Building of the Week

Columbus Circle

Each week during the fall, I will do a short blog post about a particular monument or building in New York City. Stay tuned for more!

April 24, 2018: The Column to Columbus

Just as private individuals choose to celebrate their lives by erecting neoantique monuments, Roman arches and columns were constructed across the cityscape of New York. The most obvious and monumental example of this is the 76 foot Column to Columbus which stands at the heart of Columbus Circle.

The efforts to erect the column were lead by Carlo Barsotti, the Italian-American publisher of Il Progresso Italo Americano, and were largely underwritten by Italian Americans through donations. The column’s form and iconography speaks to the lasting power of antiquity’s monumental forms. Columns crowned with statues were erected as victory monuments in ancient Rome and Greece. The 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America in 1892 was a widely celebrated event in the US, with the Columbian exposition or the Chicago’s World Fair opening in 1893. In NY, an honorific column was erected to Columbus

A top the column is a 13 foot statue of Columbus. The column is decorated with anchors and rostra (the beaks of ships), which were symbols of naval victory in ancient Rome, as well as inscriptions in English and Italian that celebrated Columbus’ discovery.

The iconography of the column’s decoration was clear to a viewer who knew classical culture and those that did not. On the column’s pedestal was winged youth, who was studying the globe, an allusion to Columbus’ successful naval exploration, there are two bronze bas-reliefs on the bottom of the pedestal. The commissioning of this monument reflects that NYC’s immigrant populations–not only the elite of NYC–engaged in the tradition of commemorating great men of the past through a classical lexicon and iconography.

The column is not a relic of a bygone era of America discovering and building her Empire, but is a dynamic monument of the contemporary cityscape. In Fall 2012, with the support of the Public Art Fund, Tatzu Nishi, a Japanese-born artist, created a contemporary art installation, called Discovering Columbus, around the statue. This engaging project saw Nishi create a furnished, living room, where visitors could sit, while looking down Broadway or gazing up at Columbus. By creating this room around Columbus, Nishi interpreted the column in a “contemporary New York style,” creating an effect that unique, surreal opportunity to experience a historical monument, in a way that as one almost never does. Nishi’s selection of the Column of Columbus reminds us that ancient material culture does not go out of style, but continues to influence the production of art and culture in New York City in new and original ways to this day.

The Column to Columbus