Tag Archives: Columbus

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Reupublican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create a “National Garden of American Heroes” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents on July 3, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments–in a manner that was more divisive, if more eloquently divisive than in the past.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile.

For a President known to confess it was his “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”–and notorious for blurring personal interests with pubic office–the dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum fit four visages, hoping the friable rock of South Dakota accommodate his desire. Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s trusty wing man, as he was found the granite would not accommodate it–

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Nome presented Trump a version, four feet tall, accommodating Trump in ways Rushmore could not, for display the Oval Office, as a substitute for the man whose megalomania made it difficult to separate his desire from actual constraints. The crowd that he convened on July 4, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor decreed, not only fit his sense of politics as, at root, another medium to promote personal interests. (Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, set the stage for the terrifying escalations of reported new cases of COVID-19 across North Dakota, and spiking of weekly averages, although the state governor had promoted social distancing since March–often tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.)

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

When Gov. Noem facilitated the gravitational pull of monumentality in allowing fireworks for the July 4 address to the nation, she used the lack of guardrails of social distancing to promote a vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump first, front, and center, for a man unable to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good: was she complicit in the promotion of seeing monumentality as the extension of political office by other means: Gov. Nome presented Trump with the replica placing his face among the Presidents on Mt Rushmore when he finished his speech?

Trump pronounced a need to honor past heroes that had itself desecrated a once sacred space for native ancestors. The visages of Mt. Rushmore intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at replace the ancestors of native Americans with a spectacle of the theater of their extinction; the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as emerging from the sacred rock, seemed historically suitable as a site for Trump to proclaim a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park. The patronizing nature of promoting a garden of monuments that honors civil rights leaders, abolitionists, past presidents, astronauts and the heroes of the frontier set a strikingly segregated tenor whose racist undertones suggest a vision of the nation defined by racial divides, reflecting the racial identities of the Presidents it selects to commemorate, rather than that of the nation.

It channels who Borghlum’s project to include Sacegaewea beside Buffalo Bill gave way to a pantheon of white men. Boghlum had first hoped to create a boosterish tourist attraction to the frontier, promoting cowboys and glamorize a western experience, that Trump channeled in promoting the value of the backdrop to celebrate achievements of new “giants in full flesh and blood” of “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten,” in a promoting a federal statuary garden that would canonize “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks–a reality park reflecting the partisan turn of our political landscape. The project ran against the grain of an apparently non-partisan speech. In place of Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clarke, Trump embraced an array of Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, beside Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas–African Americans beside southern separatist Henry Clay, in an indignity echoing including Red Cloud and Sacagawea on Mt. Rushmore.

The monumental timelessness of this vision of America in a federal garden of heroes sanctioned a “American heroes” to address the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson as symbols of enslavement, in hopes to question their continued prominence in our national memories, after toppling statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, dear to white supremacists, and covering Columbus with paint. The deep affection for monuments and indeed the affinity for asserting his hereditary aspirations of politics led Trump to write a doting fan letter to Vladimir Putin, ten years before Trump’s inauguration, after Putin was named Time‘s “Person of the Year,” to recognize the stability he brought Russia after the zig-zags of the Yeltsin years, at an uncertain moment of post-Soviet history: the citation described the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” glossing over Putin’s crushing of the Chechen Rebellion and serial assassinations of political opponents.

Trump pretended to introduce himself to a figure of world politics, although his longstanding involvement with post-Soviet figures led to his first aspirations to erect an unbuilt colossus that one might imagine lay at the root of his theme park for a Garden of Heroes: for Trump hoped to install on the banks of his Hudson River properties of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus, then rightly increasingly identified with the colonization of the Americas and start of the slave trade or “slave triangle” of the seventeenth century.

Trump sought to bring the monument from Russia to Hudson River properties he was developing, before the deal went south. But the monument of Columbus led Trump to revel in a telling moment of aspirations to monument-building and totems that did double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. Beyond the temporal nature of Trump Tower, the New York realtor hoped to attract global interest to New York City by bringing the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere–and the largest of Christopher Columbus–to tower above the island on the Hudson’s banks, a towering bronze colossus greater in size, whose sails, mast, and pedestal condense the history of the discovery of the Amerias as a triumph far greater in size than the declaration of American principles the Statue of Liberty given by France to the United States in 1884 to celebrate Republican ideals. Rather than Liberty stepping on chains beneath her feet, in an echoing the abolition of enslavement in America as an expression of the deepest principles of equality, the royalist Neo-imperial statue was a monument eliding whiteness, Christianity, and sovereign dominion.

His call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.

Memento Park, Budapest HU

Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.

If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.

The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments

Mapping New Worlds on Eggshells: Adventures in the Artifice of Renaissance Map-Making

We have learned to expect to pause as Google Maps draw boundary lines, extending to new tiles which soon take forms bounded by in clearcut lines across uniformly flatly colored quite static blocks, as data streams materialize forms from blurs that delineate highways, city blocks, state boundaries, and mountains in gray, green, tan, or light blue–a poor surrogate reality that strongly contrasts to the vivid ways we experience space in early modern maps and globes.

 The convincing nature of the watery globe was far more pronounced in an era when the ocean provided the only medium for global travel, to be sure, and the immediacy of rendering oceanic space far more of a concern of global mapmaking.  (Indeed, for a more extensive consideration of map authorship and the concerns of its representation of oceans, see my post on its mapping of ocean waters.)  The  medium of the woodcut presented unique challenges of mapping the circumambient oceans, not defined by clear routes or itineraries, but as a unique medium of travel. The curving lines that lapped the shores of inhabited lands in an early map of northern Europe, reprinted as the endpaper to a universal history, the Liber chronicarum, ad derived from a map of northern Europe before the “discovery” of the New World, that set places and regions in northern Europe apart from a wavy sea–

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The northern seas are denoted by individual lines echo a global bifold map the same 1491 Liber Chronicarum, just predating the discovery of the New World, a detail of a crudely engraved world map in which one sees swirling waters that encircle the island of England and indeed all of Europe–and make one think of the difficulties of reconciling and bridging different registers of mapping land and sea for readers in the late fifteenth century.

Ocean curves.png

Unlike the on-screen conjuring of a demarcated space, the design of early modern maps invites detailed examination.   This undated miniature globe, engraved with considerable care on a two conjoined halves of two ostrich eggs, the size of a grapefruit, invites viewers to sail on the seas that swirl around a record global totality as something like a surrogate for actual world travel, its carefully worked details leave a clear trace of the hand, if not betraying the new phenomenological properties of the surface of engraved maps.

Although maps are often though of as paper constructions, the new properties of synthesizing land and sea in Ptolemaic maps are quite similarly approached in the very unique surface of this strikingly tactile engraved map–joining rounded halves of ostrich eggs–

Ostrich Egg Globe (1504)

–invites a distinctive attention to similar circumambient waters, which flow about the continents on whose surface we can see clearly engraved and legible toponyms: the seas are far more murky, as if they land had been the only legible area that was raised from their depth. The raised nature of the terrestrial surfaces on this globe–where the oceans are literally scratched away form its surface, as are the chains of mountains, coastlines, capital letters indicating terrestrial regions, and limited toponymy, suggest a marvel as much as a terrestrial map, and remind us of the interlinked discourses of maps and marvels, and the collection of curios as vehicles and mediums of geographic knowledge.

The engraving of a newly imagined expanse reported in marine charts created quite distinct operations of visualizing a newly materialized space–it displays one of the first maps to be printed that showed the New World’s form and recalls  the earliest printed images of North America.  The islands of “Spagnola [Hispaniola]” and “Isabella”, barely balanced with the huge area that it assigns to the Land of Brazil, or “Terra Sanctae Crucis” in something like an antipodal balancing act of continents around the equator, opposed in counterpoint to the Eurasian expanse. The coverage of the watery surface in the globe–which is in fact mostly covered by water–is even more pronounced in this apparently unique globe, composed of joined shell-like structures, treating the durable surface of the shell to create a luxury globe, which cannot, in its own way, but recall the famous apocryphal story of Christopher Columbus displaying the invention that was widely associated with cartographic modes for displaying the New World in flat maps, by challenging “lay a wager with any of you, that you will not make this egg stand up as I will, naked and without anything at all,” related in Girolamo Benzoni’s 1565 Historia del Mondo Nuovo [History of the New World], to compare the achievement of his discovery of the New World from “great men clever in cosmography and literature,” by the act of forcing the egg to stand on a table by allowing one end to be placed on a table as a support.

The eggshell map has no broken ends, but in its newly discovered form indeed stands on a table, allowing the observer to view to ponder the entire spherical surface of a globe, engraved on two ends of an ostrich eggshell, perhaps originating from a princely zoo, that lent itself to offer an exotic surface of cartographic demonstration to its privileged owners, quite unlike the manuscript or printed maps that are associated with early maps o the New World in the materiality with which it suggests the long voyage across oceanic expanse to reach a geographically enlarged (and now clearly out of scale) image of the New World islands, north of a creative rendition of a newly discovered South American coast, identified as the Terra Sancta Crucis, as if to retain the Christian eschatology even in the revelation of a world whose form seems foreign to whatever geographic knowledge is revealed in the Bible: the new islands of Isabel and Spagnuola are themselves court creations of Columbus’ royal patrons, and inscribe claims to sovereignty to these new lands, but the invention of the ostrich globe, recently discovered over four centuries after the discovery of the Americas,

Did the discovery of this inventive form of globe-making, unprecedented in the literature, link inventively, artifice, mapping and eggs that afforded a basis for Benzoni’s apocryphal claim?

New World in Ostrich_egg_globe

If the opposition of these continents in the ostrich-egg globe betrays significant cosmographical learning, the map itself reflects curiosity in the first mapped images of the New World, and a particular care to the definition of the coastlines of the newly found land masses we now call continents.  The exquisite care and delicate relief of the globe’s surface in this delicate construction made from two ostrich eggs has been recently dated to 1504 by its shell-density, based on a CT-Scan.  If the date can be ever established conclusively, the globe is one of the first images of the New World to have migrated from Portuguese marine charts to a particularly skilled level of craftsmanship, predating some of the known bronze globes of terrestrial expanse it resembles;  the image of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Land of Brazil could be scanned in analogously crisp detail to known early sixteenth-century globes and printed map-gores.  Indeed, the range of graphic tools engravers developed for embellishing the surface of maps set something of a standard for scanning land and sea, as their exquisite tones of shading increased the persuasive range of graphic forms that the anonymous artisan who made this eggshell map exploited to delineate the inhabited world.

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Filed under early modern globes, histories of discoveries, Mapping the New World, New World, Renaissance Discoveries