the only available map of the North Atlantic.

The author’s painstaking detective work thoroughly limns the controversies that have plagued the Zens for 500 years.