That statue of Dante

That statue of Dante in the heart of Manhattan

It stands in Dante Park (or Dante Square), a short walk from the Lincoln Center. And in New York there are many monuments dedicated to great Italians. Credit is due to Carlo Barsotti, the illustrious founder of Il Progresso Italoamericano, which, between the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, succeeded in collecting funds to execute the works and have them erected in strategic points in the city.

New York. Dante Park.

      Walking around New York City, you cannot help but notice that there is a range of monuments of famous Italian people that adorn this wonderful metropolis. The most important ones were placed as a result of an intense and continuous campaign by Chevalier Carlo Barsotti, the editor of Il Progresso Italo Americano (1879-1989): the oldest, most reputable USA newspaper written in Italian. This prominent Italian emigrated to America in 1872 from Santa Maria, a small village near Lucca, in Tuscany. He founded the newspaper and, within a short time, made it the city’s largest-circulation foreign-language newspaper, with 125,000 copies. He also made a name for himself when he established the Italo American Bank (Banca Italoamericana), which, regrettably, was liquidated after his death. 

      Above all, Barsotti is known for his efforts to place statues of relevant Italian figures in vital locations throughout the city. He achieved this by initiating a collection of funds for that purpose through his own paper, appealing mainly to Italian immigrants and lovers of Italian culture. Once the funding reached a sufficient amount for the ordering of a statue, he would exert political pressure on the City to erect the statue in a choice location.

      His efforts paid off: Washington Square, in the middle of the fashionable Village, exhibits the triumph of his strategy with the wonderful Giuseppe Garibaldi’s statue (1888); the statue of Columbus (1892) watches over the bustling traffic of Columbus Circle and in the Upper West Side there is the fascinating Verdi Square, with the statue of the great composer and some of the characters from his immortal operas (1906). He was so successful that more than 200,000 Italians were present at the unveiling of the bronze dedicated to Giovanni da Verrazzano (1909) in the beautiful setting of Battery Park, at the mouth of the Hudson.

      There is one statue, though, that gets overshadowed because of its location in a small park near Lincoln Center. The imposing bronze of Dante Alighieri hides amongst foliage and tree branches, right across the street from the renowned musical Center. Dante Park (or Dante Square – the place is defined in both ways) is a pleasant surprise for the few lucky ones who become aware of its presence. Nine and a half feet tall (265 cm), this bronze stands on a towering granite pedestal, making it impossible for the inattentive or hurried passerby to notice its presence.

      The statue, which was described by the Italian poet and scholar Giovanni Pascoli as the best figure of Dante ever sculpted, was founded by Roman Bronze Works in New York City and placed in the park dedicated to the great Florentine in 1921. A copy of the statue, made with the same casting, is featured at Meridian Hill Park in Washington D.C.

      An intriguing fact about the statue is that Commendator Barsotti, who was inclined to have grandiose ideas – such as the personal funding of a tunnel between Siena and Lucca in Italy at the cost of $250,000 in 1922 –, originally intended to place a different version of the statue in Times Square. The Times Square statue was denied and the location chosen became Colonial Park. After collecting funds, he ordered the statue from the same sculptor of the one that beautifies today’s Dante Park, the Sicilian Ettore Ximenes. The statue arrived in New York in 1912, but was rejected by the Art Commission solely on architectural demerits; that is, it was too large a monument. The statue, according to The New York Times, consisted of “a pedestal and a shaft surmounted by a star. With the back to the shaft stands the figure of Dante. Above the poet’s head there stands out in bold relief an eagle holding a wreath of laurel”. The total height of the huge monument was of 50 feet (29 feet, according to a differently dated article of the same daily) and the Commission had shown common sense in rejecting such a work, objecting principally to the necessary “assembling of 230 distinct pieces”. The objection was also to the pedestal created by the Italian sculptor. It was an unusual choice since normally “the sculptor limits his work to the figure alone, leaving the choice of pedestal and shaft to those having the placing of the statue in charge”.

      Barsotti’s eagerness to eclipse any other monument in New York with that of Dante backfired and the statue remained at the Hamburg-American line pier in Hoboken, soon to be forgotten and unspoken for. A subsequent collection of funds brought, nine years later, the second Dante statue to Lincoln Center’s location, and the myth was subsequently born that not enough funds were collected to purchase a larger statue. It was a lot easier to say than the truth: this was one of Barsotti’s dreams that had been too large for New York to embrace.

Photo courtesy of Christina Figueroa