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isola di Zanara nella carta di Mercatore

The mystery of the Zanara Island

by Andrea Carapellucci

The sunken island

A fascinating question, repeatedly cited by the local press and television, concerns the alleged existence of an island located halfway between Giglio and Giannutri, known as Zanara, repeatedly marked on maps of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and apparently disappeared during the eighteenth century, when it is no longer outlined on any cartographic document. Moreover, if we trust the map of the Italian peninsula drawn by Gerardo Mercatore (Italianized name of the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Kremer), published in 1589 – the first to signal the existence of Zanara off the Argentario – this was not a simple rock but a real island with hills whose dimensions appeared slightly inferior to those of Giannutri. The hypothesis that Zanara has mysteriously sunk without leaving any trace has had some success during the last century because of the presence, in a submerged area roughly halfway between the Giglio Island and Giannutri, of a zone of shallow waters (known as Secca della Vedova or Secca di mezzo canale), much frequented by divers for the beauty of the underwater flora and fauna. So it could be easy to recognize in these shallow waters the last remnants of the island, dragged to the bottom of the sea by some catastrophic natural event.

A possible comparison: the Graham Island

In fact, a similar story seems to link Zanara to the Isola Ferdinandea (known in English as Graham Island) in the Sicilian Channel, which suddenly appeared in the summer of 1831 following a volcanic eruption and in the next months gradually sank into the water due to the remodeling and consolidation of lava flows: after having quickly reached 60 meters in height and 4 km of circumference, the island lies today at only 6 meters of depth. But no volcanic activity that can support a similar scenario has ever been reported in the sea off Monte Argentario. Furthermore, it is not possible to understand the reason why no modern historical source, with the exception of some geographical maps, makes any mention of the island and why its memory does not persist in the surrounding populations.

The question of the “ghost islands”

If we do not intend to give credit to the myth of the ghost island, able to appear and disappear in front of the eyes of sailors (as the island protagonist of the famous TV series Lost), it will be necessary to enlarge the borders of the investigation far beyond the Tyrrhenian Sea to think about the figure of Mercatore as cartographer and the general reliability of the cartography between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Clamorous cases of invented islands and cities, shown for centuries on maps, are well known by historians: sometimes originated by oversights or misinterpretations of reported data, sometimes by maliciously fraudulent intent (in order to be more updated compared to the competitors, with the consequence of significantly increasing sales), the cartography of these pre-scientific epochs shows the worst defect in the widespread tendency to copying, especially if the work from which it is inspired is universally acclaimed and considered reliable. The vast Frisland of the Venetian Nicolò Zeno (1558), which appears between Iceland and the American continent not only in the following Mercator’s arctic map but from then on until the eighteenth century, at best originates from a totally disproportionate and delocalized representation of the Faroe Islands; the Brasil Island in the Atlantic Ocean (to the west of Ireland) is described in a Celtic myth as an island visible only one day every 7 years, but appears in all the maps from 1375 until the eighteenth century; in the same way as the supposed Saint Brendan’s Island in the heart of the Atlantic, south-west of Spain, protagonist of a sixth century hagiographic myth and represented until the mid-eighteenth century between the Azores and the Canary Islands.

Towards a solution

A data must convince that the Zanara drawn by Mercatore is the result of a mere positioning error and the misunderstanding of news reported by others: the map Tusciae antiquae typus, only 5 years previous to that of Mercator (1584), does not signal the presence of any island between Giglio and Giannutri; in the same way the Toscana nuova tavola by Matteo Greuter of 1598, printed 9 years after that of Mercatore, does not contain any trace of the supposed island. Zanara is also mentioned in the Dictionaire geographique universel of 1701 and in other reference geographical works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an alternative name for the Asinara island, in the north-west of Sardinia. To create the myth of the missing island of Zanara, at first mistakenly placed by Mercator opposite the Argentario rather than at the northern coast of Sardinia, contributed the widespread habit of cartographers to copy from others without proceeding to a sincere but challenging campaign of detection on the ground: therefore, the maps made independently, without referring to the erroneous representation of Mercatore, show the Giglio Island and Giannutri separated by a sea loch as they actually appear; on the contrary, the specimens dependent on the tradition of the famous Flemish cartographer, unverified on the field, all contain the same error and transmit the presence of another island off the Argentario, indeed located over 140 nautical miles away.

monte argentario in a map of 1584

Tusciae antiquae typus, 1584. Map of ancient Tuscany, in detail Monte Argentario with the islands in front

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