Hi, Robert !
What a fascinating family.
As scriptor-ga says, this would be a vast subject to cover in depth,
especially since much of the information is contradictory. But here
is what I was able to find out:
The Bonci Family site mentions Rinier Zen as Doge in 1252:
1253 - 1268, Ranieri Zen was Doge. (This may or may not be the same
man.) According to the Catholic Encyclopeidia, he was responsible
for arranging the compilation of a code of navigation and commerce.
St. Mark's was completed under his authority with the paving of the
great open-air ceremonial space of the piazza.
Article: "VENICE AND ANTIQUITY:The Venetian Sense of the Past"
by Patricia Fortini Brown
This Doge is portrayed in a mosaic commissioned by him in the Doge's
Chapel of San Marco.
"These thirteenth-century mosaics also show, anachronistically, the
doge who commissioned the mosaic. He too is reenacting a remembered
miracle, in this case one from the eleventh century. Doge Ranieri Zen
(1253-1268) leads the people in prayer for the body's (of St. Mark)
recovery. He stands just behind the priest at the altar the church's
actual altar, visible across the transept, with its canopy
(baldacchino). " ...
"..In the scene of prayer for the body to appear, we are shown the
whole of Venetian society. Behind the doge stand other officers of the
state. Below them are priests, choirboys, and monks bending low in
supplication. To the left are male citizens females would have been
included if the part around this left corner had not been lopped off.
In the scene where the pillar reveals its contents, the doge again
stands with male members of his family (one of whom wears the ermine
lining to his cloak permitted to immediate relatives of the doge). A
group of officials is on the other side of the flat pulpit. After them
the dogaressa leads a contingent of patrician ladies. The little girl
who holds the dogaressa's girdle is her daughter; but the boy holding
another woman's finger cannot be her son not merely because Ranieri
Zen had no son, but because the boy wears a crown, and only two people
could do that in Venice, the doge and his wife. Demus makes a
convincing case that the boy is Philip of Courtenay, only son and heir
of the Latin emperor of Constantinople, sent as a child to Venice as
security for a great loan given to the East in Zen's time by Venetian
has a good article on the 14th century family. So does Appleton's
which differs in several places. Pharo.com
has probably the best account and a good picture of the map the Zeno
brothers created as well as other illustrations.
So piecing together from that and other articles cited below (many of
which are contradictory) the chronology seems to be:
1375 Nicolo Zen voyages to the Northern seas and is shipwrecked
probably in the Faroes.
1380 Carlo Zen, his brother, ("The Lion of Venice" 13? - 1418) saves
Venice from a Carthaginian attack through brilliant naval strategy.
1390 Nicolo Zen, probably the first Nicolo's son,( 13? - 1395) voyages
to Orkney and assists Prince (Jarl) Henry Sinclair bring the Shetlands
1391 The first Nicolo dies in Newfoundland.
1392 Nicolo carries out a survey of Greenland .
1395 He returns to Orkney and dies shortly after. Antonio Zen, his
brother (? - 1405) has joined him in Orkney and become Admiral of the
1396 Carlo the Lion is sent as ambassador to England and France.
1398 Antonio (and Henry?) sail to Nova Scotia.
1404 Antonio returns to Venice and writes "The Zeno Narrative" which
is accepted as an official account of his voyages.
1501 The Zeno Chapel is built at St. Mark's as a tomb for a Cardinal
1550s? Girolamo Zen is Procurator of St. Marks.
1554 His son Marco Zen commissions a villa from famous architect Adrea
1558 Nicolo Zeno "Junior" (b. 1515) publishes the Narrative, pieced
together from the papers of Antonio - his
great-great-great-great-grandfather. OR alternatively grandnephew
Caterino (b.1515) burns part of the papers before realising their
value, and beginning to compile them. Probably both men had a hand in
The Clan Sinclair USA site has a page describing Niven Sinclair's trip
to Venice Dec. 16, 1999 which includes some information about his
meeting with the family and the family history at:
Niven Sinclair writes:
"I have just returned from Venice where we were received with great
warmth by the Venetian Commune, by the Naval College (where the
Reception and Press Conference was held and where I gave a
Presentation (supported by slides and film) of the Zen voyage to
Greenland (1393-1395) and to the New World (1398)....
The occasion of the gathering was to support the intention of Italian
yachts-woman Laura Zolo to replicate the Zen voyage". ...(in 2000)
"She will be escorted by the Italian Navy out to the open sea. Laura
had heard about the Nicolo Zen voyage to Orkney in 1390 when she
visited Orkney in 1997 during the annual Orkney Science Festival."..
"Nicolo assisted Jarl Henry St. Clair in bringing the Shetland under
control and in 1393 set sail to carry out a survey of Greenland. He
returned in 1395 to Orkney and died shortly afterwards. His brother,
Antonio had joined him by then from Venice and became (Prince Henry
Sinclair's) Henry's Admiral of the fleet. They set sail in 1398 and
landed in Nova Scotia June 2, 1398. Antonio is known to have returned
to Venice in 1404.
Antonio recorded his trip in "The Zeno Narrative" - a development of
the ship's log.. "Later this Narrative was signed by the Venetian
State Secretary, Rumusio, which effectively gave it the seal of
approval of the Doge and the Council of Ten who governed Venetian
affairs. They would not have willingly, knowingly or deliberately have
debased the accurate historical records of the Venetian State by
endorsing a forgery. Venetian records are renowned for their accuracy.
....Whilst in Venice we were also graciously received by the Zen
family whose present head is, appropriately, Nicolo Zeno. His son is
called Carlo Zeno so the tradition in the family lives on. We were
received in the Zen Palace which hinted at something of the former
grandeur of this family. At one time they had 8 Palaces in Venice
alone. The Zen family could have provided Jarl Henry with a whole
fleet of ships without counting the cost. In the 14th Century, even
after the scourge of the Black Death, Venice was still producing one
ship a day......
...However, the Venetian State needed new trade routes to compensate
for the loss of trade with the Levant after their involvement in this
Crusade. The extent of that need is best demonstrated by the decision
to send two brothers from one of the State's most distinguished and
famous families. (By brilliant Naval strategy, Carlo Zeno had saved
Venice from a Carthaginian attack in 1380). There can be no doubt that
the presence of the Zen brothers with Jarl Henry St. Clair had the
full authority of the Doge and Council of Ten which controlled all
This understanding puts a completely different complexion on the
presence of the Zeno brothers in the North. They were not there at the
behest or request of Jarl Henry St. Clair nor were they there as the
result of a storm which had (allegedly) blown Nicolo off course. They
were there on the orders of the Venetian Senate and would not (and
could not) have been there under any other circumstances."
More details on the Zen brothers and Prince Henry can be found at:
Henry "... commissioned Antonio and Nicolo Zeno, the brothers of Carlo
Zeno "the Lion" of Venice, to draw a map of the north Atlantic region.
The resulting "Zeno Map" was so accurate that sailors of all nations
used it for the next 300 years. Recently the military aerial
photographic maps have found thirty-seven points of identity with the
Zeno Map! " There is more detail of the voyages on this site.
An article on Fourteenth Century Venetian Personal Names by Brian M.
Scott and Joshua Mittleman © 1999 is at:
which points out that "Zen" is a shortened version of "Zeno."
The Catholic Encyclopoedia:
mentions the Capella Zeno, the mausoleum of a Cardinal Zeno built in
1501, in St. Mark's.
Moving on to 1554, a webpage dedicated to the Palladian Villa Zen is
This is in Italian (the English version returns an error message).
From what I can make out - my Italian is limited - the family was
still extremely important in Venice. Girolamo Zen held the important
position of Procurator of St. Mark's. His son, Marco Zeno commissioned
the Villa from famous architect Andrea Palladio in 1554. In 1959 the
Villa was taken over by the State for conservation.
I hope this helps you get a good start on your research into your
family. Don't forget to look at genealogy sites such as:
for more directions.
Zen family Venice
Zeno Family Venice