The Spirited Florentine Navigator Who Discovered New York 500 Years Ago

April 17, 2024 marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first European – the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano – in the Hudson River Bay, the area where the city of New York is located today.

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Today, April 17, 2024, marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first European – the Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano – in the Hudson River Bay, the area where the city of New York is located today.

I wrote Hudson River, not Verrazzano River, because it was named after an English navigator – Henry Hudson – who, however, only landed there 85 years after Verrazzano, in 1609. In 1909, precisely on the occasion of the third centenary of Hudson’s landing, the Florentines wanted to reaffirm the primacy of their compatriot and placed a plaque at Verrazzano’s (alleged) birthplace, near Santa Croce in Florence.

I say “alleged” because the information about the first years of Giovanni’s life is very nebulous: the lack of certainty has therefore led scholars to advance various theories regarding his date of birth, place of birth and the names of his parents. According to a recent hypothesis, based on a careful archival investigation of fiscal, political and corporate sources, Verrazzano was born in Chianti – presumably in Panzano – to a branch of the family that was based in the Florentine quarter of Santa Croce and also had possessions in the countryside. Giovanni would thus have been born on July 20, 1491 to Frosino di Lodovico da Verrazzano and Lisabetta di Leonardo Doffi. In the past, while maintaining the navigator’s ‘Florentine-ness’, it had also been hypothesized that his birth had taken place in Lyon, within the large community of Florentine merchant-bankers that animated the activity of what was the major financial center of the time. Some scholars have even suggested – in a very imaginative way – identifying Verrazzano with a French corsair, Jean Florin, who was hanged for having captured and plundered Spanish and Portuguese ships.

Giovanni da Verrazzano in a print by Francesco Allegrini,1767

Uncertainty continues when it comes to the childhood and youth of the navigator, although some information is documented. At some point Verrazzano moved to France, where a family member (Francesco) was already active. In 1508, he was perhaps on board a French ship (captained by Thomas Aubert) bound for the waters of the North Atlantic, and in the following years he sailed in various parts of the eastern Mediterranean. He seems to have been in Lisbon in 1517, where he may have had contact with Magellan, the Portuguese navigator famous for having accomplished – on behalf of Spain – the first circumnavigation of the world in 1519-22 (although Magellan himself did not complete the voyage, because he was killed in the Philippines in 1521).

In any case, Verrazzano certainly acquired in-depth nautical knowledge, which would serve him well later. In 1523 he was the captain of a small fleet – privately financed, but certainly supported by the Crown of France – that set out westwards from Dieppe (Normandy) in search of a northern passage to eastern Asia (the ‘Chattaio’).

France was late in joining the adventure of the voyages of oceanic exploration that, between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century, saw the involvement of countries such as Portugal (which by the 1520s had consolidated its route to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope), Spain (which had begun to colonize territories in Central America as well as the Caribbean islands) and England (which had landed, though without giving much follow-up, on the coasts of what is now Canada). However, Verrazzano’s initiative, which aimed to find a passage towards Asia by sailing to the north of the area controlled by the Spaniards, alarmed the other powers, and in particular Portugal, which had a monopoly on trade with Asia.

Verrazzano’s first attempt was almost immediately aborted due to violent storms, which reduced the fleet from four ships to two and forced the survivors to reverse course and return to their point of departure. Sometime later, only one of the two ships, the Dauphine or Delfina (in honor of the ‘dauphin’, the French sovereign’s eldest son), set sail from Dieppe with a crew of 50 men. A ledger belonging to Gondi, the Florentine company in Lyons, contains records showing that a consortium of several families of Florentine merchants based in the French city provided funding for the voyage, and that their investment largely exceeded that made by French merchants.

The map of Giovanni da Verrazzano’s journey in 1524 along the eastern coast of America, the work of the cartographer Girolamo da Verrazzano.

Learning from their previous experience, Verrazzano and his men opted for a more southerly route than they tried on the first attempt. They made a ‘clandestine’ stopover at Madeira (the island was a Portuguese domain), and having stocked up their ships, they set sail on January 17, 1524. After about fifty days at sea and having survived a terrible storm unscathed, the Delfina arrived in sight of land identifiable as Cape Fear, in North Carolina. Verrazzano headed southwards in search of a landing place; however, after having sailed for about 300 km, the proximity to waters dominated by Spanish vessels and the desire to avoid a clash prompted Verrazzano to turn back.

During the navigation northwards Verrazzano made several stops, giving the places he encountered familiar appellations. On the one hand, there were names that recalled the country from which he had set sail and which therefore honored the French sovereign (Nuova Gallia, Anguilème, Normanvilla); on the other hand, there were names that recalled Tuscany (San Miniato, Careggi, Certosa, Livorno, Impruneta, Monte Morello, Orti Oricellari, etc.); then there were names that referred to the environment they encountered (Selva dei lauri Laurel forest, Campo dei cedri Cedar fields); finally, some were references to classical images of an idyllic world, like the Arcadia of classical tradition that was also celebrated by Renaissance poets.

Among the highlights of the journey is the arrival in the lagoon of Pamlico Sound (North Carolina), called Annunziata by Verrazzano because the landing took place on March 25 (the day of the Annunciation, which was also the day of the Florentine New Year). The shape of the coastline and of the inlets deceived Giovanni, who believed he found there an isthmus connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, thus allowing access to eastern Asia. Later, on 17 April, the Delfina arrived as mentioned at ‘Angolemme’, the bay of today’s New York. The ship then continued northwards, sailing along today’s Maine, Nova Scotia and the southern fringes of Newfoundland: altogether Verrazzano explored the coast between the 34th and 46th parallels, an area hitherto unexplored by Europeans. At that point, due in part to the scarcity of provisions, he decided to return home, and arrived in France at the beginning of July, about 5½ months after leaving Madeira.

Model of the Delfina in a postcard from the Museum of the City, New York.

On July 8, while on board the ship harbored in the port of Dieppe, Verrazzano wrote a famous letter to the French sovereign François I, of which several copies exist that differ more or less significantly from one another. The two most famous are preserved at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence and at the Pieropont Morgan Library in New York: the latter, the Cèllere Codex, was written by a copyist but contains annotations that are most probably by Verrazzano himself.

The letter presents very accurate descriptions of the populations they had encountered and equally accurate descriptions of the coastline, vegetation and animals. As was often the case in contemporary narratives, the Europeans transferred the cultural background that they found difficult to shed onto the natives. For instance, Verrazzano, who had certainly been at the French court, described some indigenous populations as being organized according to European schemes, with a ‘king’ who is accompanied by ‘gentlemen’, or a ‘queen’ who is instead surrounded by ‘ladies’. Some territories are almost described as hunting reserves in their pristine purity: one cannot help but think that Verrazzano was winking at the sovereign, whose strong passion for hunting was known. However, it must be said that this idyllic world of mild landscapes and welcoming populations faded away as the navigation continued northwards, where he found an increasingly colder climate, a harsher landscape and increasingly inhospitable populations.

At the end of the letter Verrazzano asked the sovereign for support for further voyages of exploration. Despite initial good intentions, political issues (France’s military defeat at Pavia and the imprisonment of François I himself) caused the suspension of all activities, driving the Florentine to seek support in Portugal and perhaps even England. Once the French sovereign was freed, Verrazzano returned to France and made another voyage between 1526 and 1527, the events of which are, however, mostly unknown. The route was perhaps directed towards Cape Horn, perhaps towards the Cape of Good Hope, but which in any case did not leave the Atlantic Ocean and led Giovanni to return to Europe after a stop in Brazil, where the ships’ holds were filled with precious pau brasil (or brazilwood), a wood that yielded a red dye which the Portuguese were already importing in large quantities.

Towards the end of 1527 Verrazzano started preparations for a new voyage, again financed by French and Florentine merchants from Lyons, which set sail in the spring of the following year. Once again, the goal was the search for a passage to Asia, but this time through the central part of the American continent. Verrazzano may have landed in Florida and then headed for the Lesser Antilles. Giovanni’s brother Girolamo also sailed onboard the ships, and it was he who apparently reported the tragic epilogue of Giovanni’s life to the humanist Paolo Giovio, who put this story into verse:

Al miser Verezan non fu concesso / il viver longo che sua vita grama / hebbe in quel mar perché il meschino oppresso / da gente fu ch’ogn’hora mangiar brama / l’huom forestier et questi son chiamati / canibali crudel et scelerati. / […] Andar nel Dariene fe’ disegno / ch’è loco in terra ferma molto adorno. / Mentre naviga et cerca col suo ingegno / scoprir più lochi, sei dei suoi smontorno / […] Da gente cruda fur a un tratto presi / Ch’a l’improvviso gli saltorno addosso. / Occisi fur et per terra distesi / Fatti in più pezzi sino al minimo osso / Da quelli fur mangiato. E in quei paesi / Gli fu il fratel del Verezan che rosso / Vede il terren del sangue del fratello / Né puote in barca stando aggiutar quello. / Costui il tutto vide e in Roma poi / Venuto essendo un giorno, lacrimando / Racontò questo fatto acerbo a noi

To the wretched Verrazzano was not granted / the long life that his miserable life / had in that sea because the unfortunate man was oppressed / by people who always crave to eat / the foreign man and these are called / cruel and evil cannibals. / […] He planned to go to the Darién / which is a very beautiful place on dry land. / While he sailed and sought with his wits / to discover more places, six of his men went ashore. / […] All of a sudden they were seized by cruel people / who suddenly assaulted them. / They were killed and laid on the ground / torn into pieces down to the smallest bone / and eaten by them. And in those countries / was the brother of Verrazzano who the red / of his brother’s blood saw the ground / Nor could he get to him, because he was on-board the ship. / He saw it all and then in Rome / one day when he came, weeping / he told us of this terrible event

Verrazzano, along with some of his companions, was therefore killed by natives, who then devoured his flesh. Significantly, the site of the tragic event was named “Islands of the Cannibals” by his brother Girolamo who, having returned to Europe, was the author of a famous planisphere.

In the short term, the results of Verrazzano’s travels were all in all modest: ‘Cathay’, or East Asia, the declared destination of the voyages, was not reached. In his bartering with indigenous peoples, skins and furs were presumably obtained, as well as perhaps a few precious objects, useful for stimulating new investments on the part of the sovereign or private financiers, but not for the prospect of creating long-term commercial relations.

After a long period of oblivion, attempts were made to re-evaluate the figure of Verrazzano, somewhat in waves, whose role no one questions these days. In particular, in 1909, on the occasion of the aforementioned celebrations of the man who, according to them, had ‘usurped’ his memory (Henry Hudson), the members of the Italo-American community in New York commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ximenes to erect a monument to Verrazzano, now located in Battery Park (in the southernmost part of Manhattan). Then, between the 1950s and 1960s, also as a result of the discovery of new archival documents and new studies, the figure of Verrazzano was further re-evaluated, to the extent that in a cartoon published in 1952 by the New York World Telegram (a New York newspaper published between 1931 and 1966) the question was raised as to whether the entire toponymy of the Big Apple should be changed.

A cartoon published by the New York World Telegram, 1952

In the years that followed, civil works were erected Verrazzano’s name, including the bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, which at the time of its inauguration, was the longest suspension bridge in the world (the bridge, inaugurated in 1964, was initially called ‘Verrazano’, and only in 2018 did it take on the more correct form with the double z). A few years later, the city of Florence also dedicated a bridge over the Arno to its emigrant ‘son’.

Cover image: Aerial view of the Verrazzano Bridge (Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge) which connects the two boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, crossing the Narrows, the narrow stretch of sea that separates the two districts. The urban planning concept is the work of Robert Moses and the design by engineer Othmar Ammann. At the time of its inauguration in 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

The Spirited Florentine Navigator Who Discovered New York 500 Years Ago ultima modifica: 2024-04-16T21:25:53+02:00 da FRANCESCO GUIDI BRUSCOLI
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