GIOVANNI DA VERRAZANO: A FLORENTINE IN NEW YORK!

I would like to go back to the Age of Exploration, and thus to another important Florentine navigator that deserves a great tribute: Giovanni da Verrazano, who lived between 1485 and 1528, and who has become famous for discovering the New York Bay and the Eastern Coast of the United States of America.

There is no much information about the life (and death) of this navigator, but we know for sure where he was born: in the castle that bears the name of his family, deep in the Chianti hills near Greve, in 1485. Like other Italian explorers of that Age of Discovery, from the Genoese Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) to the Venetian Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, Verrazano was also forced to leave his land to pursue his dreams of adventure in “foreign land”, that means, to accomplish his feats at the service of other European countries: in his case the France of King Francis I.

He then moved to Dieppe, in France, and it was Francis I who, in 1522, in the wake of the feats of other navigators to the New World, commissioned him an expedition to find a sea route to China through America.

Verrazano set sail with four ships, but he reached the New World with only one: La Dauphine. Travelling with him was also his brother Girolamo, a cartographer. The only record left, that documents the journey, is a letter that Giovanni wrote to King Francis I. In about 50 days and with 50 men, he landed on the eastern shores of todays’ United States of America, specifically in North Carolina, in a place that is not a movie, but a promontory: Cape Fear!

After moving south to Florida, he went north, and it was at this point that he first entered the New York Bay, on April 17th, 1524, after crossing the channel that separates the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, called “The Narrows”, and reaching the mouth of the future Hudson River. Here he encountered the natives called Lenape, whom he described in the letter to the French king as friendly and hospitable.

He then travelled further north following the shoreline up to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, thus travelling along the entire east coast of the United States. And it was the unexpected length of this navigation that forced him at this point to return to France. So: this travel had perhaps not produced the desired result, the famous route to Asia, but it had led the Florentine navigator to confirm what his fellow citizen Amerigo Vespucci had already theorized: that was a whole new continent!

Verrazano travelled back to America two more times, leading two other expeditions: the first one took him to Brazil, but the second one is shrouded in mystery. This travel was fatal for him, because it was the one in which he disappeared. It was 1528. What happened? It’s not clear: for some he died in Brazil, for others in The Bahamas; for some he was killed by the cannibals, for others he was hanged by the rival Spanish.

Whatever his unfortunate death, even his glory was not immediately recognized: there have been times, in the past, were his travels have been even questioned.

Today, however, we have several places that commemorate him, starting with two bridges that bear his name: one is in New York, built on that channel separating, but now, since 1964, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. The name of the bridge encloses that of the strait and that of its discoverer: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Its construction in 1964 added a piece of history to the city, allowing the island of Staten Island to communicate more easily with the Long Island Peninsula and the rest of New York City, overcoming the long and uncomfortable connections via New Jersey or via ferry to Manhattan. Furthermore, its building has brought many more inhabitants in Staten Island, many of them Italians from Brooklyn. And it was right Staten Island where, a long time ago, another illustrious Florentine lived: Antonio Meucci. But this is, and will be, another story.

Florence also dedicated a bridge to the memory of Giovanni: the Verrazano Bridge, the eighth bridge of the city, whose building was approved shortly after the one in New York, in 1965. Opened in 1980, it connects the two districts of Gavinana and Campo di Marte.

And also Greve in Chianti, Giovanni’s hometown, could not but celebrate his most illustrious citizen: in the main square, Piazza Matteotti, a statue dedicated to him has been standing since 1913.

Furthermore: there is also a Verrazano Day, celebrated by both Greve in Chianti and New York! When? On April 17, of course! The date of the discovery of New York Harbour.

Finally, in the Chianti hills, in a fabulous landscape near Greve, surrounded by its vineyards, is still the castle where our navigator was born in 1485: the Verrazano family owned it since the 7th century, enlarging it over time. After the extinction of the dynasty, this ancient Etruscan and Roman settlement turned later into a villa with a farm, passed on to several new owners, and it is now famous not only for the name it bears and its ancient beauty, but also for being a famous winery, an “agriturismo” (farmhouse), and a tasting place. Of what? Of Tuscan specialties, and above all of Chianti Classico wine: its cellars date back to the 16th century! (See: www.verrazzano.com)

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