The Lost Zen Letters: A Cautionary Tale about Children and Archives February 15, 2013Posted by Beachcombing in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
***Dedicated to KR who pointed Zenwards***
The story (as always) is a simple one, perhaps deceptively, perhaps dishonestly so. In 1558 in 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 (Of the Discovery of Frisolanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda and Icara under the Arctic Pole by the Zen brothers, Nicolo the Knight and Antonio) one Niccolò Zen describes how, as a young child, he came upon some old family papers – the Zen were an important Venetian line – and how he ripped these apart not understanding, at this age, what he was doing. Zen must have got a vicious (and frankly well deserved) telling off because years later he still felt guilty about his catastrophic game and as an adult he went back to the tattered remains of what had been ruined to see if anything could be salvaged. There he found letters describing fourteenth-century voyages in the north Atlantic by two of his descendants, voyages to a series of unknown islands. NZ managed to piece these letters together again in such a way that he had enough material to publish. The results were startling. His family had apparently not just been to Orkney and Faeroes. They had also made it to the New World about a hundred and fifty years before that Genoan charlie, Christopher Columbus! (Remember that CC was from Genoa, the sworn enemy of the Venetians. This may have been important.)
NZ’s narrative seems to be complete nonsense. He describes, in his book, a series of islands that don’t exist, at least, not by the name they are given today and a series of adventures that while not exactly Mandevillian push the bounds of credibility to snapping point. Up until the mid nineteenth century all took this as a result of confusion on the part of the reader. Since the mid nineteenth century most have taken it as dishonesty on Niccolò’s part. Crudely speaking there are three schools of thought. First, Niccolò decided to write a sixteenth-century version of Invisible Cities and pulled that old chestnut out of the fire, an old document kept in the family for generations: ‘I’ve got some Templar stuff up in the loft, Professor’ etc etc. Second, that the letters did describe some larking around in the north but that what was genuine and what is invention by NZ is now impossible to tell. Third, Niccolò reliably recorded the content of the letters and if we can’t find the islands it is because we are not trying hard enough: in the eighteenth and nineteenth century they tried to excuse some of the missing islands with reference to marine volcanoes!
Beach doesn’t really get Niccolò (the author: pictured above). He was a careful and published historian, a Venetian patriot and someone who took his reputation seriously. If this was all invention then it was presumably a delightful jeu d’esprit. Niccolò just doesn’t seem your typical late renaissance Italian bullshitter: though God knows there were enough of them about. But the narrative is so outrageous – in geographical terms – that you would need a lot of marine volcanoes to explain the islands visited in the north. Was it perhaps Venice’s rapid decline which inspired honest Niccolò to lie?
How, in any case, do we get to the bottom of this mess? Well, we build a time-machine, head back to the early 1500s and offer a little boy with dangerous eyes a lollipop as he is walking towards the Zen library. In short, we need those letters or at least proof that they really did exist. But, of course, this is never going to happen. Welcome to another burning library. The only way around is to try and disprove that the two Zen explorers were abroad in the years that Niccolò claimed they were in the northern Atlantic by using Venice’s extensive archives. The only modern writer who is worth listening to on this is Andrea di Robilant whose book on the topic, Irresistible North is a treat. Di Robilant, who excels at the Venice end of things, argues that the two brothers do not appear in the archives for those critical years. (Compare with this older essay). If this is so this is a striking circumstance given the extent of the surviving archives and the importance of the individuals named. However, it is far from proof… Other thoughts on the Zen brothers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com