Giovanni da Verrazzano

Verrazzano

Above: Verrazzano as it appeared before being put in storage while the subways below Battery Park were under construction.

Verrazzano bust

Verrazzano Justice

 

Italian working for French sails sails into New York Harbor

Verrazzano sailed into what's now known as New York Harbor on April 17, 1524. Here's part of his report to his sponsors.

We found a very pleasant place, situated amongst certain little steep hills; from amidst the which hills there ran down into the sea a great stream of water, which within the mouth was very deep, and from the sea to the mouth of same, with the tide, which we found to rise 8 foot, any great vessel laden may pass up. … The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feathers of fowls of divers colors. They came towards us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat. ... A contrary flaw of the wind coming from the sea, we were enforced to return to our ship, leaving this land, to our great discontentment for the great commodity and pleasantness thereof, which we suppose is not without some riches, all the hills showing mineral matters in them.

Symbolism of this sculpture

This section is excerpted from Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (OMOM).

Verrazzano has a swashbuckling, arrogant appeal. Of heroic size (the bust is five feet tall), he holds his right arm akimbo while his left hand grips the cape sweeping down from his armor. The lower edge of the cape, which originally curved around the base and linked him more closely to the allegorical figure below, was lopped off when the statue's crumbling pedestal was replaced in 1951.

His face, turned alertly to one side, displays the features recorded in contemporary portraits of Verrazzano: Roman nose (the sort that goes from forehead to tip without a dent at eye level), heavy but well-groomed beard and mustache.

In front of the bust stands an allegorical figure. This one is more difficult to interpret than the Statue of Liberty (OMOM #1), because the symbols used are not as familiar and also because it's been vandalized. Her upraised left hand once held a torch, representing knowledge or enlightenment, as in Liberty. Propped against her leg is a book bearing the dates 1524 and 1909, a reminder of history—the year Verrazzano sailed into the harbor, and the year the statue was dedicated.

Verrazzano book

The sword with which she pierces the book represents the sharp wits needed to see history clearly. (The same symbolism appears on a relief on Ward's Pilgrim in Central Park.) Combine these elements and this woman seems intended to represent the true facts of history: a recognition of what really happened so many centuries ago.

The inscriptions on the pedestal support that interpretation, although since they're in Italian, it's a rare viewer who understands them. On the west side, the inscription runs,

Anno 1909 America e Italia ricordano Giovanni da Verrazzano fiorentino che primo europeo precorrendo altro piu fortunato dal quale ebbero il nome navigo queste acque le cui terre erano destinate per una delle citta capital del mondo.

Roughly translated:

In 1909, America and Italy remember Giovanni da Verrazzano, Florentine, who was the first European—preceding the fortunate sailor [Hudson] after whom they were named–to navigate these waters, whose shores were destined to become one of the leading cities of the world.

On the east side:

Per la verita secolare per la giustizia della storia questo monumento riven-dicatore eresse Il Progresso Italo-Americano Carlo Barsotti editore la colonia italiana concorde il VI ottobre MCMIX.

Roughly translated:

For the sake of historical truth and justice, this monument was erected by Il Progresso Italo-Americano, edited by Carlo Barsotti, with the support of the Italians resident in New York, 6 October 1909.


Given this combination of figures and inscriptions, the Verrazzano is not merely a sculpture. It's a polemic. The literal subject is Verrazzano and his allegorical sidekick, but the theme—the message the artist is conveying to us, as viewers—is that Verrazzano deserves the credit for the discovery of New York Harbor. (For more on the theme or meaning of a sculpture, see Charging Bull, OMOM #5.)

Why was that even an issue? In 1909 New York was honoring Henry Hudson, the Englishman in Dutch pay who in 1609 became the first European to sail up the Hudson River. New York's substantial Italian-American community was offended that the celebrations ignored Verrazzano, the first European to sail into New York Harbor and to see the Hudson River. The editor of a prominent Italian newspaper led the drive to raise money for this statue to commemorate Verrazzano's voyage. On the back of the pedestal, an inscription reads:

In April 1524 the Florentine-born navigator Verrazzano led the French caravel La Dauphine to the discovery of the Harbor of New York and named these shores ‘Angoulême,’ in honor of Francis I, King of France.

Iterations of Verrazzano

IN 1951, the original elaborately detailed, light-colored base (which was deteriorating and had been vandalized) was replaced with this block of dark granite. The lower end of Verrazzano's cape was lopped off. Last I heard, the cape had been restored and the figures cleaned. They're in storage until construction work is completed on the subways running under Battery Park.

More

More on Verrazzano and this sculpture is in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide and the Monuments of Manhattan app by Guides Who Know.