We long placed Columbus’ transatlantic voyages in a “discourse of discovery”, if we now almost ritually question that link, as we debate the valor and commemoration of the Genoese navigator. Columbus became a lens, and even a name, to refract as much as come to terms with contentious legacies of colonialism and colonization, legacies rooted in deep problems of the recognition of the other–and the inhabitants of other lands.
We can imagine the difficulty of processing the extent of the Atlantic Ocean in earlier times, but the very idea of “discovery”–“a dude discovered America? c’mon, like it didn’t already exist??!!?“–poses questions of privilege and race, in ways we are challenged to come to terms–or even perhaps fully admit, of naming, mapping, and sovereignty, questions that are central to the debate about public statuary of Columbus–and the commemoration of Columbus Day, but already were addressed in the figuration of first contact with the New World.
The problem of viewing the New World from afar was one that maps provided tools to address, but abilities of reading space on a map–let alone reading the networks of space that we readily digest from airplane route maps or Google Maps–were so foreign to being internalized that we must look beyond questions of cartographic literacy or the power of maps. The ability to frame–and indeed unite–the Atlantic in what might be called the “first” spherical age of global mapping, although the globes only circulated among quite elite audiences, was based on a new epistemology of proximity, as the frame of the map–of a scale and expanse that was previously communicated only in the nautical map, a fairly expert sort of document drafted on sheepskin or vellum, and rarely exhibited to large audiences, or able to be read by then–suddenly migrated to a new audience of readers and a new reading public who rarely read maps or used maps as tools to process terrestrial (or territorial) expanse, but credibly stake sovereign claims to possession.
We might do well to ask, in looking at them, what sort of work is done by images like maps, and the claims to sovereignty encoded in the islands that bore the names of sovereign but floated disembodied in a global sea in the Hunt-Lenox Globe–a small globe whose careful worksmanship suggested the power of contemplating the newly “discovered” lands.
Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1510/courtesy New York Public Library
For the mapping of the New World posed the almost existential questions of situating those individual mariners who sailed the highly maneuverable crafts of caravels across the Atlantic ocean, even before the “naming” of America.
All of which should force more attention to the informational value of maps as transitional records, as much as the contents that they bear. Consuming, digesting, and materializing trans-Atlantic expanse was not only deeply challenging; it encouraged or taught abilities to mediate royal authority across vast oceanic waters, reframing relations of sovereign to land in ways that frontispiece to the first editions of his Letter rehearsed and sought to recapitulate by its iconography of a monarch observing from his throne indigenous peoples overseas where the three caravels arrived.
The tension between a throned man in the lower left hand of the frame–the Spanish monarch Ferdinand–and the naked natives in thatched grooves is linked by the intermediaries of the four sailors in one of three caravels at the shore of these islands with palms. If the woodcut suggests a division between its left and right registers, they overlap in a vision of a domesticated nature, at the base of the woodcut, extending at the foot of the enthroned monarch who dispatched the caravels, and the exoticized nature of the New World, far removed but imagined as if continuous with it, in a pictorial rendition of the continuity of the mapped globe. The most striking apsect of the frontispiece to Columbus’ letters remains the bridging of the ocean by a gesture, a representation of transatlantic communication, as if in the royal gesture could bridge the seas.
If the simple perspective bridged an oceanic remove, it did so by inventing the notion of transatlantic sovereignty, across borders, in the very first image that introduced Columbus’ letters from the marvels of the New World and its inhabitants.
As the set of letters bridge the New World and the Old, extending across the globe, in what we must take as a first image of globalism, they prepare the notion of the legibility of the map, able to bridge huge global distances, and the virtual continuity it frames between the Atlantic as a navigable space and a unified sovereign domain: the image of sovereignty that the frontispiece seems to celebrate, and declare, present the medium of letters as a basis to bridge space, and to perform a geographic transit across a network of sovereign rule, enacting the very claims of sovereignty that the naming of the islands perpetuates, and that the broad objections to the discourse of discovery, and the “discovery” of the Americas, presents. Indeed, the affective relation to the foreign areas prefigures the structuralist paradigms of anthropologists, between the robed monarch and nude natives, the enunciative action of the monarch, whose raised hand suggests declamatory intent, and the crowded field of long-haired indigenous bodies–are they dancing? crowding among one another in fear?–in the upper left, faced by the hatted men who approach the as yet unnamed island. The three caravels that arrive had been designed to maneuver ocean waters adroitly. The image of skillful maneuvering and undisciplined crowding, encoded into the woodcut, prepare a set of structural oppositions even before we read the letters themselves.
The prefatory woodcut must be looked at after removing the ghosts of Columbus’ legacy as a navigator, so often and ahistorically elevated in far more recent iconography, and placing him in a network that was more accessible to the readers of early books. The legacies of the navigator were magnified in the many statues of Columbus across the built landscape in a craze of commemoration and of memorialization after the U.S. Civl War, that also intersected with the four hundredth anniversary of his first voyage across the Atlantic. Indeed, the onslaught of social media images of slinging red paint on statues of Columbus each Columbus Day, spreading across the United States in ways almost unthinkable a decade or two ago, has revealed a deep rethinking of the relative power of the claims of triumphalism in the statuary of Christopher Columbus, and the ability to idealize the celebration of claims of discovery, without recognizing dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and death that made indigenous people among the first stateless people in the early globalized world.
The images of a now-annual dousing of the figure of Columbus with red paint–figuring the blood of inhabitants–is far removed historically from the moment of contact, but a response to the very perspective that the image of contact offered on how indigenous inhabitants were directly sent a message of European sovereignty.
The building of monuments across states was not only an attempt to find national collective meaning, but a mending wounds of civil war. And the pronounced fetishization of the map as a logic of manifest destiny mirrored may have helped justify the geographic expansions westward by purifying its inhumanity in a discourse of discovery and invention as native lands were confiscated and folded into the nation, happening in the culmination of violent claims of expanding claims to sovereignty into western lands. Columbus offered an apparently safer, purer ideal of conquest, as the Columban encounter was imagined as if with less spilt blood.
Processing of the New World’s place on the map still provides a worthy site of reflection, however, and perhaps especially in a globalized world, especially by spilling blood in the New World, or revealing the spillage of blood that was concealed in narratives of discovery and indeed the Colombian myth, as sought to be shown by protestors in Providence RI this Indigenous Peoples Day. The fiction of presenting Columbus as a figure of discovery and taking possession of removed geographic lands is impossible to dissociate from genocide, and perhaps all the more difficult to reconcile in the very lands that were seized from indigenous inhabitants–even if Columbus himself never set foot there.
October 13, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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?
In its 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.Continue reading