Giovanni da 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, well-born and well-educated. As a young man, he took up residence 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 crossed the Atlantic in the caravel La Dauphine and landed at or near Cape Fear, North Carolina, in 1524. 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 immediately after returning to France, 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 Indian 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, few 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, forests of oak and cypress, “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: “These 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 Williams was signed “at Aquednetick [Aquidneck] now called by us Rhode Islanders.” The royal charter of 1663 decreed 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 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. Apparently, he followed the chain of the Lesser Antilles and stopped at one of the islands, possibly Guadeloupe, where he was seized by hostile Caribs, killed, and then eaten by these natives. His 1524 experience with the hospitable Wampanoags perhaps influenced him to become easy prey.
Giovanni da Verrazzano was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1987.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.