This essay is adapted from Chapter 3 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book. Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music, even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app).
- Dedicated: 1909.
- Medium and size: Overall about 22 feet. Bronze bust (5 feet), bronze allegorical figure (9 feet). Later granite base.
- Location: Battery Park, at the south end of West Street.
Verrazzano the sculpture has had a difficult life. It was dedicated on a site that faced the harbor, near the (later) East Coast Memorial. The allegorical figure’s torch was soon stolen. The curving base was vandalized, and eventually replaced with a brutally rectangular one. At the same time, the folds of Verrazzano’s cape draped over the base were lopped off. In the early 2000s, the sculpture was hauled off to storage while subway construction was being done under Battery Park. It was returned to the park in 2015, on a site with a view straight up West Street. A new pedestal in the shape of the original one has replaced the rectangular base, the lower edge of Verrazzano’s cape was replaced, and a replacement torch was cast. The whole sculpture was thoroughly cleaned, and a new patina applied. Here’s new and the old (2003) and new.
About the subject
The first European sighting of New York Harbor was made by an explorer seeking profit for his backers. Fittingly, New York rose to greatness not as a center of government or a religious haven, but as a thriving commercial hub.
Why was an Italian-born navigator working for the King of France sailing these waters? In 1522, the tattered remnant of Magellan’s fleet (one of his five ships, eighteen of his crew of 239) reached Lisbon’s harbor. The published report of this first voyage around the world inspired an intense rivalry among European monarchs to discover a route to Asia that would bypass the treacherous South-American strait bearing Magellan’s name. In the thirty years between Columbus’s first voyage and Magellan’s circumnavigation, much of the coast of Central and South America had been explored. Further north, the area around Newfoundland was thoroughly familiar to fishermen. In seeking a passage through the American continent, therefore, Verrazzano set out for the Atlantic coast of what is today the United States.
Francis I of France, who had a high regard for Italians (Leonardo da Vinci and Benevenuto Cellini were honored guests at his court), provided Verrazzano with the caravel Dauphine. Italian merchants based in France funded the voyage, hoping Verrazzano would find a route to Asia that would reduce silk importation costs.
Verrazzano’s first landfall was at Cape Fear, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks—a chain of islands twenty miles or so from the mainland. Unable to see land beyond the Banks and unable to find a passage through, Verrazzano concluded that he was looking at the Pacific Ocean. Thus the expedition’s mapmaker drew it, and thus it remained on many maps for another hundred years.
After sailing down the coast as far as South Carolina in fruitless search of a passage, Verrazzano headed north. Somehow he failed to sight the entrances to the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Perhaps he sailed too far from the coast, fearing he might run aground. But he did espy New York Harbor, and on April 17, 1524:
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.
Anchoring at the present site of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (which is inexplicably spelled with only one “z”), the explorer was warmly greeted by Indians. He dubbed the area “Angoulême,” after one of the French king’s estates, and was disappointed when a sudden squall forced him to move on. The future New York Harbor clearly made a better impression than southern Maine—labeled on the expedition’s map “Terra onde he mala gente” (Land Where There Are Bad People).
About the sculpture
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. 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, because the symbols used are not as familiar. Her upraised left hand holds 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. 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. Unfortunately, since they’re carved into speckled granite and two of them are in Italian, it’s a rare viewer who understands them.
The inscription on the back of the base 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.”
On the east side: “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 west side: “Per la verita secolare per la giustizia della storia questo monumento rivendicatore 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, 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, Chapter 5.)
Why the polemic? 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.
- Gayle and Cohen’s Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture (an extremely useful reference) has a photo of Verrazzano with the original base (p. 7).
- On the unveiling of the sculpture of Verrazzano, see the New York Times 10/7/1909.
- In 1906, it was decided to erect a sculpture of Henry Hudson in New York. It was designed by Karl Bitter, but due to his death, a World War, a Great Depression, and other hindrances, wasn’t completed and dedicated until 1938. Hudson stands in the Bronx near Spuyten Duyvil, facing the northern tip of Manhattan. (More on that here, from Jonathan Kuhn in the New York Times.) When Robert Moses requested City funds to illuminate the piece, Deputy Mayor Curran caustically replied:
I took a good look yesterday at the statue of Henry Hudson at Spuyten Duyvil … It is the ugliest statue in New York, and that is saying a whole lot. The shaft is ugly, the figure is ugly, the whole thing is ugly. A barber pole would be nicer. Now just forget your idea of lighting it up at night. If you could dig a hole at Spuyten Duyvil and let the statue drop into it some night, and then cover it nicely, that would be the best way to handle it. (Quoted by Jewell in the Times, 8/21/1938.)