How to Put a Fake Island on a Map (Atlas Obscura)

Frisland never existed, but for centuries, people wanted to believe that it did.


DECEMBER 04, 2017

IN 1558, A VENETIAN NAMED Nicolò Zeno invented an island in the Atlantic Ocean. The rectangular island, dotted with cities with Italian-sounding names like Forlanda and Sorand, rested just south of Iceland, bracketed by Norway to the east and the mysterious Estotiland to the west. Zeno called the island Frisland and claimed that two of his ancestors, Antonio and his brother Nicolò, had discovered the island in the 1380s. Zeno also went one step further, declaring that Venetians had discovered the New World—labeled Estotiland on the map—a full century before Columbus’s Genoa or Vespucci’s Florence could claim the prize.

While Zeno’s relatives were real and most likely did engage in exploration of some sort, Zeno’s tale, outlined in his 1558 book Della Scoprimento and an accompanying map, was fictional. Nevertheless, his fabrication was convincing. Many of his contemporaries validated and reprinted his claims. Even centuries later, the Zeno story resonated. In the mid-19th century, English scholar Richard Henry Major declared the Zeno story an “authentic … genuine, and valuable narrative,” while geologist William Herbert Hobbs ruled in 1951 that the Zeno brothers were “honest and quite competent discoverers.” As late as 1989, Venetian philologist Giorgio Padoan argued that there was no forgery—Venetians had stepped on the New World before any other Europeans.

There’s very little mystery around why Nicolò Zeno would invent this tale of bravery and adventure by his ancestors and namesake. It elevated the Zeno name to new heights and also described a major accomplishment for Venice, which was quickly being eclipsed as a naval power by the growing strength of Spain, France, and England. But why did people believe Zeno’s story of a lost Venetian voyage of exploration? And why did cartographers and geographers continue to insist the island was real well into the 20th century?

For more, go to Atlas Obscura.