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The Zeno brothers, Nicolò (c. 1326-c. 1402) and Antonio, (died c. 1403) were noted Italian navigators from Venice, living in the second half of the fourteenth century. They were brothers of the Venetian naval hero Carlo Zeno. The Zeno family was an established part of the aristocracy of Venice and held the franchise for transportation between Venice and the Holy Land during the Crusades.



Nicolò and Antonio are famous today mainly because of a number of letters and map (called the Zeno map) published in the year 1558 by one of Nicolò's descendants, also named Nicolò Zeno. The letters, allegedly written by the brothers about 1400, purport to describe a voyage of exploration undertaken by the brothers throughout the North Atlantic (and by some interpretations to North America), under the command of a prince named Zichmni (who some have identified as Henry Sinclair).

The letters and accompanying map are controversial and are regarded by most historians as a hoax, either by the Zeno brothers themselves or by the descendant who published them.

The Letters

The letters are divided into two parts. The first set contains letters from Nicolò to Antonio. The second are letters from Antonio to their brother Carlo.

The first letters (from Nicolò to Antonio) tell how Nicolò set off in 1380 on a voyage from Venice to England and Flanders. Evidence exists that such a voyage took place, and that Nicolò returned to Venice around 1385.[1]

In the letters, Nicolò describes being stranded on an island between Great Britain and Iceland called Frislanda, which is described as being larger in size than Ireland.

By chance Nicolò is rescued by Zichmni, who is described as prince who owned some islands called Porlanda off the southern coast of Frislanda, and who ruled the duchy of Sorant, or Sorand, south-east of Frislanda.

Nicolò invites Antonio to come to Frislanda with him, which he does, and stays for fourteen years. Under Zichmni's direction, Antonio attacks "Estlanda", which is ostensibly the Shetland Islands, as indicated by the similarity of place names mentioned in the letters.

Zichmni then attempts to attack Iceland. After finding it too well defended, he attacks seven islands along its eastern side: Bres, Talas, Broas, Iscant, Trans, Mimant, Damberc. All of these islands are fictitious.

Zichmni then builds a fort on Bres and leaves Nicolò in charge of it. Nicolò makes a voyage to Greenland and finds a monastery with central heating. He then returns to Frislanda, where he dies, having been in the north for four or five years.

Soon after Nicolò's death, Zichmni receives word that a group of lost fisherman from Frislanda have returned after an absence of over twenty-five years. The fisherman describe having made landfall in the far west in unknown countries called Estotiland and Drogeo. The fishermen describe having encountered strange animals as well as cannibals, from whom they escaped only after teaching the cannibals how to fish.

Inspired by the tales of the fishermen, Zichmni undertakes a voyage to the west with Antonio in charge of his fleet. To the west of Frislanda (see Zeno Map), they encounter a large island called Icaria, which does not exist.

According to the letters, the inhabitants of Icaria greet them before they can make landfall. Only one person among the Icarians is able to speak a language that Zichmni understands. The inhabitants state that visitors to the island are not welcome and that they will defend the island to the last man if need be. Zichmni sails along the island looking for a place to make landfall, but the inhabitants chase him and Zichmni abandons the effort.

Sailing west, they make landfall at a promontory called Trin on the southern tip of "Engrouelanda". Zichmni likes the climate and the soil, but his crew find it inhospitable. The sailors return home with Antonio, while Zichmni stays on to explore the area and build a town.

Criticism of the account

No serious historians accept the voyages of the Zeno brothers as genuine. The islands they allegedly visited do not exist, and research has shown the Zeno brothers were occupied elsewhere when they supposedly were doing their exploring. Contemporary Venetian court documents place Nicolò as undergoing trial for embezzlement in 1394 for his actions as military governor of Modone and Corone in Greece from 1390-1392. He wrote his last will and testament in Venice in 1400, many years after his alleged death in Frislanda around 1394.

According to The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, "the Zeno affair remains one of the most preposterous and at the same time one of the most successful fabrications in the history of exploration." [2]



  • Cooper, Robert L. D. (Ed.) The Voyages of the Venetian Brothers Nicolo & Antonion Zeno to the Northern Seas in the XIVth Century. Masonic Publishing Co. 2004. ISBN 0-9544268-2-7.
  • Smith, Brian. Earl Henry Sinclair's fictitious trip to America. New Orkney Antiquarian Journal, vol 2., 2002

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