Passage to Cathay

The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528

by Lawrence C. Wroth
Yale University Press, 320 pp., $25.00

The Beginnings of Modern Colonization

by Charles Verlinden, translated by Yvonne Freccero
Cornell University Press, 248 pp., $9.75

Beyond the Capes: Pacific Exploration from Captain Cook to the Challenger (1776-1877)

by Ernest S. Dodge
Little, Brown, 429 pp., $12.50

After a hundred leagues we found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea…. We took the small boat up this river to land which we found densely populated. The people were almost the same as the others, dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors, and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment, and showing us the safest place to beach the boat.

These cheerful and hospitable people, “dressed in birds’ feathers of various colors,” were the inhabitants of New York.

The year was 1524. The occasion, the arrival of a Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to set eyes on and describe this “very agreeable place.” But what was a Florentine, commanding a French ship, the Dauphine, doing in New York Bay in 1524? The story is a complex one, which still contains many puzzles and obscurities. But at least we now have access to all the available evidence, thanks to the work of the great Americanist, the late Dr. Lawrence C. Wroth.

The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano is a superb professional study that will make all earlier studies of Verrazzano obsolete. At its heart is Verrazzano’s own account of his voyage, one of the great narratives of sixteenth-century exploration and discovery, which has until now been inaccessible (and unfortunately may well continue to be so, given the inevitably high price of this volume). The text here reproduced in facsimile, with a transcription into the original Italian and a lively English translation by Mrs. Susan Tarrow, is that of the so-called Cellère Codex, which is now housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library. The special interest of this Codex, apart from its textual superiority to the other known versions, lies in the existence of twenty-six annotations in Verrazzano’s own hand. We have here, therefore, a text of extraordinary fascination, whose origins can be traced back to Verrazzano himself.

Verrazzano’s account of his 1524 voyage, which runs to only ten pages of printed text, is a wonderful document, partly because of what he saw and partly because of who he was. He was the first European to observe and describe the North American coastline, from the Carolinas to Newfoundland. He also happened to be the best-educated explorer of the Northern Hemisphere in the sixteenth century. It is possible, but by no means certain, that his parents were members of the colony of Florentine bankers and merchants that had established itself in the important French commercial center of Lyon. But if he was born in France he received probably in his ancestral Tuscany a typical Florentine humanist education. As a result, we see North America in 1524 through the eyes of a Renaissance gentleman.

There is intelligent curiosity here about both the land and its people, as one would expect fron an explorer with such a privileged background. The landscapes are more vividly re-created than in most…

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