That bronze of Garibaldi in New York Village …a long story

That bronze of Garibaldi in New York Village …a long story

The sculptor’s original project was different but the funds did not suffice.
Although highly criticized by the Press the statue has become, for students of New York University, a point of reference for a good luck rite.

New York. Washington Square Park. The bronze statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi.

      On strolling through Washington Square Park, you are bound to encounter a bronze effigy of Giuseppe Garibaldi. It is a statue that has a long, tormented history and also a secret.

      A sign close by informs us of a good-luck practice amongst the N.Y.U. students: since the 1960s, it appears that they have been inaugurating their school year by throwing a penny at the base of the statue. Couples linger under its protection to share tender kisses. Children run around happily, unaware of the general’s presence.

      The bronze sculpture of the Italian liberator was inaugurated in 1888, only six years after his death. The funds for this statue were collected by the Italian newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano among the Italian community, as had been done for other New York monuments dedicated to Italians. Unfortunately, though, that was not the statue they had planned to erect, or at least not the whole of it. Let me explain: according to an 1896 article by the sculptor, Giovanni Turini, the bronze is only a portion of his original model, which consisted of Garibaldi as a central figure, a soldier with bayonet ready for the charge, and a bugler giving the call to arms. The pedestal was to have been a “rough rock affair, the upper portion rising in a spiral form to support the figure of the liberator”. What had happened to radically change this statue? The artist continues: “The question of funds got to be a serious one… there was not enough to complete the central figure, let alone the two side figures and the pedestal”. Without consulting anyone, the members of the committee set to work to make the design fit the fund… with nothing left of the original design but the figure of Garibaldi, which had been cast to harmonize with the side figures it was decided to select a standard-style pedestal of plain granite.

      Well, it seemed ingenious and harmless, but was it? Not really, because something horrible occurred hereafter, as described by the sculptor: “Garibaldi could not be induced to stand straight on the new pedestal. Without much ceremony, Garibaldi’s legs were made to fit by bending them in the bronze foundry. This, of course, ruined the natural pose of the figure”. So it was that Garibaldi “was wounded” once more and this time perhaps irreparably. The press repeatedly slighted the sculpture. The New York Times cited it, along with the statue of Columbus Circle, as one of the “unsightly New York statues”. They also called it a “bronze contortionist” and “the most atrocious” of all New York statues, stating that the bronze is “enough to make the park sparrows quake with fear and to make the babies in their carriages cross-eyed in their endeavors to avoid seeing it”.

      Giovanni Turini, the creator of the criticized artwork, was a respected sculptor who had studied in Milan and Rome. He had fought in Garibaldi’s army against Austria in 1866. He wanted his work to be remembered for the right reasons, so he offered to replace the statue with another one at his expense. The old bronze figure of the Italian liberator would have to be taken down and put up, in an amputated form, near the Staten Island spot where Garibaldi molded candles with Antonio Meucci. The legs would be cut off and a new pedestal provided.

      Unfortunately, his aim was never achieved because he died suddenly in 1899. This awkward 8-foot, 10-inch statue, with its 14 ½ foot pedestal, still stands in Washington Square. It never traveled to Staten Island, although it did move 15 feet to the east in 1970, to allow for the construction of a promenade. It was then that a glass urn containing documents from the 1880s was discovered under the original base of the statue. In 2000, Garibaldi’s scabbard, which had been previously vandalized and kept in storage for a long time, was at long last repositioned and reunited with his sword.

      If you do visit the Village, please stop by and visit Garibaldi, because, as its sculptor affirmed, “while I do not say the Garibaldi statue is perfection, still I will say it is far superior to many of the statues in New York made by well-known sculptors”.

Photos by Christina Figueroa