This essay is adapted from Chapter 35 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book. Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music, even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app).
- Sculptor: Gaetano Russo.
- Dedicated: 1892.
- Medium and size: Overall 77 feet. Marble statue of Columbus (13 feet), marble Genius on the south side (9 feet), bronze eagle on the north side (6 feet), bronze reliefs on the south and north sides (each 2 x 6 feet).
- Location: Columbus Circle, intersection of Eighth Avenue, Central Park South and 59th Street; great view from the third or fourth floor of the Time Warner Building. Subway: A, B, C, D, 1 to 59th Street – Columbus Circle.
“Columbus,” by Joaquin Miller (before 1913)
Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now must we pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak; what shall I say?”
“Why say: `Sail on! sail on! and on!'”
“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say at break of day,
‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”
They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say”—
He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”
They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth to-night;
He curls his lips, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite:
Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word;
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
A light! a light! a light! a light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”
Well, if you you were wondering whether I’m for or against Columbus, now you know, don’t you?
About the sculpture
Like the Maine Monument (Chapter 34 in Outdoor Monuments), this is a complex ensemble. Let’s see if we can work out its message. On the south side (the principal view), we first see a nine-foot-tall winged boy leaning over a globe. Before his features eroded he gazed down at the Americas with a smile of delight, proclaiming that the discovery of the Americas was a marvelous accomplishment. Since he is the first figure the viewer sees closely, the boy sets an upbeat mood for the whole Monument.
He has been called the “Genius of Columbus” and the “Genius of Geography.” (“Genius” in this case is a guardian deity, not a person of high intellect.) I prefer to think of him as the “Genius of Discovery,” a reminder that Columbus’s voyage was the impetus for hundreds of later voyages of exploration.
Aside from the Genius, two six-foot-wide bronze reliefs form the Monument’s most striking street-level features. On the north side, below an eagle gripping the shields of Genoa (Columbus’s birthplace) and the United States, the relief shows Columbus’s fleet anchored in the Caribbean. As his men crowd along the rails, a longboat ferries Columbus to shore.
They say Columbus knelt and wept for joy when he landed, but in the relief on the south side (below the Genius) he stands triumphantly, shoulders back, chin raised, gazing upward. The only kneeling figure is a youth who kisses Columbus’s hand, gratefully saluting the man who brought the ships to safe harbor. Another companion respectfully touches Columbus’s sleeve, as others raise the flag and haul a longboat ashore. One man anxiously draws Columbus’s attention to the Indians half-hidden in the trees at the right. In the midst of this crowd Columbus dominates, and everyone acknowledges his achievement and authority.
Now step back to look above the Genius and the reliefs. The pillar supporting Columbus’s statue displays five anchors, recalling a section of the coat of arms awarded to Columbus after his first voyage. Balancing the anchors are three pairs of rostra, the beak-like prows of ancient ships, designed to ram enemy vessels. The Roman emperor Augustus mounted the prows of his enemies’ ships on a column after the decisive Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.; ever since, they have symbolized victory at sea. Here they represent Columbus’s triumph in finding land, as well as the three ships he took on his first voyage.
Atop the column, sixty feet above the street, the colossal figure of Columbus stands proudly upright, chin level, gazing far into the distance to his left. The left arm, set akimbo, suggests he has energy to spare: imagine the difference if his hands dangled limply, or were folded placidly in front of him. He twists to reach his right hand to the tiller behind him, so that he can steer without turning his eyes from the distant horizon. The twist gives the figure a sense of lively movement. (Compare America and Lafayette, Outdoor Monuments Chapters 4 and 14.)
All the elements of the Columbus Monument unite to present Columbus as the energetic, courageous and focused explorer who deserves full credit for the discovery of the New World. The monument’s inscription, in Italian and English, makes that explicit: “To Christopher Columbus, the Italians resident in America. Scoffed at before, during the voyage menaced, after it chained, as generous as oppressed, to the world he gave a world.”
About the subject
Columbus (ca. 1451-1506) was not the first man to believe the world was round. The Greeks knew it. Many Renaissance scholars knew it. Sailors knew it, from watching ships disappear hull-first over the horizon.
Nor was Columbus the first to dream of reaching Asia by sea. For much of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese had been inching their way down the west coast of Africa. By 1487, when Columbus was still seeking funding for his voyage, Bartolomeo Diaz had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India.
Columbus was not even the first European to reach America. The Vikings had landed there centuries earlier, and Europeans had been frequenting Nova Scotia’s rich fishing grounds for years.
Columbus’s unique and glorious achievement is that he conceived the idea of sailing west in order to reach the Far East, that he had the courage and perseverance to organize and carry out such a voyage, and that at the end of it he discovered the Americas. On his four voyages he established the transatlantic routes that continued in use until steam replaced sail in the nineteenth century. These efficient, predictable sea routes made European settlement in the Americas feasible. To see how the Europeans’ map of the world changed from 1467 to 1570 – not quite a hundred years after Columbus – check out this supplementary page to the Monuments of Manhattan videoguide.
If your knee-jerk reaction to Columbus’s voyage is that the Indians should have been left alone in the Americas: imagine your situation today, if no European had discovered the Americas and all of us still lived under the dictatorial powers of kings and emperors. More on that in my post “Politics and Portrait Sculptures.”
- The Columbus Monument was the gift of Italian-Americans through a public subscription organized by Carlo Barsotti, editor of Il Progresso Italo-Americano, the leading Italian-American newspaper in the early twentieth century in New York.
- Next up: Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Chapter 36, on the Columbus in Central Park, including comments on the Columbian Exhibition of 1893.
- For other sculptures of Columbus in New York City, see last year’s Columbus Day post.
- For more on Columbus, see Thomas Bowden’s Enemies of Christopher Columbus. From the Amazon blurb: “In recent years, the enemies of Christopher Columbus have succeeded in damaging, if not demolishing, his historical reputation. Today, Columbus is seen not as a hero but as an inept sailor turned brutal conqueror, and his voyage is taught as the opening assault in a genocidal campaign by cruel imperialists bent on exterminating the peaceful natives who inhabited an idyllic wilderness in harmony with the environment. In this highly controversial book, Thomas Bowden challenges all of these assumptions. As he says in his introductory comments, “The real victim of the incessant attacks on Christopher Columbus is Western civilization itself.”