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He is renowned as the first European since the Norse expeditions to North America around AD 1000 to explore the Atlantic coast of North America between the Carolinas and Newfoundland, including New York Bay and Narragansett Bay in 1524. The bridge over the opening of New York Harbor and a vessel of the Italian navy, a destroyer of the Navigatori class, are among his numerous eponymous honors.
The consensus among scholars is that Giovanni da Verrazzano was born in Val di Greve, south of Florence, Italy, Republic of Florence, the son of Piero Andrea di Bernardo da Verrazzano and Fiammetta Cappelli. Some alternative theories have been elaborated: e.g., a certain French scholarship assumed that Verrazzano was born in Lyon, France, the son of Alessandro di Bartolommeo da Verrazano and Giovanna Guadagni. Whatever the case, Verrazzano always considered himself to be Florentine and was considered a Florentine by his contemporaries as well. He signed documents employing a Latin version of his name, “Janus Verrazanus,” and in his will dated 11 May 1526 in Rouen, France (preserved at the Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime), he called himself “Jehan de Verrazane.”
Although Verrazzano left a detailed account of his voyages to North America, little is known about his personal life. After 1506, he settled in the port of Dieppe, in France, where he began his career as a navigator. Probably in 1508, in the company of captain Thomas Aubert, he embarked for the American coast on a ship called La Pensée, equipped by the shipowner Jean Ango. He explored, possibly during a fishing trip, the region of Newfoundland and possibly the St. Lawrence river in Canada; on other occasions he made numerous voyages to the eastern Mediterranean.
In September 1522, the surviving members of Ferdinand Magellan’s crew that circumnavigated the globe returned to Spain. Competition in trade, especially with Portugal, was becoming urgent. Impelled by French merchants and financiers from Lyon and Rouen, who were seeking new trade routes, King Francis I of France, in 1523, asked Verrazzano to make plans to explore an area between Florida and Terranova, the "New Found Land", for France, with the goal of finding a sea route to the Pacific Ocean. Within months, four ships set sail due west for the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, but a violent storm and rough seas caused the loss of two ships. The remaining two damaged ships, La Dauphine and La Normande, were forced to return to Brittany.
Repairs were completed in the final weeks of 1523, and they set sail again. This time the ships headed south toward calmer waters, which were under dangerous Spanish and Portuguese control. After a stop in Madeira, complications forced La Normande back to home port, but Verrazzano’s ship, La Dauphine, piloted by Antoine de Conflans, departed on January 17, 1524, headed once more for the North American continent. It neared the area of Cape Fear on about March 1 and, after a short stay, reached the Pamlico Sound lagoon of modern North Carolina. In a letter to Francis I, Verrazzano wrote that he was convinced the Sound was the beginning of the Pacific Ocean, from which an access could be gained to China. This report caused one of many errors in the depiction of North America in contemporary maps. The continent would not be fully mapped for hundreds of years.
Continuing to explore the coast further northwards, Verrazzano and his crew came into contact with Native Americans living on the coast. However, he did not notice the entrances to Chesapeake Bay or the mouth of the Delaware River. In New York Bay, he encountered the Lenape and observed what he deemed to be a large lake, which was in fact the entrance to the Hudson River. He then sailed along Long Island and entered Narragansett Bay, where he received a delegation of Wampanoag. The words "Norman villa" are found on the 1527 map by Visconte Maggiolo identifying the site. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote "this occurs at Angouleme (New York) rather than Refugio (Newport). It was probably intended to compliment one of Verrazzano's noble friends. There are several places called "Normanville" in Normandy, France. The main one is located near Fécamp and another important one near Evreux, which would naturally be it. West of it, conjecturally on the Delaware or New Jersey coast, is a Longa Villa, which Verrazzano certainly named after Francois d’Orleans, duc de Longueville". He stayed there for two weeks, and then moved northwards, following the coast up to modern Maine, southeastern Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, after which he returned to France by 8 July 1524. Verrazzano named the region he explored Francesca in honor of the French king, but his brother’s map labels it Nova Gallia, "New France".
With financial support from Jean Ango and Philippe de Chabot, Verrazzano arranged a second voyage which departed from Dieppe with four ships early in 1527. One ship was separated from the others in a gale near the Cape Verde Islands, but Verrazzano reached the coast of Brazil with two ships and harvested a cargo of brazilwood before returning to Dieppe in September. The third ship returned later, also with a cargo of brazilwood.
This partial success, although it did not find the desired passage to the Pacific Ocean, inspired Verrazzano’s final voyage, which left Dieppe early in 1528.
In 1528, during his third voyage to North America, after exploring Florida, the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles, Verrazzano anchored out to sea and rowed ashore, probably on the island of Guadeloupe. He was killed and eaten by the native Carib inhabitants. The fleet of two or three ships were anchored out of gunshot range and no one could respond in time. Other sources suggested Verrazzano was executed for piracy by the Spanish at Puerto del Pico, Spain.
Despite his discoveries, Verrazzano's reputation did not proliferate as much as other explorers of that era; for example, in accordance with the practices of the time, Verrazzano gave a European name to the new land he had seen, Francesca, after the French king in whose name he sailed. This and other names he bestowed on features he discovered have not survived. He had the bad luck of making major discoveries within the same three-year period, 1519 to 1521, of both the dramatic Conquest of Mexico and Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the world—which though Magellan himself did not complete, brought him undying fame.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a great debate in the United States about the authenticity of the letters he wrote to Francis I describing the geography, flora, fauna and native population of the east coast of North America. Others thought it was true, and it is almost universally accepted as authentic today, particularly after the discovery of the letter signed by Francis I which referred to Verrazzano's letter.
Verrazzano's reputation was particularly obscure in New York City, where the 1609 voyage of Henry Hudson came to be regarded as the de facto start of European exploration of New York, since he sailed for the Dutch, not the French. It was only with great effort in the 1950s and 1960s that Verrazzano's name and reputation as the European discoverer of the harbour was re-established during an effort to have the newly built Narrows bridge named after him. See Naming controversy of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. A Staten Island ferryboat that served New York from the 1950s to the 1990s was also named for him (the ferry was named the "Verrazzano", while the bridge, another Staten Island landmark, was named "Verrazano", reflecting the confusion over the spelling of his name). There are numerous other commemorations on Staten Island itself to the explorer. A Little League is named for him, reflecting not only his connection to Staten Island, but also the large number of descendants of Italians who live there. In Narragansett Bay, the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge is also named for him, as is Maryland's Verrazano Bridge.