The illustrious Zeno (or Zen) family made its fortune by transporting Crusaders to the Holy Land, but then achieved fame as well when Marin Zeno took part in the capture of Constantinople and served as the first governor of the Venetian section of the city. His son Ranier was elected doge, and the doge's grandson Pietro 'the Dragon' served as an admiral against the Turks. And Pietro had three sons.
The most factually famous one was Carlo 'the Lion' (1333 – 1418). Carlo had been promised to the priesthood, but instead lived a dissolute life in Padua before joining up with a band of mercenaries in the Aegean. He eventually rose through the ranks to become a wealthy merchant in Constantinople and the captain of the Venetian colony of Negroponte (Evia), complete with a fleet of galleys he used to harry the Turks. When, after a long delay, he finally received his orders from Senate to return to Venice, it was on January 1, 1380–just in the nick of time to save the city in the Battle of Chioggia.
Generally acknowledged as the bravest man in all Venice, Carlo Zeno just missed being elected doge in 1400 because the always cautious patricians feared he would become too powerful. He remained the commander of Venice's army and in 1405 at aged 72, he led a brilliant attack, wading up to his neck in river, to defeat the powerful Cararra dynasty of Padua, Venice's main rival on the mainland.
Not long after that, the never-sleeping Venetian bureaucracy found papers in Padua that showed that Carlo he had taken pity on the defeated Carrara and had given the prince a small loan; on his return to Venice the following year, Carlo was accused of treason by the Council of Ten, sentenced to a year in the infamous pozzi and stripped off all his offices and honours for perpetuity.
Prison hardly broke his spirit. Released from prison, Carlo returned to the Mediterranean, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, remarried for the third time (he kept outliving his wives) and once again worked as a mercenary captain and winning battles, before he returned to Venice to die in bed. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral.
Far less is known of his brothers, Nicolò (c. 1326–c. 1402) and Antonio Zeno (died c. 1403). They were merchants in the Mediterranean; Nicolò sailed to Flanders and England in the 1380s and is recorded as serving as a military governor in Greece from 1390-1392. In 1394, stood trial in Venice for embezzlement. Little is known of Antonio.
That is, until 1558, when a descendant, also named Nicolò Zeno, caused a sensation when he published a short book, based on what he claimed were letters written by the brothers that he found in the cellar. These suggested Nicolò and Antonio had sailed to Greenland (at least) a full 90 years before Columbus (who after all came from Venice's arch rival, Genoa). The book supposedly summarizes the correspondence that the two brothers had written about their adventures—letters that Nicolò the younger claimed that he had torn up.
The story evolves around Nicolò's rescue by a mysterious leader named Zichmni, who many have identified as, possibly, Henry Sinclair (the Venetians being notorious for mangling names), the 14th-century Earl of Orkney (see note, below).
Most intriguingly, the book included a map.
Venice at the time was famous for maps, and with all the excitement about the possibility of a Northwest Passage, promoted by the discoveries of another Venetian family, the Cabots, the Zeno map was the subject of intense study. Modern cartographers have since traced three earlier maps in Venice that the younger Nicolò Zeno probably cribbed his from. The non-existent 'Frisland' would appear on maps for another century, bewildering generations of Arctic explorers.
The question is whether the story was an outright hoax, with the younger Zeno trying to get one over on Genoa (the opinion of most historians) or was it simply a terrible muddle? Andrea Di Robilant, who retraced the Zeno brothers' journey in Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers believes the latter, and he's not the only one. 'Estland' on the Zeno map has been identified as Shetland, with many recognizable names. 'Podalida' could be Pomona, an ancient name for Orkney. 'Icaria' could be St Kilda, and could the large mysterious 'Frisland' really the Faroe Islands, misplaced? Was 'Estotiland' Labrador? Is 'Drogeo' New England?
Other parts of the story ring true: Zeno writes of a monastery heated by geothermal power. How would anyone who hadn't visited Iceland known that such a thing was possible? Historians, however, pooh pooh it all, pointing out that in spite of the book claiming that Nicolò died in Frisland in 1394, Venetian archival records place him still alive and well in Venice in 1402. Or maybe that was another muddle.
Even if the Zenos never made it to the far north, another Venetian noble did. In the next century, Pietro Querini was shipwrecked and spent several months in Norway's Arctic Circle, and changed Italy's gastronomic history.
The Zeno family still lives in the Palazzo Zeno built by Carlo overlooking the Canal San Stin near the Frari, which preserves its original facade over the canal but was given a new wing and courtyard in the 18th century by Antonio Gaspari. It's beautifully decorated with 18th-century frescoes and stuccoes, but you'll need to hire it for an event for a good poke around.
Note: Because of the 'Zichmni' stories, Henry Sinclair has become a firm favourite of esoteric writers. Some claim Sinclair was a secret Knight Templar who helped 'discover' North America with the Zeno brothers, and where he was sent by surviving members of the order to hide the Holy Grail; after all, he was the grandfather of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, who built of Rosslyn Chapel.
Images by PD Art, Vaghestelledellorsa, P Steffan -CC License