Verrazzano’s Historic New World Voyage Reaches its 500th Anniversary

Posted 7/3/24

This year marks the 500th Anniversary of Giovanni da Verrazzano’s historic New World voyage and a European’s first documented visit to Rhode Island. This fact should not go unnoticed! …

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Verrazzano’s Historic New World Voyage Reaches its 500th Anniversary


This year marks the 500th Anniversary of Giovanni da Verrazzano’s historic New World voyage and a European’s first documented visit to Rhode Island. This fact should not go unnoticed! Verrazzano (1485-1528) was an Italian explorer and navigator who sailed in the service of France. Although the exact place and date of his birth have not been positively established, he was probably a native of the Chianti region of Tuscany and was well-born and well-educated. As a young man, he resided in Dieppe on France’s Normandy coast, from which he made many voyages to the eastern Mediterranean.

Having earned a reputation as an excellent sea captain, he entered the service of King Francis I to undertake a voyage to the New World in the hope of finding a sea route through the Americas to the Pacific and the Orient. It was the first such expedition to North America under the auspices of the French crown. Accompanied by younger brother Girolamo, a map maker, and a crew of fifty men, Verrazzano began his crossing of the Atlantic on January 17, 1524, in the caravel La Daupltine. He landed at or near Cape Fear, North Carolina, in March. After a short voyage southward, he turned toward the north and explored the North American coast, probably as far as Newfoundland. He anchored briefly in the Narrows of New York Harbor and in Narragansett Bay, where bridges now recall his visit.

Although this voyage failed in its primary objective of discovering a passage to China, Verrazzano’s report of this expedition, written for Francis I upon his immediate return to France on July 8, does provide the first geographical description of a large section of the North American coast based upon a known exploration. The land discovered in this voyage was named “Francesca” in honor of the French king. Verrazzano’s narrative also contains important data concerning the physical appearance, customs, and way of life of the Native American tribes observed during the voyage.

Of the early explorers in North America, Verrazzano was the first to name newly found places in honor of prominent personalities or important European spots. However, only some of these place names have survived, with the notable exception of Rhode Island. Verrazzano called Block Island “Luisa” in honor of the queen mother of France and likened the “well-peopled” island to the

Mediterranean Isle of Rhodes. After anchoring in present-day Newport Harbor, he spent fifteen days exploring the entire Narragansett Bay region as far north as Pawtucket Falls. Displaying a sense of humor, Verrazzano allegedly named the Dumping Rocks off Jamestown “Petra Viva” for Marie Catherine de Pierre-Vive, the voluptuous wife of a banker who had helped fund his expedition. He called the bay “Refugio.” Verazzano reported to his royal sponsor that he had observed fertile open fields, oak and cypress forests, “many kinds of fruit,” an “enormous number of animals--stags, deer, lynx, and other species”--and friendly natives. The Italian described the Indians (probably Wampanoags) glowingly: “Their people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage. They are taller than we are; they are a bronze color, some tending more toward whiteness, others to a tawny color; the face is clear-cut; the hair is long and black, and they take great pains to decorate it; the eyes are black and alert, and their manner is sweet and gentle.”

Verazzano’s detailed report of his 1524 voyage was read (in translation) by one or more of Rhode Island’s first settlers who misinterpreted it. In 1614, Dutch navigator Adrien Block renamed “Luisa” for himself, contributing to the mix-up whereby the “Rhodes” allusion was affixed to the island of Aquidneck. A 1637 letter from Roger Williams was signed “at Aquednetick [Aquidneck] now called by us Rhode Island.” The Royal Charter of 1663decreed that the new colony, consisting of two island settlements (Portsmouth and Newport) and the mainland “plantations” of Providence and Warwick, be named “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Thus, by indirection and misinterpretation, Verrazzano gave the state its name.

In 1992, when I was chairman of the now-defunct Providence Heritage Commission, my wife Gail and I traveled to the Greek island of Rhodes to establish a sister-city relationship between Rhodes City, the capital of the Isle of Rhodes, and Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. Like the city’s Heritage Commission, that relationship has not endured.

In a subsequent expedition in 1527, sponsored in part by French admiral Philippe de Chabot, Verrazzano reached the Brazilian coast, from which he brought back a valuable cargo of logwood to France. Verrazzano’s third voyage, which got underway in the spring of 1528, ended in tragedy for the captain. The great navigator attempted on that occasion to find a passage to Asia south of the area he had explored in the first voyage. He followed the chain of the Lesser Antilles and stopped at one of the islands, possibly Guadeloupe, where he was seized by hostile Caribs and killed. His 1524 experience with the hospitable Wampanoags perhaps influenced him to become easy prey.

Chronologically, Verrazzano is the earliest inductee of the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

Patrick T. Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island and president emeritus of the RI Heritage Hall of Fame, thanks his former student Greg Coppa for the Verrazzano anniversary reminder.


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