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Voyages North

The literature of exploration and travel in Iceland (and throughout the north, from Scandinavia to Labrador) forms a significant part of the Fiske Icelandic Collection. For Europeans living during the Age of Discovery, the countries of the North Atlantic were nearly as exotic as the South Seas or the Spice Islands, and presented formidable challenges to exploration. With limited maritime connections to the larger world, Iceland remained relatively isolated well into the nineteenth century. Icelanders serving the Danish crown, notably Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, and British and French scientific expeditions published early descriptions of the island, which was a Danish possession until 1918.

Narratives of the North were quite popular and appeared in multiple translations. Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555) appears here in a Dutch translation, and in a copiously illustrated Tuscan version in the first section of this exhibition. Similarly, Eggert Ólafsson’s Reise igiennem Island (1772) appeared in English, French and German by the early nineteenth century.

Willard Fiske’s diary preserves a record of his stay in Iceland. Before landing, he sighted the small island of Grímsey, which he never visited. Astonished to learn of its tenacious little community of Icelanders, he generously endowed the remote islet with a library and each household with its own chess set. Fiske’s birthday is still celebrated annually on Grímsey.

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