Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North, By Andrea di Robilant

In the wake of bunglers...or hoaxers

For his third book, the Rome-based Venice historian Andrea di Robilant leaves the Serenissima with a tale of two seafaring brothers, Nicolò and Antonio Zen, whose 14th-century journey to the north caused a sensation when their accounts were finally published, with a wondrous map, in the navigation-mad 16th century.

The Zens had visited such enticing lands as Frislanda, Islanda, Icaria, Drogio and Estotiland. They wrote of monasteries heated by springs, where bread could be baked without fire, and of a "smoky mountain". Most intriguing of all is the warrior chief Zichmni of Frislanda, who speaks Latin and leads complex military operations. Yet over the centuries, further exploration showed that many of the Zens' discoveries were, at the very least, misplaced.

Robilant's imagination is fired by the story, and Venetian Navigators is the account of his own journeys to the Orkneys, Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and Greenland in search of corroborating evidence. It is a gripping traveller's tale of outlandishly beautiful coasts, brave adventurers, intrepid fishermen and lone scholars.

Along the way he meets some wonderful characters who could have come out of the old sagas themselves: a blind, octogenarian storyteller; a Faroese farmer living in a 1,000-year-old house among ancient relics; and, in Greenland, an uprooted, bigamist Italian hunter proudly displaying his bag of arctic hare and caribou. This last encounter prompts Robilant to declare: "It occurred to me that no matter how far one travels the odds are one will bump into an Italian, and he will be planning a meal."

The historical personages his narrative touches on are no less fascinating: Nicolò the younger and his rascally publisher; the 16th-century English explorer Martin Frobisher and his technical advisor, Dr John Dee, who owned a copy of the Zens' map; the Flemish cartographer Mercator who replicated their errors; and, not least, the 14th-century Earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, the best guess for the elusive Zichmni. Along the way we glimpse a world where nationality and allegiance could be shared between Norway and Scotland, with complex ties of kinship reaching across the North Sea.

This is undeniably a partisan account; Robilant makes a good case for the Zens' veracity but has to argue that they were bunglers in order to save them from the charge of being hoaxers. No shame to them; as he shows, the forward march of knowledge is also made up of many sideways steps.