“But for Columbus there would be no America”

An imposing statue of the great navigator from Genova dominates the beautiful square in Manhattan named after him: Columbus Circle. It was sculpted by Gaetano Russo and strongly solicited by Carlo Basotti, editor of Il Progresso Italoamericano.
Many Italian artists among the talented creators of famous statues in the great American cities.
And the statues of Columbus are countless

by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

New York. The statue of Columbus
at Columbus Circle. In the background
the mirror walls of the Time Warner
Center skyscraper.
Photo by Christina Figueroa

      Strolling out of Central Park at about 59th Street, on the West Side, you may be startled by the bustling traffic around Columbus Circle, a large plaza which gracefully completes the southern edge of the Park. In the middle of the Circle, you can admire a marble statue of the mighty explorer, boldly looking down upon Manhattan while standing on an imposing 70-foot granite pillar, decorated with bronze reliefs of the famous ships that sanctioned his name in history: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. It was sculpted by the Italian artist Gaetano Russo and erected in that location in 1892 as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas. 

      On the base, on the opposite side of the granite pedestal, two bronze panels represent in bas relief two pivotal moments of the legendary voyage which changed the world. Above them, on the southern face of the base, a winged figure, “with tangled curls of hair that hang over the face and almost conceal it”, leans over a globe. He is not an angel though, but “the Genius of Geography”, who is showing his amazement at the newly introduced theory that the Earth is round. The inscription states, in reference to Christopher Columbus, “to the world he gave a world.”

      At the unveiling ceremony of the statue, Carlo Barsotti, editor of the Italian-language newspaper Il Progresso Italoamericano, declared that the Columbus Memorial “was offered by the Italian residents in the United States as a testimonial of their love for the institutions of this Republic and a tribute to their great country-man.” In 1989, then NYC Mayor Edward Koch proclaimed that this monument was “among our city’s most important cultural artifacts.”

      In today’s spectacular, redesigned Columbus Circle, which won the 2006 American Society of Landscape Architects General Design Award of Honor, there is also another interesting sculptural effort: the USS Maine Memorial. Standing at the northeast end of the Circle, by the Merchant’s Gate, this monument was sculpted by Attilio Piccirilli, who also carved Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial statue and New York Public Library’s lions.

      Attilio Piccirilli is directly linked to two other NYC Columbus statues worth visiting. One of them, which can be found in the Belmont section of the Bronx, at D’Auria-Murphy Triangle, was sculpted by him in 1925 and is a magnificent marble-of-Carrara bust. The other, which is perched on the six-story ledge of the Old Custom House at Manhattan’s Bowling Green, is an oversized marble figure. It was designed by the well-known American artist August Lukeman and carved upon his request by the talented Piccirilli brothers, led by Attilio.

      Are you wondering if these are the only statues of Columbus in the Big Apple? They are not: there are three more statues of the explorer in the city. Only George Washington, who lived in New York City while he was President, is commemorated here in more sculptures. Even though New York State is very generous with its Columbus monuments, having 24 such testimonials, New Jersey has 32 Columbus statues. You would think Columbus discovered that state!

      To continue on our search for Columbus, in Central Park one can find a replica of a bronze statue by Jeronimo Suñol, in an area fittingly named The Literary Walk. The original is in Plaza de Colon, in Madrid, while this copy, donated by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, was placed in Central Park in 1894.

      The oldest one, dating from 1869, was created by Emma Stebbins, an American sculptor, in Rome. This particular statue, just as the celebrated traveler it depicts, has wandered extensively. It was originally located in Central Park, not too far from where the Columbus bronze by Suñol is situated; the decay caused by the open air prompted the city administrators to move it, after only a few years, to the sheltered McGown’s Tavern Pass. Around 1913, it was transported to a maintenance yard of the Park, unseen by the general public, with the intention of finding it a permanent location. In 1934, it was repositioned to Little Italy, where it stood until 1971, when the renaming of the southern part of Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn to Columbus Park called for its presence. This colossal marble sculpture stands on a limestone pedestal composed of a fluted column and an octagonal base.

      The newest statue, sculpted by Angelo Racioppi in 1941, is in Queens, just off the Triborough Bridge. The bronze, which stands in the middle of the appropriately named Columbus Square, is complemented by a plaque with an inscription that says it all: “BUT FOR COLUMBUS THERE WOULD BE NO AMERICA”.