“Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.”
—Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
Five hundred and twenty years after Columbus set sail a new discovery awaited lucky New Yorkers in 2012. In the fall of that year the Public Art Fund sponsored a work of art titled Discovering Columbus. Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi envisioned a living room, including chairs, bookshelves, a coffee table and even a flat-screen TV, enveloping the figure of Christopher Columbus atop the column at the center of New York’s traffic circle named for him.
This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Columbus—in his living room, no less—was thrilling! Walk About New York offers this photo collection and remarks to observe Columbus Day 2015.
The colossal standing figure is carved from Carrara marble on a rostral column. The ancient Greeks and Romans erected rostral columns to celebrate naval military victories. Rostra, the prows or rams of captured enemy ships, were fixed to the column. The bronze prows on the Columbus Column represent the Niña, Pina and Santa Maria. In addition to the Columbus Column other roatral columns of the modern era include a pair in Saint Petersburg, Russia and one in Venice, honoring Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian.
The scaffolding that surrounded the 70-foot tall, granite column supported Columbus’ living room. It could be reached by elevator or stairs. It was great exercise climbing the six stories to the top!
In cooperation with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Public Art Fund oversaw the conservation of the figure of Columbus, the column upon which he stands akimbo, the column’s ornamentation and its pedestal. All these elements had become grimy from city pollution and weather worn. The conservation program included cleaning and repointing the granite and the marble features; repair to the stone; and cleaning the bronze decorations and reliefs. The monument’s last major conservation effort was carried out in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition in 1992.
In 2005 the entire area around the Columbus Column was redesigned with the aim of making it an attractive destination. Granite was laid down to create a plaza with specially designed benches. Seasonal planting beds ringed the area to create an oasis at the Column’s base in the center of the Circle. The fountain, which had been directly around the Column, was removed. A new fountain at the perimeter of the area was added. This reimagining of Columbus Circle won the 2006 American Society of Landscape Architects General Design Award of Honor.
“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
When the Columbus Column was dedicated, Carlo Barsotti, editor of the Italian-language newspaper Il Progresso Italoamericano, stated that it “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.”
Carlo Barsotti was the driving force getting the Columbus Column to become a reality. His influence helped to bring monuments honoring other Italians to New York. Those projects were the Verdi Monument, at Broadway and 73rd Street; the Giuseppi Garibaldi Monument, appropriately in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square because Garibaldi is the “George Washington of Italy”; and the Dante Monument, which stands in the park across from Lincoln Center.
“Riches don’t make a man rich, they only make him busier.”
The monument was designed by Sicilian sculptor Gaetano Russo (1852–1926). It was unveiled in 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. The circle, one of the major entrances to Central Park at its four corners, was named in honor of the navigator from Genoa at the same time.
Mr. Nishi, whose idea it was to create a living room for Columbus, designed the room’s wallpaper. His influences were American TV shows and movies, which he watched during his youth. The pattern uses images from American pop culture in a 1960s Pop Art style. Some images are New York inspired, such as the Empire State Building and Marilyn Monroe above a subway grate; others are more generally American, such as Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley.
“It was something unusual for the avenue and the regular promenaders were to be seen gazing at the spectacle from the chamber windows while Italian peripatetic vendors thronged the sidewalks, and Italian mothers in rainbow attire dandled their children in their arms on the steps of millionaires’ palaces. The column of men in uniforms seldom seen above Bleecker Street marched up between the rows of brownstone houses to the lively music of the Italian national air. It was Italy’s day.”
—from the New York Times, September 17, 1892 edition, reporting on a procession from Little Italy up Fifth Avenue to Columbus Circle that preceded laying the cornerstone of the Columbus Column
“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”
Two of Walk About New York’s guided walking tours end at Columbus Circle. They are the Central Park Walking Tour and the Five Squares and a Circle Tour. Get to see the Columbus Column, not as up-close and personal, but nonetheless, in all its glory during these Tours. The Tours are good fun and greater value!
“For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps.”