- - Friday, September 2, 2011

By Andrea di Robilant
Knopf, $25.95, 240 pages

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that other Europeans reached the American mainland before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. The presence of a viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland confirms the Norse sagas that describe early-11th-century vikings living there before being driven off by the people they called Skraelings. Norse traders continued to travel to North America to bargain for furs and timber, and fishermen from Britain and Portugal braved the Atlantic to haul in cod.

Yet between the departure of the last viking long ships and the arrival of the Santa Maria in 1492 lie nearly three centuries when seemingly no other Europeans settled on America’s shores. However, medieval Europe was a vast continent of trading nations. Their merchants’ preferred way to get around was travel by sea, which, though dangerous and expensive, was less so than land travel. Would not some eager merchants have made it to North America in search of new markets and products?

Andrea di Robilant argues persuasively that Antonio Zen of Venice did so. In 1383, his elder brother, the merchant Nicolo Zen, set off with a cargo for Flanders, but storms and currents hurled him off course. He wrote that he found harbor in Frislanda, a large island to the north of Scotland. There he made common cause with a chieftain called Zichmni, and having helped him subdue fractious rivals, he settled into a series of further voyages that took him to Iceland and Greenland.

His letters home encouraged his younger brother Antonio to join him. Five years later, Nicolo returned to Venice, but Antonio stayed in the north for another 10 years, eventually reaching the North American lands of Estotiland, Drogio and Icaria. In 1558, a younger member of the Zen family, also called Nicolo, published an account of his forbears’ travels called “On the Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda Engrovelanda, Estotiland and Icaria Made by Two Zen Brothers Under the Arctic Pole.” The book included a map. Like other maps of that era, it only approximated modern maps.

When Andrea di Robilant first saw it, he says, “I recognized the coastline of Scandinavia. The Shetland Islands were placed a little too close to the Norwegian coast. Iceland was roughly where it should have been. Greenland’s outline was traced with startling precision, but then a lumpy Nova Scotia seems to have lost its bearings and was floating eastward, away from Newfoundland and the coast of New England. Strangest of all was a large bulky island called Frisland … which the author placed above Scotland.”

Indeed, the map shows the North Atlantic as a semienclosed sea with scattered islands, more like the Mediterranean than a vast ocean between two continents. No wonder Nicolo Zen’s mariners, accustomed to sailing the almost tideless Mediterranean and Black seas, had trouble coping with the huge waves and powerful currents of the Atlantic and North Sea. Estotiland has been identified variously as either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. Drogio appears on the left edge of the map and could be New England. The island of Icaria has mystified geographers but perhaps represents a misplaced Newfoundland.

Then, in 1835, the Danish admiral Christopher Zahrtmann declared the map and the younger Nicolo’s book “a tissue of fiction.” Nonetheless, some cartographers and geographers defended them. Today, the Zens have largely faded from memory, but Mr. di Robilant became fascinated with the book, and in “Irresistible North,” he mounts a substantial argument in favor of its credibility.

What makes his argument intriguing as well as credible is that he traveled to the Faroes - the probable origin of Frislanda - and to Iceland and Greenland in search of traces of the brothers Zen. He makes much of place names and the way they might have been changed by transliteration from 14th-century Norse to 16th-century Italian. He also identifies geographical features that correspond to those described in the letters, and he records meetings with local historians and archaeologists who showed him ruins and relics that confirm some of the Zens’ exploits.

Mr. di Robilant makes no bones about the fact that Nicolo Zen tinkered with his forebears’ letters and made obvious mistakes. Nonetheless, he has faith in the substance of his tale. While historians and cartographers will continue their challenges, readers will be intrigued and perhaps convinced by this very readable account of how the Venetian brothers possibly made it to the New World before Columbus.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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