How did Italian explorers help in the American exploration and colonisation effort?


[1] What if the red of England and Spain, plus the blue of France became the one dominant Italian-controlled area?

Hello there and welcome back, as always. Let’s dive straight into the article. I have always loved knowing about the world maps and many of the colonial powers. Whenever we think of the colonisation process, we have buzzwords, countries and navigators being the pioneers of discovering and colonising a certain country. Oftentimes, by doing so, we simply scratch the surface in understanding the bigger picture, where certainly the grandiose of the British and French Empires have overshadowed the originally potent Spanish and Portuguese ones. Consequently, we lack know-how of the importance of the Italian explorers in their role helping American colonisation, as they took an almost peripheral role, tirelessly searching for a viable administration to subsidise their project abroad. Thus, I wanted to use this article as a tribute and opportunity to commend the three main Italian explorers: Christopher Columbus, Giovanni di Verrazzano and Giovanni Caboto, and their roles in helping the exploration and colonisation process. In this article, I hope to discuss the situation of the Italian papal states, the backgrounds and legacies of the explorers themselves, and the sphere of influence they each had on colonising these geopolitical areas. As always, I would appreciate any constructive criticism for improvement.



Europe always had a huge fetish with maps and cartography. Martin Behaim, known for trying to put the duty of attempting to draw one of the first European versions of the entire globe, was already a milestone. Native of the German city of Nuremburg, other important European cities or countries like Florence, Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Spain domesticated the true pioneers of the Age of Discovery. Continents were drawn disproportional to their actual sizes until the expert cartographers many centuries later, until all geographical regions were discovered and navigated properly. Thus, the necessity for explorers to discover the world around them and try to solve this long-lasting puzzle.



Up until the Italian unification in 1863, Italy was comprised of papal and city states, each having its own mark in terms of history, culture and trade. At this time, Europe was still dominated by modes of Christianity and the far-fetched aspiration to traverse the world and reach the riches of China, the most cultured and powerful country during that period. With religion, the Europeans spread ideas of white superiority, using imperialism or brutal force to convert natives to their own European values and customs. Behind all this, was an expensive fetish and competition backed by the Catholic and Protestant Kings and Queens, in order to defy the laws and arts of navigation, cartography and astrology.

Situation of the Italian papal states


[2] Before: How Italy would have looked like before the unification.


[3] After: The Italian state during its first stages of unification. 

1) Genoa

Throughout the 15th century, Genoa struggled under the control by Milan, under Filipo Maria Visconti. As Genoa wanted more autonomy, it turned to France’s King Charles VII as the new lieutenant. With this in place, Genoa was an influential power in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, controlling parts of Cyprus and Constantinople. Moreover, they had high dexterity in trading and banking, opening the Bank of Saint George as early as 1407, expanding it to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. [4]


2) Florence

When you hear Florence, you instantly think of the buzzwords, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. As aforementioned, Italy was still consisting of city-states, whereby each would try to assert more control over another in its riches. In Florence, there were two main family dynasties a bit like in Romeo and Juliet – Neri and Bianchi, much like the Montague’s and Capulet’s. They both competed for ascendancy within the highest Italian nobility, where the Neri’s were supported and protected by the French King Charles of Valois. [5]


Florence at this time, was also known to be a republic – one that promoted the ideas of liberalism as a city-state. It advanced exponentially in culture, arts and sciences, drawing many inspiration from other European countries. Thanks to the grace of many architects like Brunelleschi, Lippi and Michelozzo, Florence showcased its buildings to many spectators, in awe of its humanist styles – a movement that embraced Greco-Roman appreciation of literature, arts and civilisation [5, 6].


3) Venice 

When you travel to Venice, you instantly think of the Piazza San Marco and the extravagant masks. These were the remnants of the once great Venetian city-state that glowed in Gothic architecture and paintings expertise, especially under the genius of Palladio. [7]


The scramble for prestige within the Mediterranean Sea was none different in the Venetian’s agenda. They contested to be a maritime superpower, seizing the critical ports of Corfu and Crete in 1204. In 1380, Venice was victorious against the Genoese, becoming the dominant force in the European and North African pond. [7] Being an expansionist power externally, Venice began to conquer more land internally throughout the 15th century – particularly in the Italian mainland, namely those near the Alps to the Adriatic northern tip close to Milan. However, with the huge success in the Mediterranean, it was to come to a reluctant standstill, as there were other priorities that pegged the way for explorations in America and India.


Italian explorers and their discoveries 

1) Cristoforo Colombo – working under the Portuguese and Spanish crowns 

[8] Columbus’ route around the Carribean and South American region. 

Cristoforo Colombo or the more widely-used name of Christopher Columbus, who was an explorer with contested identity – but with records, it has been proven that he originates from Genoa, born in 1451. By the way, if you like your documentaries and can understand French, I highly recommend Secrets d’Histoire – a well-made programme, despite a few sophisticated eloquence here and there.


At first, Columbus worked for the Portuguese crown, travelling to the Canary Islands. During this time, the explorers were in an obsession in discovering the Asian continent, each with their supposed distance from Europe to Asia. Nevertheless, it was a dear demand to navigate half the world, and Columbus was refused with his proposals by the Portuguese crown and Venetian city-states. Luckily, with Columbus’ persuasion of discovering key resources like silver and gold, together with discovering India and China, this was too much of an attractive deal for both Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon to turn down.


Despite a nearly fatal encounter in 1476 being attacked by French privateers near Portugal, Columbus was able to swim to shore to Lisbon. There, he settled and eventually wedded Felipa Perestrello, having one heir – Diego in circa 1480. Unfortunately, Felipa soon passed away, and Columbus immigrated to Spain and had another son called Fernando with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana in circa 1488. [9] Under the Spanish crown, Columbus set off on the Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina, stumbling upon Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), persuading himself that he had found the outer islands of China.


As Columbus was tried guilty of the false claims of finding riches, the Spanish authority arrested Columbus, forcing his return back to his adopted land and removed him of his role. Indeed, even after convincing King Ferdinand for another voyage in 1502, Columbus’ mission to find gold and to properly colonise the native islands in Cuba was halted with alleged unfair conduct and treatment. [9] Columbus’ legacy was a mixed one. On the one hand, he was believed to bring destruction and a wasted an opportunity to find the route to India and China. However, he did bring about what was known as the Columbian Exchange, allowing the Old World to become more sensitive to a different type of people, flora and fauna, diseases, culture and foods like potatoes and tomatoes all originating from the New World he set foot in. [9]


2) Giovanni di Verrazzano – French crown

[10] Verrazzano’s route around the New World. 

Whenever we think of the colonisation of Canada, we always think of Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and Pierre du Gua. Again, Verrazzano’s birthdate and place were contested, but he did consider himself a Florentine and born in 1485, rather than a Frenchman as many modern French scholars have observed. [10] After being subsidised by the French King Francis I to discover a route to China and to open trade for the nation, Verrazzano successfully explored around the Northern Hemisphere, despite interference from the powerful Portuguese and Spanish fleets who controlled the area. In his ship La Dauphine, Verrazzano travelled around what is now Maine, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, naming this region Nova Gallia or Nouvelle France. With this successful voyages, this Florentine explorer was able to provide the basis for future inspirations and investment from the French merchants and nobles. [10]


3) Giovanni Caboto – under the English crown 

[11] Best picture I could find of Caboto’s route around the Newfoundland area. 

The English were lagging behind the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch navigators in terms of colonisation and exploration – especially as they were more privateers and pirates. It was not until there was a real incentive to leave and immigrate the British Isles, in search of better lands did Britain overtake and become the indisputable maritime and colonial power of the world.


Whenever you think of English navigation, you would sometimes think of Walter Raleigh and John Smith, with their respective ideas of settlement. However, with an Anglicised name of John Cabot, yet again, this Italian explorer has been left almost anonymous – leaving scrutiny and argument over his real identity. I hope you begin to understand why I dedicated this article to these three explorers, few of the many navigators and merchants from the Italian city-states. Born in circa 1455 in Naples or Genoa, Caboto was a son of a merchant. Eventually, in 1482, Caboto married Mattea in Venice, together with which he had three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano and Sancio. Having been refused permission to navigator to the Atlantic to find another route to China, Caboto turned to England in circa 1495, with support of many Italian bankers. In Bristol, this Italian merchant was able to settle with his family and be in the service of the English King, Henry VII. He believed if he could discover Asia with he explored west across the North Atlantic – with mixed success, leaving many historians to contemplate whether he or indeed the Bristol navy to have discovered Caboto’s credited lands of exploration found in Newfoundland and Labrador. With such a low profile, this will remain as a huge challenge to know the exact truth – here is a token of hope that we do discover something!


To sum up, many Italian explorers have had their roles in the American exploration and colonisation – the three I have chosen: Columbus, Verrazzano and Caboto are simply the more dominant ones I found interesting for discussion. During the 15th to 16th century, there was a huge obsession across Europe to find the most efficient route to China with its riches, together with the fetish to complete the world map. This was a lengthy process, which needed the full backing of the crown in trusting the navigation process proposed by these navigators. More importantly, it must be noted that with so many city-states and competition between them, this had evidently prevented unity for a concrete Italian empire together, instead only adopting and helping other European powers, and their eventual quest to reminisce the  Roman expansionist glory days not later than 1936 to 1945 under Mussolini’s influence. I, as a passionate history student and researcher, do hope that you have read and understood the roles each of these explorers has made – and a bit of my passion as well in the map, colonial powers and the colonisation process itself. That would be greatly appreciated on my part! But anyway, bye for now! 🙂
















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