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Volume XXVII, Number 5716
Wednesday, Oct 03, 2012

Voyaging To The "Other" Columbuses

Columbus Square, Astoria
Columbus Square, Astoria
Photo by John Zimny

As Columbus Day approaches we think it opportune to honor the four “other” Columbus sculptures in our parks that might feel neglected--given all the attention for their counterpart at Columbus Circle, currently enclosed by artist Tatzu Nishi’s contemporary living room (see Daily Plant of September 20). Their stories are nearly as circuitous as the explorer’s voyage to the New World.

The oldest effigy is Emma Stebbins’ statue of Christopher Columbus, which since 1971 has stood in front of Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court Building. The sculpture, presented on February 20, 1869 by merchant and art patron Marshall O. Roberts to the board of Central Park, was said to represent the navigator “standing upon the deck of a ship alone…before the West Continent burst into view,” ship’s tiller in hand, as his “mutinous crew have all deserted him.”

Stebbins (1815-1882) was one of a group of women American expatriate sculptors living in Rome mid-19th century whom author Henry James dubbed “the white marmorean flock” in his fictionalized account The Marble Faun. The sister of Park Board President Henry Stebbins, she is best known for creating the bronze statue of the Angel of the Waters which serves as the central image of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain.

Stebbins’ Columbus appears to have been carved in the early 1860s, and stood for several years indoors at the McGowns Pass Tavern, a roadside house of hospitality located in Central Park’s northern precinct along the route of the Albany Post Road. When the sculpture was given to the Park Board it was shown in a protective “glass house” at the National Academy of Design.

Never installed outdoors, it was “discovered” in 1934 in a packing crate at the 97th Street maintenance yard in Central Park. Parks’ Chief Consulting Architect Aymar Embury II (1880-1966) designed a new stylized limestone pedestal consisting of a fluted column on an octagonal base, and the statue was put that year in Columbus Park in Chinatown. In 1971, at the urging of John La Corte, founder of the Italian Historical Society of America (IHSA), the sculpture was again moved to its current location following the renaming for Columbus of the southern part of Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn. In 2006 it was restored by the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program with support from the IHSA.

Next in order of age is Jeronimo Sunol’s bronze statue of the navigator that since 1894 has stood curiously at the south end of Literary Walk in Central Park. The sculptor and imagery remind us of Columbus’ Spanish allegiance in addition to his Italian heritage. Commissioned by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society following the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ seminal voyage in 1492, Sunol fashioned a portrait that has religious and imperialist overtones. The explorer holds in his right hand the Spanish flag with a cross on top, as he turns his face skyward in reverence. At his side is a globe mounted to a cable-entwined captstan. The bronze is similar to Sunol’s Columbus installed in 1885 at the Plaza de Colon in Madrid. The statue’s elaborately carved pedestal was designed by the noted architect Napoleon Le Brun.

A massive crowd of spectators, participants and dignitaries, including the vice president, mayor and Italian and Spanish foreign ministers witnessed the dedication on May 12, 1894 at which keynote speaker Chauncey M. Depew commented, “New York can add nothing to the glory of Columbus, but she may enforce the lesson of his life and discovery.” In 1993 the sculpture was conserved by the Central Park Conservancy.

In a small Bronx park, D’Auria Murphy Park, not far from the culinary delights of Arthur Avenue, a marble bust of Columbus forms the park’s centerpiece. It was carved by Atillio Piccirilli in 1925, and originally stood in the schoolyard of PS 45 at Bathgate Avenue and East 189th Street, before being moved to the park during a 1992 renovation.

Piccirilli was one of a six Italian brothers--master stone carvers who established a famed studio in 1893 in the Bronx. Piccirilli was directly responsible for carving many of our greatest commemorative monuments, including the two sculptures of Washington on the Washington Square Arch, the statuary on the Maine Monument in Columbus Circle, and Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln Memorial portrait in Washington, D.C.

In 2007, the sculpture was cleaned and its fragile marble consolidated by the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, in a restoration supported by the Columbus Citizens Foundation at whose East 69th Street headquarters a twin sculpture by Piccirilli stands.

The last Columbus installed in a New York City park was in Astoria’s Columbus Square. The bronze statue depicts a youthful, muscular and heroic Columbus at the helm of a ship, and is set on an angular cast stone base suggestive of a boat prow. Dedicated on October 12, 1941, it was sculpted by Angelo Racioppi, and donated by the New York City WPA (Works Progress Administration) Art Project. At the time the sculpture provoked a public feud between Queens Borough President George Harvey and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, as to the relative merits of its imagery (Harvey supported it, Moses did not). To this day the park and monument remain the focal point of the local Columbus Day parade and attendant festivities.

These and other commemorative artworks throughout the city are part of a parks collection that honors our social and cultural history. To learn more please visit: http://www.nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities

Submitted by Jonathan Kuhn, Director, Art & Antiquities

QUOTATION OF THE DAY

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Aldous Huxley
(1894 – 1963)
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