No denying it: I have a certain fondness for this piece of sculpture. Columbus was the subject of some of my first digital photos in 2002, he often wowed tourists when I began guiding locally ten years ago, & Plaza Colón was one of the few places my mom wanted to see during her first & only visit overseas (that’s a tiny her below!). But in addition to sentimental reasons, the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón remains one of the most remarkable pieces of public artwork in Buenos Aires… a city filled with hundreds of statues. That says something.
Some short history: The space adjacent to the Casa Rosada formerly housed the first port of Buenos Aires. When Puerto Madero replaced the original, the lot sat landlocked for several years until some landscaping took place & a French fountain filled the gap. During 1910 centennial celebrations, the fountain disappeared, scattered throughout the city, while the Italian community collected funds for a monument. Arnaldo Zocchi won the design competition, & by 1923 the Carrera marble statue had been built in Italy, disassembled, shipped to BA & put together again under the supervision of Zocchi himself.
Some current events: Access to the monument changed in 2007 during restoration of the Casa Rosada… former mayor Jorge Telerman ceded Plaza Colón to the national government. A fence went up, & the only time access has been granted was during Museum Night in 2011 & 2012. Can’t say I’m a big fan of no access, but a sidewalk curves around the entire plaza & the perspective can still be appreciated. I was always amazed at how close I used to be able to get to the President’s office… having the plaza as a security buffer makes sense.
Let’s take a closer look at Zocchi’s work. Columbus sits atop a column looking east, in the direction of the river… eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Scantily-clad figures help the boat on its way:
Hercules reclines on the right with a pair of Atlas figures on the left. Nice to see South America as the focal point of the globe:
A winged child/cherub/angel points to discovery as a female figure lights the way:
Lots of symbolism can be found on the reverse side & is most difficult to appreciate without access to the plaza. A blindfolded female figure represents Justice, & here she’s surrounded by symbols of Christianity: a palm frond, an anchor & the raising of the cross. Catholicism came with Columbus thanks to his royal sponsors. They probably never imagined an Argentine Pope!
Obviously Zocchi signed this fantastic work. The base of the statue also contains two historical scenes: Colón’s request for funding from the Reyes Católicos + the captured indigenous people who managed to survive the return trip to Spain.
An inscription reminds us of the departure of Columbus from Palos (Spain) on 03 Aug 1492. Finally, a small plaque from the pro-Italy Committee celebrates Italy Week in 1932. Virgil’s quotation in Latin seems appropriate: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
But it seems as if that “memory of time” is currently being tampered with… the monument’s 100-year placement is about to change. Earlier this week, Clarín ran a story about plans for the national government to dismantle the entire piece & reassemble it in Mar del Plata. Another newspaper reported that Evo Morales donated USD 1 million for a statue of guerilla fighter-turned-army commander Juana Azurduy de Padilla. Evidently CFK prefers not to see Columbus from her office.
Should the monument be moved? Complex question. Technically, I wonder who has real jurisdiction over the monument. The plaza may be national, but supposedly the mayor of Buenos Aires has the final word about Colón. At least that’s the latest internet rumor… still waiting to confirm that. Probably another difficult issue like who controls each half of Plaza de Mayo.
Anyone can make the case that Columbus, in hindsight, does not deserve such commemoration (just read Chapter 1 of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States“). I can’t argue with that. Does Azurduy deserve a statue in Argentina? Certainly. Isn’t there one other spot in the entire nation that would be just as appropriate? Without doubt.
For me at least, the Monumento a Colón has transcended its original purpose & acquired a meaning more complex than an homage to a single man. Italians were the largest immigrant group in Argentina, & Columbus was a gift—a visible reminder—of their Italian heritage. Revisionist history didn’t exist in 1910, but because of Italian immigration Argentines were inventing new slang, eating pizza & pasta, & creating an extension of Italy overseas. No other nation can claim such influence, & that’s what I see when viewing this monument… maybe because I am an immigrant in Argentina as well.
History & art come together in similar gifts to Argentina like the Torre de los Ingleses/Torre Monumental & the Monumento de los Españoles. They keep Columbus company as the few bits left from the 1910 centennial… maintaining an important moment in Argentine history alive as well as demonstrating an attempt by immigrants to build their own collective memory. Let him stay.
Side note: I was fortunate to go to Ruse/Rousse (Bulgaria) last year, & another Zocchi monument adorns their main square (pictured below). Comparing the only two works I’ve seen, Buenos Aires got the better deal! And after comparing photos of other Zocchi statues online, the BA monument is truly exceptional. Seems like a risky undertaking to dismantle the monument, as well as a waste of funds given the current economic situation in Argentina.
Sadly, a bit of the centennial may be leaving Buenos Aires soon… updates will be made here as events happen. I wholeheartedly support historical revisionism & rescuing important figures from the past in order to develop national identity. But I question if a new identity needs to be constructed at the expense of erasing an old one.
Update (16 Aug 2013): While I was away from Buenos Aires for 3 months, the process of dismantling Columbus began. A legal case against national government finally halted further deconstruction, but Colón was removed from his pedestal & the column base taken apart. Officials now claim the statue will be restored & eventually replaced… statements I find difficult to believe. Only time will tell.
Here’s the current state of the monument:
Update (9 Apr 2014): One year after the original post…
There must have been a lot of under the table hanky-panky going on between the city & national government because in spite of judicial orders to the contrary, Colón has been completely dismantled & is looking for a new home. The original suggestion of Mar del Plata has been pushed aside, & Plaza Rubén Darío in Recoleta seemed a likely candidate. However, soil studies showed that the weight of the monument would damage a water main that runs underneath. The alternative? In the middle of traffic on the border between San Telmo & La Boca. Although great for visibility, exposure to so much exhaust/vibration would certainly damage the statue & the area… well, I’d give it two weeks before Colón was covered in graffiti.
Here’s the current state of the monument:
If there’s any silver lining to take away from this disaster, workers found a time capsule from 1921 buried underneath the base of the monument. Along with newspapers & currency, a book about Columbus as well as film footage of the installation of the monument were discovered inside. Can’t wait until the movie reels are made public. If they are ever made public. Images from the official presidential website.
Update (15 Aug 2014): So it’s settled then.
In a move that proves the city & national government merely stage their supposed disagreements publicly for entertainment, they have both agreed to move the monument to an artificial breakwater on the edge of the Río de la Plata… just across from the local airport (Aeroparque). I can only imagine what air traffic & exposure to the river will do to the statues. Battle lost.