Who Really Discovered America?

 (Marco Secchi) A 14th-century voyage across the North Atlantic; a 16th-century publishing event; and a 21st-century quest are the subjects of a book by Andrea di Robilant, a distinguished scholar of Venetian history.

The modern story follows the author’s investigations after stumbling upon an old book in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice while looking for something else. An American-­educated Italian whose previous titles include the well-received “Venetian Affair,” di Robilant admits to an “obsession” with the shadowy figures who emerged from his initial inquiries. The old book turned out to be a travel narrative and map published in Venice in 1558 and written by one Nicolò Zen. Piecing together archival scraps, di Robilant discovers that Zen was a nobleman (the young Tintoretto painted the family palazzo), a hydraulic engineer and a minor historian. Zen’s hometown, Venice, previously a sea power, was shifting to a land-based economy at the time of his birth in 1515, and had taken control of most of northern Italy. A new doge, Andrea Gritti, was presiding over a period of renewal that stimulated the appetite for knowledge of a world emerging from medieval darkness. Di Robilant is excellent on the contextual background and its relevance to the text under scrutiny.

Zen’s book told the story of a voyage undertaken by his great-great-great-grandfather Antonio Zen and Antonio’s brother Messer Nicolò, Venetian aristocrats who may (or may not) have sailed around the North Atlantic in the 1380s and 1390s. Travel narratives were popular in the Age of Discovery, and the book about this ancestral journey sold well. (Zen wrote it, unusually, in Italian rather than Latin.)

The book can be ordered on Amazon : Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North