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Irresistible North: from Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am

Irresistible North: from Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers
by Andrea di Robilant
Knopf

Half-Venetian, half-American, Andrea di Robilant is an industrious fellow. In addition to working as a correspondent for Italy's La Stampa, one of Europe's most influential dailies, he has also established a reputation for writing the kind of historical non-fiction that even those who don't care much for the genre can really get absorbed in.

This particular story starts in a library. The author observes an American trying to make himself understood by a clerk at Venice's Biblioteca Marciana, where the visitor has come on 'a pilgrimage to see the family palazzo of two Venetian brothers he claimed had crossed the Atlantic and reached the coast of North America at the end of the 14th century'. That would be about a century before Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. The Italian at the library's reception is baffled.

The bilingual Di Robilant offers to assist the two, learns that the American 'in shorts and T-shirt' hails from a small town in Connecticut, and then himself becomes intrigued by the New Englander's quest. The historian-journalist had not previously heard of these seafarer brothers.

Then, by chance, a few days later Di Robilant happens on the very palazzo the American is looking for. It bore a 'soot-covered plaque' dedicated to 'Nicol?and Antonio Zen, wise and courageous navigators to the northern seas'. And so Di Robilant's multi-layered work begins in earnest, based on the yarn which holds that, in the 14th century, Nicol?and Antonio Zen travelled from Venice, through Scotland and Scandinavia, sailed up and across the North Atlantic - and, just conceivably, reached America.

Reports of the Zen brothers' adventures of finding new lands and battling warrior princes and savage natives went viral throughout 14th-century Europe. From the workshop of iconic cartographer Mercator, to the court of England's Elizabeth I, to the teeming streets of the big port-cities of the day such as Venice, Genoa, Hamburg, Bruges, and Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), these stories held millions in their thrall.

The brothers swiftly became celebrities and, after their deaths, legends. Then in 1835, 277 years after their adventures were first published as fact in Venice, their explorations were denounced as a 'tissue of lies' by the respected Danish admiral Christian Zahrtmann. Subsequently the stories faded into oblivion. The book clearly establishes that following the Zen brothers' footsteps and sea voyages is an eminently productive endeavour for the author. His research takes him from elegantly crumbling Venetian monuments to gale-lashed islets in the North Sea, Iceland, and as far as a curious old monastery in Greenland.

Irresistible North also reveals Di Robilant's passion for maps, and there are several in this book, as well as many other helpful illustrations.

A densely woven tapestry of history, travelogue and forensic journeying, Irresistible North is an important addition to what we already know about Europe's past.

By shedding light on the nature of historiography in a highly accessible form, this book would make an excellent gift to a schoolchild. Adult readers will probably find this engrossing too.

In essence, here's a true story about a story that may or may not be true. Or may be partly true. It's a book that is educational on many levels. Irresistible North is as thrilling and magical as visiting Venice for the first time in your life.

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