Seeking John Cabot

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Dec 18, 2017 11:32 AM
1643 Via Garibaldi (centre) in Castello District is reputedly the 15th century residence of John Cabot.

There I was last summer, for the first time, in Venice, Italy - one of the most romantic cities in the world. The object of my affection was, of course, an Italian man; and I had crossed the Atlantic Ocean determined to find him. The fact that he has been dead for more than 500 years did not daunt me.  

Once known as The Queen City of Europe, Venice is built on a network of 150 canals and more than 100 islands. Arriving in the bustling city is like stepping back in time. With its car-free cobblestone streets, canals for roads, curved bridges (over 400 of them) and stately buildings, this legendary city has the feel of a bygone era of dukes, nobles and navigators. It was one such Venetian explorer who I had my eyes on. 

Italian Mission
Planning for the dream trip to Italy began more than a year ago. Getting a taste of a European country was part of the travel lure, but I also wanted to connect with something or someone who linked the cultures of Italy and my home province, Newfoundland and Labrador. The most obvious choice was John Cabot or Giovanni Caboto, as he is known in Italy. He is credited with being the first European to rediscover the new founde land, after the Vikings. (The fact that he was looking for Asia didn’t diminish his reputation as a skilled navigator and one of the world’s greatest explorers.)     

The Internet sailed me into the wide-open sea of possibilities. I soon discovered the existence of a plaque in Venice honouring Cabot and his son, Sebastian. I had found my Italian mission.

Whether or not Zuan Chabotto (Cabot’s Venetian name) was born in the floating city is still a source of controversy in Italy. Some say his birthplace is Gaeta, near Naples, while others point to the Republic of Genoa. Still, in 1461, at the age of 11, Cabot was known to be living in Venice and involved in his family spice trading business. By 1476, he was granted full Venetian citizenship.  

As history reports, Cabot didn’t claim Newfoundland for Venice. Reportedly, with the loan of 16 Euros from a network of Italian bankers in England, this former Venetian merchant sailed westward under the English flag and a patent granted by King Henry VII.  

Leaving Bristol, England in May 1497, Cabot and his 18-man crew reached the shores of Newfoundland on June 24, 1497, aboard the ship Matthew (named after his wife, Mattea). He came ashore briefly at Cape Bonavista, put up a cross and raised the English and Venetian banners. This historic trip laid the groundwork for a later claim to Newfoundland, followed by English colonization. Cabot and his crew returned to England on August 8 of that year, having achieved much fame and glory. For one thing, they’d found the richest cod stocks in the world - so plentiful, in fact, that they could not only be taken with nets, but with baskets. And so began the cod rush and John Cabot’s legacy. 

Centuries later, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has not forgotten Cabot, nor has the city of Venice.

The Trek
The nine-day bus tour of Italy had taken us from Rome, through the  beautiful Tuscany district, Parma, Bologna - and finally to the famed aquatic city of Venice. Like most visitors, I was gobsmacked by its charm and oddity. A ride up the Canal Grande on the gondola that first evening, as the molten orange sun was setting and an Italian sang at the bow of another boat, was perhaps one of the most bewitching experiences of my life. Venice is a city that, no matter how many photos you’ve seen, you’re simply not prepared for it.

Still, my eyes were on the prize. The following day our group was taxied by a vaporetto (water bus) to the heart of Venice - Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) - to explore one of Venice’s most symbolic landmarks. After grabbing a bite to eat and consulting with travel director extraordinaire, Marisa, about directions, I was off with a fellow traveller, Elaine from Ottawa, who was equally excited to join the search for a piece of Canadian history. 

We had one hour to accomplish our mission. Off we went, over several bridges and keeping a brisk pace through the crowds. Stopping and asking about Zuan Chabotto’s house yielded no success, as most thought we were looking for a present-day resident. Nearing the hour mark, we came across the famous art gathering, the Venice Biennale. I thought, if anyone would know about Cabot it would be this cultured crowd. Sure enough, the elegant young Italian lady inside the venue directed us to the bottom of the wide, white marble-lined street we were already on. We thanked her and raced excitedly towards our destination.  

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Writer Kim Ploughman reaches her destination.

The Find
Out of breath, we stopped at 1643 Via Garibaldi in Castello District (the largest of six districts in the city). Before us was reputedly the residence Cabot had lived in while a resident of Venice in the 15th century. To the right of the door to this corner house is a rectangular plaque, which I had viewed only in pictures on the Internet months before. It is inscribed with the words, “John Cabot, Venetian, and his son Sebastian discovered Newfoundland in the service of Henry VII of England. Erected MCMLXXXII [March 25, 1982] by the Province of Newfoundland, Canada.”   

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This white marble plaque was unveiled in 1982.

The white marble plaque had been unveiled by Newfoundland and Labrador’s minister of culture at the time, the Hon. Hal Andrews. (Admittedly, the plaque should note it was a European discovery given that many indigenous people were already on the island.) In the itinerary brochure for the 1982 commemoration, Newfoundland’s then premier, Brian Peckford, expressed the link between our two cultures: “Newfoundland, Bristol and Venice are all proud of this great seafaring family…The presentation of a plaque to Cabot by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is testimony to the continuing interest in Canadian history. We in Canada are proud of this link with the great maritime city of Venice.”   

Higher above, just below a winged lion, is a larger historic plaque, erected in 1881 by Venice to again pay tribute to one of Italy’s most illustrious men. It reads, “Giovanni Caboto (Rival of Columbus) discovered Terra Nova and the Continent of the New World.”

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Another view of the house where many argue Cabot once lived.

My fellow adventurer and I marvelled at our mission accomplished, took a few photos and headed back to join the group - satisfied that we had uncovered a piece of Canadian and Newfoundland and Labrador history.  

Coincidently shaped like a fish, Venice is one of the most visited places on earth, with more than 20 million visitors annually. My wish is that if not all visitors, then at least all Canadians, visit this historic monument in this storied city, which pays tribute to the founder of the cradle of European civilization in North America - and it all started right here in Newfoundland and Labrador. - Story and photos by Kim Ploughman