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Plancius’ Masterful Map of Europe with the Latest Arctic Discoveries

Fine, rare map of Europe by the influential mapmaker Petrus Plancius, containing the most recent Arctic geographic information thanks to Plancius’ famously efficient knowledge network.

It was engraved by Baptista van Doetecum and published by Cornelis Claesz. Plancius’ authorship was confirmed by Claesz in his 1609 Const ende de Caert-Register (1609).

The map shows the entirety of the continent, including the Black Sea, much of Northern Africa, the Levant, and part of Greenland and Newfoundland. It is densely blanketed with towns, rivers, and mountain chains.

In the Atlantic are the Canaries and the Azores. To the north is Iceland and the mythical Frisland. Nearby are two other chimeric islands, Bus and Brazyl. These are joined by sea monsters, three large ships in full sail, and elaborate compass roses. In the Mediterranean is a smaller, single-masted ship cruising serenely. The outline of the western part of the continent was taken from Waghenaer’s 1592 map of Europe.

The cartouche in the lower left corner frames the land shown within the ancient names of bodies of water, including the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and the Maeotian Swamp (Sea of Avoz).

The cartouche in the upper right corrects a curious quirk of the map. Nova Zembla, in the far north, is shown as a wedge-like island, separated from the mainland. This shape was based on Plancius’ world map of 1592. In the inset, the same area is shown in a higher resolution as a series of islands. The text reveals Plancius’ study of earlier English expeditions and his high hopes for the expedition that left from Texel in summer 1594, the same year the map was published. Schilder and Nalis hypothesize that this map was prepared before the voyage left.

Plancius, Barentsz, and the mapping of Novaya Zemlya

Also known as Novaya Zemlya, Nova Zembla was known to the Russians from the eleventh century (and to the Indigenous peoples for longer than that). During the early 1590s, the leading merchants of the Dutch Republic became very interested in opening trade routes with East Asia. Yet, they were deeply concerned that the established route to Asia, by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean, was under the control of the Portuguese, who were enemies of the Dutch. Moreover, the established route was very long, and it was thought that any navigable polar route to Asia would be more expeditious.

While exploring the Northwest Passage via the North American Arctic was considered, the failure of Martin Frobisher and John Davis's various attempts to find such a route in the 1570s and 1580s discouraged any efforts in this direction. In 1553-54, the English adventurers Sir Hugh Willoughby (whose name is on an island on this map) and Richard Chancellor attempted to find a Northeast Passage to Asia, over Siberia, and while their mission ultimately failed in this regard, their progress and the nature of their reports convinced many in Amsterdam that such a passage could quite plausibly be opened, given another attempt. This torch was to be carried by Willem Barentsz.

Willem Barentsz (c. 1550-1597) was a Dutch map maker and explorer and one of the great pioneers of Arctic exploration. His first major work was an atlas of the Mediterranean, which he co-published with none other than Petrus Plancius, his close friend and colleague. Barentsz believed that the polar regions consisted of open waters above Siberia, due to the fact that they would be exposed to the sun 24 hours per day.

In the last decade of the sixteenth century, Barentsz made three voyages to the North Polar regions. In summer 1594, Barentsz led an expedition of three ships which sailed from Texel for the Kara Sea, which is the one described in the cartouche here. On this voyage, the crew made the first ever Western European encounter with a polar bear. Barentsz's first voyage reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, providing the information for this inset. After coasting northward, the crew encountered large icebergs and were forced to turn back and return to Holland.

Barentsz returned north in 1595 and 1596. On the latter voyage, the ship was lodged in the ice and the crew had to escape on foot. Barentsz died in the effort, but several of his men eventually returned and told their stories.

North Atlantic myths

Perhaps the most famous of the Atlantic mythical islands is Frisland, near Iceland, whose fascinating story and association with the Zeno Map is told below. Nearby to Frisland on many maps, including this one, is Bus (sometimes Buss) Island. This island originates in reports about Martin Frobisher’s third voyage, specifically George Best’s A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie of a Passage to Cathaya (1578). One of Frobisher’s ships, the Emmanuel, which was a busse, hence the island’s name, supposedly sailed along the island on its homeward journey in 1578. Hakluyt included a description of the island in his Principal Navigations (1598). It was variably sighted and sought by seventeenth-century navigators and John Seller charted it in his English Pilot (1671). The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) sent an expedition in search of it in 1675, but they found nothing. By the eighteenth-century, cartographers supposed the island was fabulous or sunken, demoting it to a navigational hazard. A further voyage in 1791 finally proved its non-existence.

Hy Brasil (here Brazyl) is an enduring Atlantic chimera emerging from Celtic folklore. It ranges on maps from just off the west coast of Ireland to the area around the Azores. The island was initially described as a rich paradise not unlike Atlantis; it emerged from the depths for a short period and then would disappear. It started to appear on portolan charts in the fourteenth century and continued to be a stalwart of maps and charts into the nineteenth century. The island was the subject of a fanciful pamphlet by Richard Head in 1675. Despite no accurate reports of its whereabouts, the island appeared on Admiralty charts and other reputable maps for centuries, usually in the latitude of 51°N and at a longitude of 17°W.

States of the map

There are three states of the map.

  • State 1 (1594):  Map dated 1594.  Text boxes blank, with text pasted down on paper and glued onto the map.
  • State 2 (1594):  Map dated 1605 (Schilder). Text boxes completed. 
  • State 3: (after 1594): David de Meyne’s name added to the end of the text in the cartouche in the upper right and was issued later.

The second and the third states sometimes appear in the first edition of Paulus Merula’s Cosmographia generalis (Leiden, 1605). Merula’s work was a geographic description of Europe, with an especial emphasis on the ancient Mediterranean empires.


The map is rare. OCLC locates only two examples of the second state, at the University Library of Amsterdam and the Utrecht University Library.  

We note a single example of the second state of the map at auction in the past twenty years and one example of the third state.

The Zeno Map and the mythical island of Frisland

The Zeno family was part of the Venetian elite; indeed, their family had controlled the monopoly over transport between Venice and the Holy Land during the Crusades. Nicolo Zeno set off in 1380 to England and Flanders; other evidence seems to corroborate this part of the voyage. Then, his ship was caught in a huge storm, blowing him off course and depositing him in the far North Atlantic. He and his crew were wrecked on a foreign shore, the island of Frislanda (sometimes Friesland or Freeland).

Thankfully, the shipwrecked Venetians were found by King of Frisland, Zichmni, who also ruled Porlanda, an island just south of Frisland. Zichmni was on a crusade to conquer his neighbors and Nicolo was happy to help him strategize. Nicolo wrote to his brother, Antonio, encouraging him to join him and, good navigator that he was, Antonio sailed for Frisland and arrived to help his brothers. Together, they led military campaigns against Zichmni’s enemies for fourteen years.

Their fights led the brothers to the surrounding islands, presumably enabling them to make their famous map. Zichmni attempted to take Islanda but was rebuffed. Instead, he took the small islands to the east, which are labeled on this map. Zichmni built a fort on one of the islands, Bres, and he gave command of this stronghold to Nicolo. The latter did not stay long, instead sailing to Greenland, where he came upon St. Thomas, a monastery in Greenland with central heating. Nicolo then returned to Frisland, where he died four years later, never to return to Venice.

Antonio, however, was still alive. He ran into a group of fishermen while on Frisland. These fishermen had been on a 25-year sojourn to Estotiland. Supposedly, Estotiland was a great civilization and Latin-speaking, while nearby Drogeo, to the south, was full of cannibals and beasts. Antonio, on Zichmni’s orders, sought these new lands, only to discover Icaria instead. The Icarians were not amenable to invasion, however, and Antonio led his men north to Engroneland, to the north. Zichmni was enthralled with this new place and explored inland. Antonio, however, returned to Frisland, abandoning the King. From there, Antonio sailed for his native Venice, where he died around 1403.

News of the discoveries and the first version of the Zeno map was published in 1558 by another Nicolo Zeno, a descendent of the navigator brothers. Nicolo the Younger published letters he had found in his family holdings, one from Nicolo to Antonio and another from Antonio to their other brother, Carlo, who served with distinction in the Venetian Navy. They were published under the title Dello Scoprimento dell’isole Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda, & Icaria, fatto sotto il Polo Artico, da due Fratelli Zeni (On the Discovery of the Island of Frisland, Eslanda, Engroenland, Estotiland & Icaria, made by two Zen Brothers under the Arctic Pole) (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1558).

At the time of publication, the account attracted little to no suspicion; it was no more and no less fantastic than most other voyage and travel accounts of the time. Girolamo Ruscelli published a version of the Zeno map in 1561, only three years after it appeared in Zeno’s original work. Ruscelli was a Venetian publisher who also released an Italian translation of Ptolemy. Ruscelli had moved to Venice in 1549, where he became a prominent editor of travel writings and geography.

Ruscelli was not the only geographer to integrate the Zeno map into his work. Mercator used the map as a source for his 1569 world map and his later map of the North Pole. Ortelius used the Zeno islands in his map of the North Atlantic. Ramusio included them in his Delle Navigationo (1583), as did Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages (1582) and Principal Navigations (1600), and Purchas (with some reservation) in his Pilgrimes (1625). Frisland appeared on regional maps of the North Atlantic until the eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, when geography was popular as both a hobby and a scholarly discipline, the Zeno account and map came under scrutiny. Most famously, Frederick W. Lucas questioned the validity of the voyage in The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic (1898). Lucas accused Nicolo the Younger of making the map up, using islands found on other maps and simply scattering them across the North Atlantic. He also accused Nicolo of trying to fabricate a Venetian claim to the New World that superseded the Genoan Columbus’ voyage. Other research has revealed that, when he was supposed to be fighting for Zichmni, Nicolo was in the service of Venice in Greece in the 1390s. He is known to have drafted a will in 1400 and died—in Venice, not Frisland—in 1402.

Scholars still enjoy trying to assign the Zeno islands to real geographic features. For example, Frisland is thought to be part of Iceland, while Esland is supposed to be the Shetlands. Some still believe the Zenos to have sailed to these lands. Most, however, view the voyage and the map as a reminder of the folly and fancy (and fun) of early travel literature and cartography. Whatever the truth, the Zeno map and its islands are one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of cartography. 

Condition Description
A few minor stains.
Schilder, MCN VII, 91-95; Nalis, The New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish Etchings…The Van Doetecum Family, part iv (1998), 136-7. KAP
Petrus Plancius Biography

Petrus Plancius (1552-1622) was born Pieter Platevoet in Dranouter in West Flanders. He trained as a clergyman in Germany and England, but he was an expert not only in theology but in geography, cosmography, and navigation. After fleeing prosecution by the Inquisition in Brussels, Plancius settled in Amsterdam where he first began his forays into navigation and charting. As Amsterdam was a hub for trade, Plancius was able to access Portuguese charts, the most advanced in the world at that time. Plancius used these charts to become an expert in the sailing routes to India, knowledge that gained him opportunity. Plancius was one of the founders of the VOC, for whom he worked as their geographer. He also served on a Government Committee to review the equipment needed for exploratory expeditions.