Arcadia and Acadia

King Francis I of France and the Renaissance

The Florentine Renaissance of the Fifteenth Century was slow to move up into continental Europe where a rich Mediaeval architectural and artistic heritage still dominated society. Monarchs were slow to adapt new styles of art, architecture and culture, although they were enthusiastically participating in the scholarly rediscovery of the Classical past by studying ancient languages and collecting rare manuscripts. Things speeded up dramatically with the invention of printing in the 1460s and this new access not only to Classical literature, but the Bible itself, would lead to cataclysmic changes in the religious life of the countries and territories that made up the Europe of the Sixteenth Century.

One king who turned to the accomplishments of the Renaissance with energy and utmost passion was Francis I (1494-1547) after he came to the throne in 1515. He was beautifully educated, spoke most of the languages of Europe, and brought sweeping changes to the Royal architecture of France, either in rebuilding old structures or building new ones like the chateau of Chambord.

He imported large numbers of Italian Renaissance artists and architects and set them to work. When he built the new hunting lodge of Chambord in the Loire Valley he employed the services of Domenico da Cortona. Although at first glance Chambord looks like a generic Mediaeval castle with its great tower bastions joined by curtain walls, these walls were not fortress-thick, but thin enough to admit vast quantities of light hitherto unknown in the dark and cavernous buildings of the Middle Ages. A completely new way of living was thus invented and with it the beginnings of interior design that would take advantage of these new light spaces. Furniture, previously heavy and utilitarian or light and mobile for seasonal travel, began to take on shapes that prefigured the glorious styles that would emerge in the 18th Century- the most beautiful furniture ever designed in Europe. Ornamental wood panelling changed and ugly walls, once covered by tapestries that moved with the inhabitants, now displayed paintings inspired by Renaissance styles and artists.

Leonardo da Vinci was persuaded to come to France in his last years and may have had a hand in designing Chambord. He was given rooms in the Château of Clos Lucé , very close to the redesigned chateau of Amboise to spend his last days. Today it is a museum featuring Leonardo. Here is a fascinating article on Chambord that explores the spirit of those times.

Arriving with his two beloved servants and a collection of paintings that included the Mona Lisa, he settled down, continued his work in progress and delighted the king with his conversation. When he died in 1519 the French state acquired the works he had with him and that is why you have to go to the Louvre today to see the hideous but technically fascinating Mona Lisa.

Francis I changed the look of Royal France and his newly-imported Italian styles influenced the aristocracy as well. But there were other concerns that the King had to deal with that were not aesthetic but economic in nature.


The Atlantic Fisheries and Exploration

For years France had depended on the cod fish stocks of the Atlantic to supply the population with suitable food to eat on fast days, which in the Catholic Church, were many. We are not aware of the full extent if this fishery and when exactly it started, but we do know that the Basque had been exploiting the cod and whale fisheries in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence for some years before Jacques Cartier explored the area in 1534.

There was also a persistent desire to find a Northwest Passage to the Far East, a search whose focus had been intensified when the Spanish discovered the New World in the late 1400s in their search for a shorter route to the riches of the East. Now that the Spanish and Portuguese appeared to have a monopoly on exploration and exploitation in Central and South America, it became even more urgent to explore the less attractive, cold and dangerous reaches of the Atlantic east coast. Francis funded a Florentine navigator and explorer called Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore the territory north of Florida – an area relatively safe from the prowling Spaniards – to find this Passage and claim any new lands for the French Crown.


Giovanni da Verrazano and his Voyage of 1524

Giovanni da Verrazzano was born in Val di Greve, South of Florence and part of the Florentine Republic, in 1485. He was probably born in the Castello di Verrazano in what is now Italian Chianti country. Indeed the Chianti headquarters are located in what is left of the castello today. He came from a wealthy and influential family of the minor aristocracy and would have received the kind of education available to such people at the height of the Florentine Renaissance. He would have read Classical literature and been familiar with the new developments in art and architecture of which the city of Florence was the leader at that time.

Florence had always been, since the late Middle Ages, a centre for the study and production of marine cartography. Its map makers revolutionised the making of maps and charts, introducing for the first time the inclusion of physical and political entities, not merely outlines. Florentine charts provided mariners with the most up-to-date information on navigation to the New World and the land masses found there. For a career as a navigator and explorer Verrazzano could not have come from a better environment.

Little is known about his short life. It is believed that he moved to the port of Dieppe in France in 1506 when he was twenty-one. It is also believed that he sailed to the New World with other famous mariners of the day and as well, travelled in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the years that followed, he may have explored the coast of Newfoundland and penetrated even into the Saint Lawrence River. It was in Dieppe in 1523 that he was found by Francis I who asked him to explore the coast between Florida and Terra Nova – Newfoundland. After aborted attempts Verrazzano finally set of on his voyage of discovery on January 17, 1524.

In a letter to Francis he described his travels and what he saw and claimed for the French Crown. This letter survives in three copies and has been the subject of much discussion and skepticism in the Twentieth Century.

Verrazzano returned to France by 8 July 1524. having named the region that he explored Francesca in honor of the French king. This is what appears on the 1527 map by Visconte Maggiolo of Verrazano’s voyage in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana at Milan, which is said to be based on the account of the 1524 voyage.

The maps produced at this time in the history of cartography are very difficult for us to study. They were based on small parchment maps called potolani that circulated among navigators and mariners. They generally represented an abstracted section of coastline showing little penetration inland. Every significant aspect of the topography that was encountered was given a name that could be taken from a very wide variety of sources: Religious feasts or saints, the names of Royalty, personal names, names obtained from aboriginals and transcribed in garbled form and also the names of various places in the homeland of the navigator. To make matters worse the map could be oriented south/north. It seemed to make no difference to them.

This is the sort of situation that is represented in the 1527 Maggiolo map that follows.

In 1529 Verrazzano’s brother Gerolamo, who had accompanied him on all his voyages, produced a map of the world where the East Coast of America is labelled Nova Gallia or New France. This map is now in the Vatican Museum and the only reasonably good photo of it that I can find is this one taken of a German reproduction of the map.

An American sketch produced in 1873 from secondary sources identifies a number of place names given to various parts of the coast, but none of them is Arcadia.

Be that as it may, in his July 8 1524 letter that  Verrazzano wrote to Francis I describing all the things he had seen on the voyage, he mentioned coming across a beautiful coastline that reminded him of Arcadia, the land of pleasure and easy living celebrated by poets since ancient times and so he gave that name to a large part of the North American Atlantic coast north of Virginia. This is how he described naming it and also provides a description of a native of Arcadia.

We continued to follow the coast to the northeast which we baptized “Arcadia” on account of the beauty of the trees. In Arcadia we found a man who came to the shore to see who we were: he stood suspiciously and ready for flight. He watched us but would not come near. He was handsome, naked, with olive-colored skin, his hair fastened back in a knot. There were about XX of us ashore, and as we coaxed him, he approached to within about two fathoms of us, and showed us a burning stick, as if to offer us fire. And we made fire with powder and flint, and he trembled all over with fear as we fired a shot. He remained as if thunderstruck, and prayed, worshiping like a monk, pointing his finger to the sky, and indicating the sea and the ship, he appeared to bless [?] us.

Verrazzano – Letter to Francis I, 1524

This celebrates the very moment when thoughts of classical Arcadia, occurring in the mind of a classically-educated navigator, entered the cartography of North America and which would survive, modified as Acadia, into our own times.

Verrazzano continued to make voyages to the New World and in 1527 successfully brought back a load of wood from the coast of Brazil. Other ships that accompanied him were also successful in this wood-harvesting operation. The real objective, of course, which failed, was to find a passage to the Far East.

His Death

The account of Verrazzano’s death in his third voyage to the New World in 1528 varies, but it is generally agreed among scholars that he was probably killed and eaten by the native Carib Indians who lived on Guadaloupe. He was 43 years old.


Arcadia appears on the Maps

The name Arcadia does not seem to appear on any maps produced during Verrazzano’s lifetime. It would be 20 years later, in 1548, that a small map by Giacomo Gastaldi was published in an atlas that clearly shows it occupying a large area of land starting in what is now Virginia.

The early mapmakers became fixated on the idea that there was a large but unexplored and therefore unknown area called Nurumburg (there would be different spellings in other maps) that spread eastward into New Brunswick. This is a name they obtained possibly from the aboriginals and it persisted, without real justification, for over a century until replaced by names that marked the inroads of British and French colonisation. Above it in what is now Quebec was another vast territory called Tierra del Bacalaos. Until colonisation happened in the 17th and 18th Centuries it was to be the subject of excruciating speculation among mapmakers and explorers for years. Even in the 18th Century these names would still linger because of European cartographic tradition.

Here is the lovely little Gastaldi map, still available on the antique map market for about $3,000. Below it is a detail showing “Larcadia” – the first time it ever appeared on a map of North America. The “L” attached to the front of it is simply the definite article.

Detail of the region of Arcadia from the Giacomo Gastaldi map of 1548.

Another map of the region published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in 1556 does not show Arcadia, but does clearly indicate La Nova Francia or New France, along with the ghost of Terra del Nurembega.

Arcadia makes it appearance again in the Girolamo Ruscelli map of 1561, this one from the University of Wales, and is largely a copy of the 1548 Gastaldi map.

There is a great deal of evidence gathered together in various papers by Ganong, Rayburn and Wilkins, listed in the reference section below, that traces every known appearance of Arcadia in 16th Century maps of Canada. It is at the beginning of the 17th Century that Arcadia begins to be abandoned and replaced with Acadia or Acadie or Lacadie, with the “r” dropped. The reason for this is unclear. In his first reports to the King Champlain uses Arcadia consistently (Wilkins p. 16). But things will soon change and a selections of variations on the name will appear both in official documents and maps.

Just before the appearance of Samuel de Champlain on the North American scene a magnificent world map was produced in 1601 in Dieppe by Guillaume Levavasseur. It is in the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris.

Here is a detail of the map showing the interests of New France. It is a synthesis of what was known of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence Valley before Champlain’s arrival.

Even before the arrival of Champlain, and other colonisers with royal warrants, a large area, consisting of the Maritimes and parts of NE United States had been labelled in large red letters, “Coste de Cadie” and “Nouvelle France.” The former Arcadia is moving up the coast toward Nova Scotia, where it will finally find a home in the course of the century.

When we try to account for the northeast migration of Arcadia in the later part of the 16th and Early 17th Centuries we must remind ourselves that there has been furious settlement and colonising activity along the New England coast by both the Dutch and the English. This 1639 map of Nova Anglia Novum Belgium et Virginia, by Jan Jansson of Amsterdam clearly shows how the coast above Virginia is filled up by New Holland and New England. It was probably copied from a 1625 Joannes De Laet map of the area. This sort of thing was done regularly long before the days of copyright were ever dreamed of.

If you look to the top right corner of the map you will see that Arcadia, now called Cadie, has moved to Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia appears there because of the endless wars of the 17th Century which saw the region change hands several times as treaty followed treaty.

We spend a lot of time looking at maps and seeing how places become defined through time from vague indications in the 16th Century maps to surer claims of an we can recognise in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Occasionally there are pictures on these early maps but we don’t pay much attention to them because, for the most part, they were copied, usually with variations, from one map to another in one country to another. Once in a while we come across an actual painting or drawing of a specific landscape, such as this one of New Amsterdam (Manhatten Island) painted by Johannes Vingboons in 1664, just before the Dutch lost their possession to the English. It is so powerful a presence that it makes you gasp in the realisation that all the major settlements must, even in those early years, have had a presence like this one.

Early in the 17th Century more and more maps began to be produced that showed Acadia established in its final home, and already being colonised and exploited by the French, under the direction of Champlain and others. This lovely map of Nova Francia and nearby places by Hessel Gerritsz and Joannes de Laet produced  in Amsterdam in 1630 is a model of clarity that recognises accurately the way the New World is being exploited in that region.

Champlain produced a number of maps of the region that would become Acadia and the one most telling of his ambitions is this one he had made in 1607 of the Gulf of Maine. It is now at the Smithsonian. Helped by the aboriginals he carefully mapped the region, assigning names for future settlement and noting the native settlements already there. Although not present here, he had already used the Arcadia form of the name for the region several times before this chart was drawn.

Acadia is now established, and even though it will have a short life of 150 years, the name, for the region, and the descendants of its original settlers, will never go away.

I could go on and on, sharing with you the many pieces of evidence that show the appearance of Arcadia, its travel along the New England coast and its change of name to Acadie and other variants besides. But I will close with this clear and lovely circa 1690 Venetian map by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli called ambitiously, America Settentrionale colle nuove scoperte fin all’ anno 1688 – all the new discoveries in America up to the year 1688! It is considered to be perhaps the most accurate map of its time and also a masterpiece of Baroque map-making design.

(I must tell you that in a pre-Christmas sale at one of the dealers, an uncoloured version, just as it came from the printer, is on sale at 20% off for just 17,500. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.)

Before I leave this post there are two details from the Coronelli map I want to share with you. The first is of the very clearly defined region of Acadia. A place and a people are acknowledged: the settlement of Port Royal, and Les Souricois – our friends the Mi’kmaq in whose territory all this excitement was taking place.

Down the New England coast there is another detail that nobody seems to have noticed in all the literature I have read. In the very centre of this image, below New York, you will see, as if it were still near its original position from 1524, Arcadia!

Et in Arcadia ego!



Ganong, W.F., Crucial Maps in the Early Cartography and Place-Nomenclature of the Atlantic Coast of Canada (various essays), with an introduction by Theodore E. Layng, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2017.

Kershaw, Kenneth A., Early Printed Maps of Canada I. 1540-1703, Kershaw Publishing, Hamilton Ontario, 1993.

Morison, Samuel Eliot, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.

Rayburn, Alan, “Acadia/ The Origin of the Name and its Geographical and Historical Utilisation,” The Canadian Cartographer, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1973.

Rayburn – Acadia – The Origin of the Name

Verrazzano, Giovanni da, Letter to King Francis 1 of France, 8 July 1524, reporting on his voyage to the New World (Del Viaggio del Verazzano Nobile Fiorentino al Servizio di Francesco I, Ri de Francia, fatto nel 1524 all’America Settentrionale.) EXCERPTS, National Humanities Center, 2006.

Verrazzano – Letter to Francis I, 1524

Verrazzano, Giovanni da, The Voyage of John de Verrazzano along the Coast of North America, from Carolina to Newfoundland A.D. 1524, translated by Joseph G. Cogswell 1841, Cosimo Classics, New York, n.d.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch, “Arcadia in America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 101, No. 1, 1957.

Wilkins – Arcadia in America 1957

Wroth, Lawrence C., The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano 1524-1528, Published for The Pierpont Morgan Library by Yale University Press, New Haven, 1970.