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

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  146 Ratings  ·  35 Reviews
From the author of A Venetian Affair and Lucia comes a charming odyssey in the path of the mysterious Zen brothers, who explored parts of the New World a century before Columbus, and became both a source of scandal and a cause célèbre among geographers in the following centuries.

This delightful journey begins with Andrea di Robilant’s serendipitous discovery of a travel n
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published May 24th 2011 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2011)
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Sep 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Andea Di Robilant happened upon a map and a cornerstone in Venice. The map was drawn by Nicolo Zen, who in 1558 published a narrative based on letters of two of his ancestors who went off course in a 1383 trading trip to Flanders. The cornerstone was on an aging building (shown on p. 192) on the Palazzo Zen, the Zen family mansion in Venice. As an historian, Di Robilard's interest was piqued and he set about his own voyage of discovery.

Antonio and Nicolo Zen may have traveled to what is now Orkn
Oct 01, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Attention all Medieval Maritime Cartography Nerds (all six of you!)! Your Book Has Arrived! I was attracted to this book because I thought it was going to be a fascinating narrative of the author's retracing of the Zen brothers' travels from Venice to the northernmost reaches of the 14th-century world. He did, sort of, retrace their travels, via plane, mostly. I kept waiting for the narrative to get fascinating, and, had I been a Medieval Maritime Cartography Nerd, I'm sure it would have blown m ...more
Judith Works
Mar 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I give this book 5 stars because I like well-written literary mysteries - literary in the sense of trying to unravel an obscure tale printed in 1558, nearly two hundred years after the original narrative was supposedly written. The author of "On the Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrovelanda, Estotilanda and Icaria made by two Zen brothers under the Artic Pole," was the great-great-great-grandson of one of the brothers, may have faked the purported adventures to aggrandize his ...more
polyglot historian di robilant tells a funny tale of venice merchant sailors trying their hand at trading in low countries, getting blown off course, and ending up north of scotland, and wrote letters home to tell their family about it. this in about 1398. then the grandson? finally writes up these remenants of the tale, and map, and was a wild best seller, see, one zen brother supposedly went all the way to, perhaps, nova scotia, or at least west side of greenland and down to labrador/newfoundl ...more
Jason Slemons
Oct 01, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book starts out level headed like a research topic but quickly takes a turn for the 'what if'. After a number of 'what ifs' I just didn't believe these brothers made it nearly as far as the author might like to think. By the end I was felt like I was reading a travelogue of the north atlantic.
Jennifer (JC-S)
Sep 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: librarybooks
‘I came upon this curious map in the most unexpected way…’

A book with a curious and wondrous map was published in Venice in 1558. Its author, Nicolò Zen, (referred to as Nicolò the younger in the narrative) was an official of the Venetian Republic, and in the book he claimed that his great-great-great grandfather Antonio and his great-great-great granduncle Nicolò had travelled around the north Atlantic as far as the coast of modern Newfoundland in the late 14th century. This was a full century
PS 99
Mar 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Have you noticed a trend in television documentaries and factual programmes? It is the cult of the presenter, insisting on getting their face in front of the camera. When the presenter was as erudite as Robert Hughes in "The Shock of the New" it was acceptable. Then, in order to become more "inclusive", the presenters told us what they had for breakfast while on the way to the Gallery/ Museum/ Battleground. The off-switch was reached ( for me ) when a presenter on a programme on Pop Art meandere ...more
Kathy Hale
Feb 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: oboc2017
I really liked this book. It is a great read for people who like history, maps and a little bit a travel narrative thrown in for good luck. A young woman who is tudyiung in venice discovers and follows the maps made by Nicolo Zen, a Venice merchant of the 1500's who travels to such places as Greenland, Iceland and newfoundland just after Columbus.
Mar 02, 2012 rated it liked it
I thought I would enjoy this book far more than I did. Not that it wasn't interesting, but the topic is so fascinating and so little is known that I had hoped it would be a page-turner. It wasn't but that doesn't mean I didn't learn some interesting facts about northern exploration during this great age of exploration. For example, she relates the story of Deborah Sabo, "an archaeologist excavating Thule Inuit ruins on Baffin Island" [who] dug up a haunting little ivory figure depicting a Norsem ...more
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Mar 26, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
In the fourteenth century, so the story goes, two merchant brothers set out from Venice on a journey through the rough seas of the North Atlantic, encountering warrior princes, fighting savage natives and, just possibly, reaching the New World a full century before Columbus.

The story of their adventure, recounted in a small book accompanied by a beautifully detailed map by an enthusiastic Zen ancestor in 1558, travelled throughout Europe, from the workshop of the great cartographer Gerard Mercat
Feb 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
This author is so readable and cogent in putting together the aspects of 'fact' and probabilities..each of his books has been wonderful. Some stories more than others catch the imagination...and if this had not been authored by Di Robilant I would not have read it. That being said, it was terrific. Not the least part of which is HIS intrepid search, quest, unraveling of this adventure.

I did have to read it w/ Atlas at my side and under-lining pencil ready to keep everything in order - I mean, wh
Mar 05, 2012 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Gwen by: Washington Post Book World
Shelves: history
I wanted to like this book more than I did, but the lack of narrative depth was troubling. The best section of the book covers the author's experiences in Greenland and thoughts about the island's future (which are far better covered in The Future History of the Arctic).

But most importantly, for a book about maps, where were the maps?! (Disclosure: I read the Kindle version, not the print--maybe the dead tree version is more complete.) As I read, I had to keep looking at Google Maps and an onlin
Alexander Van Leadam
First reaction: what on earth is this book about? Should every historian publish a travel journal for each research they do? The story is far from fascinating and the results from the research and the travels not that exciting. On the other hand, the author goes to a lot of trouble to find the truth, searching for documentary evidence, even going to the remote locations his Zen navigators had visited centuries ago and comparing what he sees with their descriptions. It's an unassuming account of ...more
Jul 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Quite an enjoyable read concerning two brothers from the 1400s who sail into and explore the lands of Greenland, Iceland, Scotlands Orkney islands, and one assumes even the North American shores in Labrador.

The author has a quiet humorous style of writing I found quite engaging. He moves from his own quest at locating manuscripts and fragments of history that refer to these Zen brothers, back to their adventures themselves.

To add another flavor to the writing, the author travels to most of these
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read Mr. Di Robilants books "Venetian Affair" and "Lucia, in the Age of Napoleon" and was fascinated by the knowledge of the Author, by his humor and his easy way to write those stories.... Now this new book fascinated me as well, as I am living about the half of the year in venice, and so the "Brothers Zen" were not unknown for me... and even the stories about them...

Mr. Di Robilants superb written book about the travels of these two persons, Nicolo and Antonio Zen, is so interesting, and as
Jan 15, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A bit rambling, but I like that. skips back and forth between centuries, but in any case, it's an enjoyable read, and a fairly convincing argument is put forth, however, the author leaves us in no doubt that the evidence he is going on is circumstantial at best, and sets out his own visits to the places in question as part of the story. In the end, it has made me want to go to Greenland and the Faroes, places I never thought I'd want to go, so I think that's definitely something. I enjoyed it tr ...more
Jan 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
I was mesmerized by this tale within a tale. Andrea Di Robilant sets out to explore the story of the Venetian Zen brothers who in the 1300's allegedly sailed north to the Orkneys, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and northern Canada and mapped their journeys. The author pulled me along as he poked at holes, examined records, considered the world of the time, and visited probable locations to determine whether or not the story was true. It was irresistible. - And I think that I buy the whole thing ...more
Aug 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Di Robilant entertainingly intertwines the stories of two 14th-century Venetian explorer-brothers, their 16th-century descendant and his own attempts to retrace the first pairs journeys. He plausibly speculates that the Nicolo and Antonio Zen visited and explored Iceland, Greenland and North America, even though the map drawn by their descendant is filled with fanciful islands. More important, Nicolo the Younger's sometimes misleading account of his forebears' journeys may have prompted early Br ...more
Tim C
Jul 31, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, travel, biography
Part travelogue, part speculative-historical inquiry, this genial little book is an engaging and entertaining read. If you are looking for hard-boiled history cemented with facts and solid evidence you will be disappointed; if you are interested in travel with a purpose and ruminations on historical "what-ifs" then this is a thoughtful and open meander through the author's interesting and informed journey to the far and fabled distant north.
Tet Roberts
Jun 06, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, history
Excellent book telling the contoverse of the Venetian Zeno brothers who explored the North Atlantic and might have hit the American main land several times a century before Columbus.

I read about them before and then tried to situate some of the islands myself in between my Bleau atlasses, an activity I can spend evenings on... so from a geographic, sea maps and navigational perspective I loved the story 'in the foodsteps' of writer Robilant.
Nov 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
I picked this up expecting history. Instead I got a charming travelogue through the remotest parts of the North Atlantic, in the attempt to solve a centuries-old mystery. There is history present in this book, but it's more about the author's attempt to retrace a journey and the colorful characters who help him along the way. Definitely worth reading if you want to be inspired to take a trip, or just want to take one from your favorite cozy chair.
Nov 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
An entertaining read about a bit of history I knew nothing of. Was interested to learn that the history to exploration of the North Atlantic and North America by people of Scandinavia and elsewhere (the Zens were from Venice) was suppressed during Elizabeth I's reign so that English could establish claim there, preventing Spanish expansion.
Di Roblilant follows the trail the Zens travelled, including the influence of their map well into the 18C.
Oct 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
I'm not sure how to put down in words what I feel about this book. It's interesting, for sure, and a part of history I knew nothing about, but something is lacking. Maybe because there is such a lack of primary sources (the book it's self is gleamed off of a secondary source) that is seems weak, and unable to prove a point. Half the book is from the author's perspective--that may be the way of Italian historians--which seems to throw a huge bias twist through out the work.
Feb 21, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Did you know Italians - Venetian merchants- may have visited Newfoundland and Nova Scotia at least one hundred years before Columbus? A nice study of the travels of the Zen Brothers,their maps and writings. Only interesting to a real history geek, it does illuminate that we know far less than we think we do about Renaissance and pre-Renaissance history....
Robert Hepple
Venetian Navigators looks back at the fantastic and often bombastic claims made by the Zen bothers concerning exploratory voyages in the 14th and 16th centuries. Interesting more for the background details of the periods described than for any dubious claims made, and quite enjoyable.
Michael Harris
Jul 03, 2011 rated it liked it
A gift from my daughter, an interesting historic look at a region of the world that I have been reading about in preparation for an upcoming trip to Iceland. Well written and enjoyable.
Dec 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fun read - interesting hypothesis on whether venetians sailed to the North Atlantic.
Carey Combe
Sounded great - very boring
Ian Muttoo
Feb 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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Andrea di Robilant was educated at Le Rosey and Columbia University. He now lives in Rome, working as a correspondent for the newspaper La Stampa.
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