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The Mysterious Island

The title of this post does not refer to the science fiction novel of the same name by Jules Verne. It refers to the phantom island Frisland which was commonly shown on maps of the North Atlantic Ocean during the 16th and 17th centuries. Frisland never existed, however, cartographers believed that the island was real because of a map published in 1558 known as the Zeno map. An image of the Zeno map is featured below. Frisland is shown directly south of Islanda (Iceland).

<em>Septentrionalivm partivm, nova tabvla</em>. Map by Nicolo Zeno, 1558. Geography and Map Division

Septentrionalivm partivm, nova tabvla. Map by Nicolo Zeno, 1558. Geography and Map Division

The story about the mythical island and the Zeno map evolved because of two Venetian brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno. During the medieval period the Zeno family acquired fame and fortune. Nicolo and Antonio were noted 14th century navigators. A third brother Carlo was a wealthy merchant and war hero. A descendant of the Zeno family claimed that he discovered letters written by Nicolo and Antonio about their travels to the North Atlantic. A map was found with the letters. In 1558 the letters and accompanying map were printed by a Venetian publisher named Francesco Marcolini. An English translation was published in 1600. The translated title is as follows: The discouerie of the isles of Frisland, Iseland, Engroneland, Estotiland, Drogeo and Icaria: made by two brethern, namely M. Nicholas Zeno, and M. Antonio his brother.

The printed book consists of two sets of letters. The letters are full of fantastical stories.

The first part of the book includes correspondence written by Nicolo to his brother Antonio. Nicolo claimed that he began a journey from Venice to England in 1380. He wrote that his ship was blown off course and wrecked on an island named Frisland. After the shipwreck he met an explorer named Zichmni, who ruled the island. Zichmni rescued Nicolo and his crew and made him admiral of his fleet. Zichmni and Nicolo attempted to invade Iceland and were forced back. Nicolo stated that they attacked several other islands after the invasion of Iceland. Nicolo also claimed that he traveled to Greenland and discovered a monastery with central heating! Nicolo asked Antonio to join him in Frisland. Antonio complied and the brothers served in Zichmni’s military campaign for fourteen years.

Illustration of Nicolo Zeno, from <em>Pictorial History of the United States,</em> published by Historical Publishing Company, 1894. Prints and Photographs Division.

Illustration of Nicolo Zeno, from Pictorial History of the United States, published by Historical Publishing Company, 1894. Prints and Photographs Division.

The second part consists of letters that Antonio wrote to their brother Carlo. Antonio wrote that he became admiral of Zichmni’s fleet after Nicolo’s death on the island. He wrote about a group of fishermen who landed on Frisland after traveling for 25 years. The fishermen discovered Estotiland west of Frisland and a place named Drogeo. They experienced dangerous encounters with cannibals and wild animals during their travels. The stories told by the fishermen inspired Antonio and Zichmni to travel west. They discovered an island named Icaria and later landed at Greenland. Antonio returned to Frisland while Zichmni remained in Greenland.

Detail of Frisland and surrounding area from plate 45 Scandia Sive Regiones Septentrionales from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Geography and Map Division.

Detail of Frisland and surrounding area from plate 45 Scandia Sive Regiones Septentrionales from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. by Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Geography and Map Division.

The depiction of Frisland varies in appearance from one map to another. On the map below, a line of Latin text extends from Greenland to Frisland. The text “Meridianus per insulas Corsi et Florum transiens, ac pro omnium primo usurpavi solitus” translates to “The Meridian that passes through the islands of Corsi and Florum, that all first make use of habitually.”

Tabvla navtica qua repræsentatur oræ maritimæ meatus ac freta noviter a HHudsono Anglo ad Caurum supra Novam Franciam indagata, anno 1612. by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1612. Geography and Map Division.

Tabvla navtica qua repræsentatur oræ maritimæ meatus ac freta noviter a HHudsono Anglo ad Caurum supra Novam Franciam indagata, anno 1612. by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1612. Geography and Map Division.

In contrast the map below by Vincenzo Coronelli shows Frisland with a very different shape and closer to Greenland.

Maps of Bermuda, Iceland, Jan Mayen Island, and Newfoundland by Vincenzo Coronelli, 1692-1694. Geography and Map Division.

Maps of Bermuda, Iceland, Jan Mayen Island, and Newfoundland by Vincenzo Coronelli, 1692-1694. Geography and Map Division.

After the 17th century most mapmakers did not include Frisland on their maps; however; a few continued to show the phantom island on maps into the 18th century. Frisland is shown below as Frislandia on a world map published by Tobias Conrad Lotter in 1775.

Historians have different theories about the authenticity of the Zeno brothers’ story and the identity of Zichmni. Many think the letters and accompanying map were a hoax while others believe the brothers traveled to the North Atlantic and mistook Iceland for Frisland. Some think Zichmni may have been the Scottish nobleman Henry Sinclair. In my personal opinion, the story of the Zeno brothers and the phantom island Frisland will always remain an unsolved mystery.