The Renaissance Rhetoric of Discovery

Nicolo Zeno, Carta de Navegar de Nicolo et Antonio Zeni Furono in Tramontana Lano MCCCLXXX (Venice, 1558). OS-1558-1

Nicolo Zeno’s map of Northern Europe was published in the Italian city-state of Venice in 1558. He wrote that he had discovered the map within his family’s archive, amongst a stash of letters, all rotten from age, created by two of his ancestors. The letters, by Nicolo and Antonio Zeno to their brother Carlo, comprised the record of their voyages to and around Iceland in the late fourteenth century. Originally, the younger Nicolo wrote, he had first read his ancestors’ letters when a young boy but he had torn them up; only much later did he realize that what he had done was wrong leading him to retrieve what was left, recreate what he remembered, and have the results published by Francesco Marcolini (Johnson 1994, 44-62).

The Zeno map was the first to show the islands of Frisland, Estland, Droego, and Estotiland. These are phantom islands that do not in fact exist, but Renaissance readers believed the map’s depiction of the still mostly unknown North. As a result, these phantom islands appeared on many subsequent maps, even as late as the early nineteenth century (Ehrensvärd 2006, 45-46). The map’s authority was enhanced when Gerard Mercator copied the islands onto his great world map in 1569 and then his dedicated map of the Arctic, as discussed in the OML exhibition “To the Ends of the Earth”. The Zeno map was also published in the 1561 quarto edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (Karrow 1993, 600-2).

Yet, in 1898, F. W. Lucas proved that sixteenth-century Nicolo Zeno had actually fabricated the map. He determined that Zeno had copied its place names and outlines from Claudius Clavus’s Map of the North, which was used in the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, published in 1539 and again in 1565 (Karrow 1993, 600-2; Allen 1997, 305). To Lucas, the Zeno map was “one of the most ingenious, most successful, and most enduring literary impostures which has ever gulled a confiding public” (quoted by Karrow 1993, 600-2). Why would Nicolo make up such an elaborate story and map? The most obvious reason was to enhance the fame of the Zeno family and, by extension, of Nicolo himself. Moreover, the map promoted the standing of Venice in its ongoing rivalry with Genoa: it argued that it had been Venetians ~ and not the Genoan mariner Christopher Columbus, working for the Spanish ~ who had first discovered the Americas. Certainly, Zeno’s contemporaries and successors believed this; only much later would the recovery of further historical documents cast doubt on the apparent priority of Venetian voyagers.

Further Reading

Allen, John Logan, ed. 1997. A New World Disclosed. Vol. 1 of North American Exploration. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Ehrensvard, Ulla. 2006. The History of the Nordic Map: From Myths to Reality. Helsinki: Art-Print Oy.

Johnson, Donald S. 1994. Phantom Islands of the Atlantic: The Legends of Seven Lands That Never Were. New York: Walker and Company.

Karrow, Robert W. 1993. Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and Their Maps: Bio-Bibliographies of the Cartographers of Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Chicago: Speculum Orbis Press for The Newberry Library.


Izaak Onos (BA Geography-Anthropology; USM 2016)

October 2013

Prepared for GEO 207, “Map History”