“I have seen two beautiful works of art rise in this city in honor of Columbus. One has been erected by the Italian residents of New York, and is the work of an eminent artist. This statue shows plainly that the love of art stands as high in America as the love of Columbus.”
—from the remarks by Baron Saverio Fava (1832–1913), Italian ambassador to the United States, on the occasion of the dedication of Central Park’s Christopher Columbus
On Saturday, May 12th 1894, what was reported to be a beautiful day, “Christopher Columbus,” the bronze sculpted by Spaniard Jerónimo Suñol (1839–1902), was unveiled in Central Park. The ceremony, witnessed by eight to ten thousand people, was attended by many of the most prominent members of New York society. Among the dignitaries were U.S. Vice President Adlai Stevenson (grandfather to two-time Democratic Party candidate for U.S. President), who spoke to the gathering; New York City Mayor Thomas Gilroy; the Italian Ambassador and Baroness de Fava; Señor Don Emilio de Muruaga, the Spanish Minister; and Cornelius Vanderbilt II; author and social reformer Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who, for the occasion, wrote a poem titled “The Mariner’s Dream.”
Situated at the south end of the broad central promenade known as The Mall, and directly opposite the pondering figure of Shakespeare by John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910), the site was considered the finest location in the Park to place this latest addition to the art treasures of New York. These two famous men, one of the fifteenth century, and the other of sixteenth, face each other. The Columbus bronze, heroic in scale, stands on a pedestal carved of polished Rockport granite; it was designed by architect Napoleon Le Brun. The bronze, which was draped in a huge American flag before its 1894 unveiling, is in good company; in addition to the monument to Shakespeare, ones to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are nearby.
Christopher Columbus was commissioned by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World in 1492. It cannot be called a portrait bronze because no one knows what the explorer looked like. The sculptor has used religious, imperial and nautical symbols. In his right hand the explorer holds the flag of Spain, topped with a cross; his eyes gaze upward toward heaven in a look of thanksgiving and his left arm is thrust in front of him in a beseeching gesture. By his side a globe rests on a cable-entwined capstan. The artwork is a modified version of Señor Sunol’s 1885 Columbus monument in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon.
Contrast this to the image of Columbus carved by Gaetano Russo for the column at the center of the circle named for the navigator on the perimeter of Central Park. Russo’s Columbus is shown with a stern look, directed outward. His hand is on the tiller of his ship. Unveiled in 1892 the Russo Columbus also celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The Central Park Conservancy last refurbished its Columbus in 1993. Only George Washington is commemorated with more statuary in New York City than Columbus.
The list of contributors who gave $100 each for the sculpture and its pedestal reads like a who’s who of American business and New York’s nouveau riche. They included Charles L. Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co. and father of Louis Comfort Tiffany; three of the four Vanderbilt brothers, Cornelius, Frederick W., and George W.; Jay Gould, railroad magnate; J. Pierpont Morgan, Wall Street financier; August Belmont, Wall Street speculator; and John D. Rockefeller, oil tycoon. Among New York’s old-moneyed families who donated were Hamilton Fish, New York State politician; John Jacob Astor IV, who would go down with the RMS Titanic, and his cousin William W. Astor, who would be created the first Viscount Astor in the British peerage; and William Rhinelander Steward, New York banker.
During America’s early years the country was looking for heroes. Washington Irving helped to meet that quest when, in 1829 he wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, documenting the mariner’s famous story. Although he died disreputable and impoverished in Spain in 1506, Irving and other American writers fixed the navigator in the American imagination of the 19th and early 20th centuries as a bold, courageous adventurer. Because these writers focused on his voyage and arrival in the Western Hemisphere, rather than the colonization of the region, they created a man whose spirit of adventure enabled America to be established less than two hundred years later. The larger-than-life figure in Central Park reinforced the image that literature had created.
Read about the unique encounter we had with the Columbus Column in last year’s Columbus Day tribute, A Discovery Worthy of Columbus. During our Central Park Walking Tour discover two Columbuses, plus other man-made and natural wonders. Take the Tour; Know More!