Monuments in New Worlds: Placing Columbus in the Americas

3. We were long far more apt to recognize the reduction of Columbus to the visage of Renaissance man with a plan to sail the ocean blue in 1492, twinning foresight and navigational endurance, as twinned in the verso and recto of to celebrate the anniversary of the voyage  in an anonymous medallion printed for the Colombian Exposition of 1892, which honored the Renaissance man shown in his furs and coiffed hair looking out spaciously, on one side, as if his piercing stare allowed him to cut across waves of neoclassical design emphasized the historical scope of the voyage of one ship across waters as its prow cut across the intervening oceans to arrive in the New World, unimpeded by any elements, erasing the ideahe even encountered any resistance among indigenous inhabitants across the ocean seas, and creating the sense of frictionless travel without obstacles, enabled by a penetrating gaze.

1893 volumbus medal, anon, as a classicizing engraving tableaux
Anonymous Medal, Columbian Centenary

To express the sense of transit and remove, that was preserved in the woodcut prefacing Columbus’ widely read letters about the New World, we must perform the work of cutting away encrusted images of Columbus as a modern hero, perhaps for the last time rehearsed by none other than Venetian nobleman (and former fascist) count Vittorio di Colbertaldo, who in 1957 was accompanied by a group of Italian sailors as he unveiled a 3.6 meter bronze triumphant statue of Columbus in San Francisco, having already unveiled a similar statue in Miami. In San Francisco, Colbertaldo was accompanied by a group of Italian sailors with the statue of over three and a half meters, on Columbus Day weekend, when it was unveiled in the festivities of an annual Columbus Day parade. Colbertaldo proudly invested Columbus with clear fascistic attributes as a martial, virile man of state, a commander of European nobility, atop a marble base brought from Genoa: the triumphalism written into his visage and martial brow with more kinship to fascist statuary than most images of Columbus, but only slight exaggeration of his rhetoric in its iconography. The perpetuation of this iconography–and indeed the laminations of conquest, and the rationale of conquest, and its naturalization, is exactly what we must object to and find repugnant, as a question of human rights, and of government, but which was so long celebrated in quite unmasked radicalized terms.

The placement of the statue overlooking the bay in San Francisco is a natural target of resistance–in its grotesque perpetuation of Columbus as a victory of state, religion, rationality, and male strength, that befit Colbertaldo’s resumé as a monumental sculptor of the Fascist period in Italy, dedicated to the “discovery of the new world.” The statue’s imperiousness readily naturalized some of the dogma set forth by Columbus himself, but updated the claims of discovery of new continents to the twentieth century with cartoonish masculinity. As a sculptor, Colbertaldo had only recently formulated unsubtle ideas of the role of monumentality as he worked to promote the iconography of government in Fascist Italy, where he had written I Monumenti e l’uomo; as preferred sculptor of Benito Mussolini–who he served as personal bodyguard–his work toured varied martial statues of Italians in arms. Perhaps Columbus provided the natural subject to consider a martial Italian in the postwar era for American eyes.

He must have arrived at Columbus in rather circuitous ways, in the post-Fascist era. One can read into the readiness with which he endowed the navigator with fascist triumphalism for an American audience, accentuating the clear-eyed vision that subdued distance and oceans to his person, in a triumph of individuality, linking man to state by an illustration of personal force, almost not needing a map–projecting an image of European nobility across the ocean–if now, in San Francis,  looking in quite commandeering fashion over the Pacific, bearing with pride a cross on his robust chest, as if to refer to the expansion of American sovereign claims in the Pacific, and letting the map in hand fall to his side–perhaps, after perhaps having been inspired by it to take on his destined role as a soldier of Spain, but having done so by his own will alone.

The triumphal image seems to fulfill a majestic historical narrative that swept his ships across space, .  In the postwar period of America, the ship is absent from the person, perhaps as military mapping had so expanded in accuracy to make the moment of perception of America more dramatic as a fascist will to power.  The space of the Atlantic was not problematic to bridge, as the expanse of the Pacific was in the midst of deterritorialization.

Fascist Colomubs by V. di Colbertado (1957)

This Columbus’ determination is evident in his  brow–startlingly akin to the face of Mussolini as rendered in fascist statuary– in what was the most recent incarnation of Columbus as emissary, and soldier, if looking more like a superhero whose virility seems tied to his ability to look to overseas shores with determination.  The recent vandalization of the same statue with red paint, in an attempt to connect the dots between the bloodiness of conquest and the heroism we have long imagined called for more than stripping off paint or veneer, but seeing the navigator differently and renarrativizing that hackneyed narrative, shown in its most grotesque in Colbertaldo’s glorification of white determination–no doubt making it a perfectly appropriate target for vandalism on Indigenous People’s Day.

October 14, 2019

The statue makes one want to pair it with the first images of contact that prefaced the hugely popular incunable of Columbus’ letters, an image that deserves careful unpacking and historicization, but encapsulates a sovereignty over space in less imperious ways–Columbus was a middle-man, and monarchical agent–but suggests a similar domineering of space by virtue of a sighting instrument and a divine message inscribed in the heavens, that made him so celebrated as advancing Christianity overseas to new continents whose inhabitants were opened to conversion. Was the statuary of the late nineteenth though mid-twentieth century a rehearsal of these claims, or did it only update how they enacted a new relation to the map in loaded and nefarious ways?

Stradanus, Allegorical Invention of America,
in Nova Reperta from Renaissance Quarterly 65:2 (2012)

4. In its quite radical contraction of a transatlantic journey, the woodcut that prefaced the Columban letters, the first written description of the New World encounter, recalls the contraction of time and space to the arrival of the navigator elegantly garbed in the moment of arrival in the New World shores, as if to take possession of them with considerable elegance, as in the Currier and Ives print that was sold widely at the Columbus Exposition of 1892, to be exhibited in American homes, which recduce the voyage to a triumphant gesture of arrival, and planting of the Spanish flag unfurling in the New World, as if below a spotlight onstage to which the dark-skinned anonymous natives approached with something akin to veneration, as Columbus and his men express gratitude to something like the gift of having been granted discovery.  

The commemoration of the Colombian discoveries encouraged scenic images that erased any sense of indigenous suffering, or more explicitly martial relations in later years long before the late nineteenth century, as a poetics of discovery was rehearsed as a pastoral scene enacted entirely among men.

Currier and Ives, 18992--exposition image?

The celebratory tones of both were removed from the problem of refiguring the manner of the progression of authority in the new world, or the If Codalbeto’s statue stares out to the Pacific, as if recognizing a new frontier, the actuality of contact was less processional that Currier and Ives proclaimed in this image that was wildly popular in American household, complete with the unfurling of monarchical flags, or as clear an encounter under blue skies.  If the image of regalia of state was well-established in later years, leading Edwin Austin Abbey to expand the arrival and planting of the Spanish flag before the arrival of flamingos–who seem almost to arrive for the occasion, celebrating the navigator’s arrival in a natural symphony of color on command, in harmony with the Spanish flag as if to illustrate a natural seamlessness of staking sovereign claims in the island of the Bahamas where Columbus arrived, whose flight seems to proclaim his arrival, in a deeply Christian eschatology of “discovery.”

October 12, 1492/

The qudricentennial of 1892 was not only an American celebration by any means, as Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quarto abeunte saeculo declared a religious holiday and commemoration in both Americas, in a seeming act of utter blindness, to commemorate an “auspicious event” to honor the initial papal celebration of the news of discovery as opening lands to conversion and spreading the faith.

But of course the image of the frictionless arrival needed to be crated, and distance to monarchical lands bridged.  The sense of domination over the lands was reduced, in synecdoche, to a triumphal mental dominance over the globe in the the sculpture of the navigator designed and erected for the 1892 centenary in New Haven’s Wooster Square, elevated on a granite pedestal, by the city’s immigrant Italian-American populations, displaying the elegantly robed Marriner pondering the terrestrial expanse he would traverse, as if capturing the very moment of ideation of transatlantic voyage, meditating attentively on a small globe resting in his palm, a compass in the other, idealizing the new relation of man to world voyages of discovery required.

Planned Columbus Monument in Wooster Sqauare with design of Alfons Pelzer, in stAUTES MADE FOR SALE NOT IN BRONZE
1892 Monument to Columbus in Wooster Square, New Haven,CT

5. And so when Berkeley CA first re-recognized Columbus Day in 1992, by naming the second Monday of October Indigenous Peoples Day, in recognition that they lay on Ohlone land, only fourteen years after Malcom Margolin celebrated their way of life. If the abolition of Columbus Day inspired annual exchanges on the telephone with my New York relatives, Berkeley ran against a largely northeastern tradition of public commemoration that had seemed particularly strong in the nation’s south; Columbus held many meanings, if the statuary that elevated Columbus as an exemplar to self-made men, the recent decision this year to abolish Columbus Day in Washington, DC, attests to the redress of lionization as much as the changing optics of commemoration–and a rethinking of what a nation means as a community, and whether we can consider conquest and enslavement to be part of the nation.

While the progression of erecting such monuments radiated out from New York, where the unveiling of the statue constructed for the quadricentennary became a challenge to immigrant communities in nearby cities and, increasingly, in other regions of the Midwest–and not only Columbus, Ohio–

Statues and Monuments to Columbus/Peter van der Krogt

–the dense, almost provincial sense of placing Columbus in the national memory makes his figure perhaps all that easier to dilodge.

Amidst the social media rush of images of statuary defacement, and the desire to desecrate or dishonor the universalism of Columbus as a “discoverer,” one might lose sight of the extreme spatial clustering of monuments to Columbus in the northeast of th United States—van der Krogt’s data is is indeed overly crowded, and would benefit from, if space permitting, from dating each, but suggests the almost provincial or intensely local nature of the monuments that sought to proclaim universality in specific areas.   For one can immediately see the universal claims if the figure represents individuality to densely cluster an area of intense historical immigration of Italian Americans, and the limited scope of the historical celebration of Columbus Day. in the United States.

Commemorating the Four Hundred Anniversary of Columbus’ Discovery of the Americas at UW Madison (1992)

What had been a ceremony and observance of inclusion has been increasingly revealed as one of exclusion, in ways that raise questions of historical memory and belonging. If, as Sarah Vowell noted, the clustering of northeastern statues suggest the desire of the legitimation of Italian immigrants who sought to illustrate their belonging and loudly proclaim their national contribution at a time when their Mediterranean ancestry faced marginalization, the past need for that claim has faded, as international prestige of Columbus eroded. Outside the United States, Columbian statuary is limited to Liguria and Spain’s coast–and have recently been, however, motions to remove the sixty-foot statue of Columbus statue from la Rambla, in Barcelona to reveal its decisive departure from a political past, in an age searching for renewal and inclusion.

The rather limited universalism of ties of the figure of Columbus tor secularism, have grown clear in an age of globalism, and the political distancing from imperialist position America has long held: the fascist past of Spain made the statue, no doubt, an object of attack. In the twenty-first century, the statuary of Columbus has become a form of monumentalism, and of a violent exclusion, rooted in racialist ideology, and almost removed from mapping. Indeed the place of maps in these monuments has become so outdated that the triumphalism of the statues seems all that is left.

From a symbol that was a statement of inclusion, belonging and celebration of successful migration–if one provoking startling contrasts of notions of geographic mobility–in the enacting of the transonic voyage of the caravels on New York’s Fifth Avenue, as floats of the Spanish sovereign flags progress down the paved road, in a cheerily theatrical restating of Italian-American pride that took the declaration of sovereign claims to Hispaniola as a source of pride demanding to be historically re-enacted.

6. The rise of new narratives of migration have eclipsed older ones, as an essentially imperialist relation to cartographic space seen as conquest has replaces a narrative of spatial migration, and new itineraries of migration and immigration have come to the foreground, as the parade of Columbus Day is less of a victory lap than a misplaced celebratory sense of displacement, dissolution, and dispossession, in ways that were never earlier evident.

Indeed, the appeal to the universality of Columbus as evacuated itself with unexpected rapidity. The choice of Columbus as a heroic image of individualism was intentional, and a celebration of nationalism not entirely in explicitly an imperialistic vein–at least, not consciously. Monuments like that in New Haven’s Wooster Square, commissioned for the quadricentennial by local Italian Americans were commissioned in an aspirational way. They showed the navigator in Renaissance garb, proudly contemplating the balanced spherical globe before his eyes, and posed the public question of who is really an immigrant; the northeastern crowding of statues to Columbus suggested monuments to respectability, and an aspiration to universality. But the crowding of those monuments seem increasingly provincial, as the claims for universalism have worn quite thin with time, and the provocation of pain of the figure is hard to deny,–especially in its celebration of the poetics of the seizure of land and dispossession that rendered others stateless, creating the first conditions of statelessness in communities of the New World.

The geopolitics are undeniably disturbing as a claim of identity: in the statue of Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, he grasps the globe to his chest and points, indicating the way westward, has given way to open calls to transfer all memorials to museums. (Might Columbian monuments be kept out of sight, perhaps with statues of Robert E. Lee, in a city of memorials, in a space akin to Budapest’s Szobopark, or Memento Park, where Marx, Engels and Lenin statuary mingle, outside urban space, in a theme park of past public memories boasting the “biggest statues of the Cold War”?)

It would resolve problems of annual defacement.

Monument in Columbus, Ohio/
Kenneth C. Zirkel
Vandalization of Columbus Monument in Bridgeport, CT, Oct., 2017

From a narrative that aspired to stake claims of integration and belonging, Columbus Day celebrations has been revealed as one of displacement and spatial conquest. In part, the narrative of claims to discovery the figure of Columbus celebrated have been displaced by other stories of immigration and identity, and indeed the fate of the stateless, the displaced, and the currency of dispossession of lands to which processes of globalization have called such repeated attention, to make them inseparable from the monolithic man who stands in granite with such authority: one is reminded of the revulsion that Walt Whitman felt to the creation of a granite spire as a monument to George Washington, removed from the principles of democracy, as it creating a monument more fit for a Napoleon or Wellington; the heroism the statuary imbues the figure of the predecessor of the conquistador suggests even more bluntly the political unpalatability of the old monumental claims, and their remove from an engaged democracy of egalitarian aims.

In an age of transformed geographical mobility, the figure of Columbus is less of claiming of identity, than an icon of dispossession and loss of spatial sovereignty. The problems of claiming sovereignty, present in the first period of contact, more clearly reflected the marvel of spatial mobility.

The actual Almirante’s distinctive descriptions of the New World as the “discovery of many islands” worthy of interest to the monarchs–as well as attracting interest for a second voyage, was of interest to a wide audience, when reprinted with the letters announcing the discovery of what he called an “Insula Hyspana.” The rapid translation into multiple languages of the letters suddenly made the Indies spatially concrete, or elevated the demand to do so, even among those who did not possess maps.  

The trick played in the below woodcut worked by a considerable cartographic contraction of the global landscape. The new landscape included in early editions The Letter Columbus wrote about his first voyage, directed to his royal patrons Ferdinand and Isabella, in June 1493, was also particularly effective. The edition printed in Valladolid presented claims to the discovery of New Lands to a broad audience, and began from a landscape that performed a cartographic contraction of the globe–long recognized as round, but now imagined as a place, before Facebook, long before Lorenz’ “butterfly effect,” the gesture of a raised index finger lifted by an enthroned man was imagined to erect drastic transatlantic consequences over a long space by a rather unimaginable contraction enacted by Christian intermediaries.  

Although the absence of a map may be most striking to modern readers, the shrinkage of space in the composite landscape persuasively condensed the miracle of distance into a single frame, as if to capture the problem of spatial remove in its frame.

Ferdinand and Ne World

The emissary-like role of Columbus helped create a landscape that caused the letter to be rapidly reset and reprinted for audiences from 1493-97 in Basel, Antwerp, Paris and elsewhere that set new standards for high-interest news in the network of printed books–far more broadly than the 1474 map Toscanelli sent that inspired the subsequent oceanic voyage, or the single-sheet folio letter printed in Spanish in Barcelona before being quickly reprinted in Latin, and the landscape maps of the “insula hyspana” that was imagined to be filled with unclothed inhabitants gained wide currency in an image of outright European decency:  the exchange of gifts and the image of trade the woodcut immediately provoked imagined the expansion of a European overseas venture even without noting the questions of scale, distance, and measurement that had been surpassed, and led to the commemoration of the commission of a transatlantic voyage after the vicious conquest of Granada and forced conversion or expulsion of Jews.

Commemoration of Columbus' Solicinting aid from Isabella and Ferd.png

The image of Columbus, index finger extended as if gesturing overseas before the two seated monarchs, conjures the powerful poetics of the letter’s first-person narrative, which  linked individual observation of the landscape’s beauty and wealth to its great economic value, emphasizing the possibility of transporting readers by imagination before the land was actually mapped–focussing as it did on the very moment of contact when they set ashore, noticing unclothed women and credulous men bearing gifts.

INsula Hyspana
Diogo Ca

But the language of discovery circulated separately from maps, and was firmly situated in nautical voyages around other continents’ coasts.  The pre-Columban currency of announcements of geographical discoveries is evident in the clearly carved stone pillar, or Padrão, closely emulating ancient epigraphic skills, that Portuguese ship captain Diogo Cão carried to the mouth of the Congo River in 1483, which he placed in present day Cabo do Lobo in Angola, bringing it from Lisbon, where it was carved:  the stone pillar specially carved for placement at identifying markers of the African coast proclaimed the region’s discovery by Portugal above a cross, as if an emblem of global conversion, explaining to all how “in the year 6681 of the World and in that of 1482 since Christ’s birth, the most serene, excellent and potent King João II of Portugal did order this land to be discovered . . .

The careful tabulation of royal edicts of discovery placed less agency on Diogo Cão, whose voyages were later glorified in Pessoa’s Padrão, but deployed the topos of discovery as if it were familiar, but clearly mediated through royal authority.  As a boundary stone, the announcement to all who sailed by and could read it rehearsed claims of royal authority in an unknown land with a sense of monumentality that suggested the first-hand inscription as a rehearsal of royal authority, and a performance for all who wanted to see.

However, Columbus’ widely reprinted letter relayed the announcement of discovery over spatial and cultural distances never before encountered.  The voyager’s performance as an agent and extension of royal authority was of course repeated by Columbus.  But whereas the Padrão was an accepted rehearsal of royal authority on the African coast, the landscape-map was a more persuasive accompaniment for the performance of royal authority in the New World–and a basis for performing acts of sovereignty about previously unknown lands.  Alternate worlds had long been discussed before Columbus described his voyage to Hispaniola and the New World, but never before had the description of another world been so rooted in personal testimony–or so easily able to be translated onto a map on which it could be made legible.  Columbus paid significant attention to the sort of enticing account he would give of the New World or the Indies during the over nine years he had tried to court interest in the voyage to the Indies, but the mediation of Columbus’s voyage posed problems of incorporating his testimony of its marvels and inhabitants, and the relation of the old world to the new–of mapping its proximity and claims to the extension of a personal relation to expanse, as much as of the illustration of its distance.

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

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