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Striking Seventeenth-Century Map of the Americas with Mythical North Atlantic Islands

Fine example of Cloppenburg's map of the American continents.

The map encompasses both North and South America, although North America continues into the neat line in the Arctic. South America ends with an unfinished Tierra del Fuego, suggesting that it might lead to more islands, or even a continent, farther south.

North America shows California as a peninsula that stretches nearly to Asia. The depiction of the East Coast of North America is packed with early colonial placenames, while the Great Lakes and Long Island are entirely omitted. Hudson’s Bay is outlined but not completed, suggesting a Northwest Passage that just needed to be found.

South America is shown as exaggerated in size. It prominently displays the riverine networks of Rio de la Plata and the Amazon. There is also a large lake in the north of the continent, a reference to the mythical, gold-filled Lake Parime.  

In central North America is a lake surrounded on one side by city symbols. These are the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, which, like Lake Parime, supposedly led to gold. The cities included Cibola and Gran Quivira. In 1540, this idea, likely combined with various indigenous legends, led Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to embark on an (unsuccessful) expedition to find these mythical cities.

Also of interest are the northern Atlantic islands of Frisland and Brasil. Hy Brasil 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.

The waters are filled with large ship vignettes. There are also two sea monsters, so the ships would do well to navigate with care. In the lower left corner is simple, yet elegant, frame title cartouche.

States of the map

Cloppenburg’s cartography is derived from the work of Henricus Hondius; while unsigned, it was likely engraved by Pieter Van Den Keere. It appeared in Cloppenburg’s reduced edition of the Mercator-Hondius atlas, which was released in three editions in 1630, 1632, and 1636.

Then, the map disappeared for forty years, likely because it was bought out because it was competing with the full-size Mercator-Hondius atlas. It reappeared in the reduced size atlas of Jan Jansson van Waesberge, the son-in-law of Jan Janssonius, who had published the Mercator-Hondius atlas. The map was included with several other publications into the mid-eighteenth century and was last issued ca. 1738.

While interestingly reissued several times, the map only appeared in two known states. The first (1630) has no plate number engraved in the top right corner, while the second state (ca. 1738) has the number 259 in the top right. This is an example of the first 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. 

Lake Parime

One of the defining features of this and many maps of South America is a massive lake in the north, near Guiana. This is Lake Parime, a feature long-connected to the El Dorado myth. Rumors of a golden city in the New World were first tied to an initiation ceremony for a new chief of the Chibcha (Muisca) people. Bejewelled and covered in gold dust, the chief was supposedly ritually cleansed in sacred Lake Guatavita while more precious stones and metals were thrown into the water. El Dorado, as described by sixteenth and seventeenth-century chroniclers like Oviedo, Castellanos, and Freyle, was a reference to this “golden man.”

Quickly, the golden man was spun into stories of a golden city, which was supposed to perch on the shores of a vast lake. The precise location of both lake and city varied, however. Some searched in the Andes, others the interior. Gonzalo Pizarro set out east of the Incan Empire to find the city and instead lost nearly all of his 4,000 mean. One of his officers, Orellana, was ordered to continue the search and he eventually reached the Atlantic via the Amazon, the first European to do so.

Still others thought the lake and rich city must be near the Orinoco River. Expeditions in this area reached the ears of Sir Walter Raleigh, who led an expedition to Guiana in 1595. While his search failed, Raleigh sent another man, Lawrence Keymis, the next year. Keymis brought back word that a rich city, Manoa, did exist and that it was located on the shores of a Lake Parime. Raleigh published the information in his voyage account, thus popularizing Lake Parime as a geographic feature.

The lake appeared on maps from 1596 until the eighteenth century. The first was Jodocus Hondius’ Nieuwe Caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrycke Landt Guiana. The lake is usually shown as a rectangular body of water on or near the Orinoco River as it approaches the equator. This quadrilateral of a lake is based on the interpretation of the body of water by Hessel Gerritsz in his 1625 Guiana sive Provinciae.  While fewer and fewer maps featured the lake as the eighteenth-century wore on, the story was not disproven until the travels of Alexander von Humboldt in South America (1799-1804).

Burden, map 224. KAP
Johannes Cloppenburg Biography

Johannes Cloppenburg (sometimes Cloppenburgh; also H. Jan Evertsz and Johannes Everhardus) was a Dutch cartographer. Based in Amsterdam, he was active between roughly 1610 and 1644. He worked closely with the Hondius/Jansson firm and is credited with the 1630 edition of the Atlas Minor.