Art commission to discuss fate of Pittsburgh’s Columbus statue

(Pittsburgh) — Sculptor Frank Vittor’s towering statue of Christopher Columbus was erected in Schenley Park, in 1958, with backing from the Italian-American fraternal group Sons of Columbus in America.

The heroically posed bronze on its marble pedestal has since weathered decades of vandalism attacking Columbus’ enslavement of and brutality against native people, which heralded an era of colonialism and genocide.

Whether the statue survives the wave of social-justice activism now sweeping the nation is another matter.

The statue in Schenley Park is named “Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America."

Bill O'Driscoll / WESA

The statue in Schenley Park is named “Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America.”

More than a dozen U.S. cities, including namesake Columbus, Ohio, have recently unseated their own statues honoring the Genovese explorer. Protesters have pulled down many more. This week, the story of Pittsburgh’s statue reaches a new crossroads, as the city’s Art Commission discusses removing the monument and hears public comment.

In an Aug. 3 letter to Mayor Bill Peduto, Art Commission chair Robert Indovina said city by-laws allow the commission to remove or relocate any city-owned artwork with a two-thirds majority vote. Peduto, however, seems to disagree with the commission. This week, he told WESA that the commission’s vote on removal would constitute a “recommendation” that he could accept or reject.

The last major public artwork the commission removed was the Stephen Foster statue, which depicted the Pittsburgh-born composer looming pensively over a shoeless Black man playing a banjo. The statue, also located in Oakland, was taken down in 2018. Peduto supported its removal.

But he has not publicly expressed a preference on the issue — a sharp contrast to the debate over the Foster statue.

“I would rather wait until the art commission makes a recommendation and the people city of Pittsburgh have had a chance to be heard,” Peduto told WESA this week.

FILE - In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, file photo, demonstrators raise fists in the air during a march in Pittsburgh to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

FILE – In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, file photo, demonstrators raise fists in the air during a march in Pittsburgh to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Calls to remove the Columbus monument grew louder this summer. Amid nationwide street protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, a change.org petition insisting Pittsburgh topple the 62-year-old statue had garnered nearly 15,000 signatures by Aug. 21.

Signers include Pittsburgh-based musician Miguel Sague Jr., a descendent of the Taíno, the indigenous people Columbus enslaved after he landed in the Caribbean in 1492. Sague finds the statue infuriating.

“It’s a constant reminder of a very bad person that did some horrible things,” he said. “And the idea that this person is being honored with a permanent statue — it just seems like a slap in the face for me personally, and for any Native American.”

There’s also a change.org petition to keep the monument where it is. As of Aug. 21, that petition had about 1,400 names. It was started by Patricia Mocello, Pittsburgh-based vice president of the Italian Sons & Daughters of America, a national fraternal group headquartered here. She said the Columbus statue is about honoring an ethnic heritage.

“It’s a reminder where we came from, and where our parents and grandparents came from,” said Mocello.

A statue of Christopher Columbus is seen behind barricades at Marconi Plaza, Monday, June 15, 2020, in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Matt Slocum / AP Photo

A statue of Christopher Columbus is seen behind barricades at Marconi Plaza, Monday, June 15, 2020, in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Monuments to Columbus in the U.S. have a long and complicated past. That history is rooted in late-19th- and early-20th-century prejudice against Italian immigrants, who were then mostly newcomers. Most of the hundreds of Columbus monuments date from the early decades of the 20th century, said Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies public art.

“Columbus was kind of the legitimating figure for them, the figure that tied them to the national narrative, and helped justify their presence and their assimilation into American society,” said Savage. “Columbus was the kind of national hero that was able to make them transform from an ethnic group … to become white, essentially.”

Pittsburgh’s statue was itself a long time coming. A City of Pittsburgh plaque on its pedestal says planning for the monument began in 1909, “the year of Pittsburgh’s first celebration of Columbus Day.” The sculptor, Vittor, lived in Pittsburgh but was born in Italy, in 1888. Funding came from small donations from working-class Italian-Americans, said Italian Sons & Daughters of America president Basil Russo, of Cleveland.

The statue was dedicated on Oct. 12, 1958 – coincidentally, the same year that “The Discovery of America,” an infamous marble Columbus statue, was finally removed from the steps of the U.S. Capitol after years of protest. That monument, erected in 1844, depicts Columbus holding a globe aloft while a nearly naked, putatively Native American woman cowers beside him.

Savage said modern backlash against Columbus – and Columbus monuments –began in earnest in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s landing on the islands of the Caribbean. (Columbus never actually set foot on mainland North America.)

Columbus served for years as governor of the Indies, and in particular ruled the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Modern-day critics –often led by indigenous, Black or brown people – note that Columbus’ missions went well beyond “discovering” lands that people had already occupied for millennia. He stopped at nothing, they say, to enrich himself and his royal sponsors. He took captives whom he worked and sold as slaves, among other atrocities. His expeditions also introduced to the New World diseases like smallpox, which sped the decimation of the indigenous population.

Moreover, wags can note that technically, Columbus wasn’t even actually Italian: His birth, in 1451, predates the founding of Italy by four centuries.

While more recent scholarship has hardly improved his image, some historians argue for seeing Columbus as the product of a time when even his worst acts were something like standard operating procedure. “Columbus is not the problem,” Penn State history professor Matthew Restall told “Philadelphia” magazine in July. “It is the process of imperial expansion and colonization that is the problem.”

Admirers of Columbus have their own view.

“Columbus Day recognizes the achievements of a great Renaissance explorer who founded the first permanent European settlement in the New World,” says the web site of the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, a national group based in Washington, D.C. “The arrival of Columbus in 1492 marks the beginning of recorded history in America and opened relations between the Americas and the rest of the world.” Merchandise for sale on the Order’s site includes such “Columbus Day Attire” as a T-shirt that reads “If he never discovered it, you wouldn’t be here.”

Vandalism of Pittsburgh’s Columbus statue dates to the 1990s, with frequent recurrences, especially on Columbus Day – a date that many U.S. states and cities have recast as Indigenous Peoples’ Day or some variant thereof. As of last week, the Pittsburgh statue still bore ghostly traces of words including “colonizer” and “OG Pig” on the pedestal, as painted during a recent protest and then partly scrubbed off.

In recent months, as part of a widespread protest movement that’s also toppled Confederate statuary, cities including Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis and San Francisco have officially removed monuments to Columbus. In some places, demonstrators have done it themselves, including the beheading of a Columbus statue in Boston.

At least one Columbus statue has gone relatively quietly in recent years. In November 2018, Los Angeles removed the monument after a long campaign by indigenous groups, a process that included meetings between Native Americans and Italian-Americans.

Cities with smaller Native populations and higher concentrations of Italian-Americans have experienced more disagreement. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for instance, said in June he favors retaining New York City’s Columbus statue.  And while Philadelphia’s art commission voted to take down the 144-year-old Columbus statue in historically Italian-American South Philly, a judge has delayed the move.

In Pittsburgh, the discussion already appears somewhat contentious.

In an open letter posted on its website last week, the Italian Sons & Daughters  of America (ISDA) says those seeking to remove the Columbus statue “rely on a loose and incoherent understanding of American and world history to push their false narratives. And frankly, these misinformed activists should be ashamed and held accountable for the Columbus statue destruction and vandalism across the nation.”

ISDA president Basil Russo told WESA that mayors who have ordered Columbus statues removed have been “intimidated by … a mob response to the issue.”

Members of Pittsburgh’s art commission include artist Sarika Goulatia, who called the Columbus statue “very, very problematic. And it sort of glorifies a colonial past, right? It’s like it’s the part of our colonial narrative, when we start commemorating people and celebrating people without kind of reflecting on what they did, how they got there.”

“I totally understand the pride of Italian-Americans,” said commission member Richard Parsakian. “Any ethnic group is going to have pride in themselves and rightly so.” But citing Columbus’ practice of slavery and role in genocide, Parsakian said, “That’s not a good role model to put on a pedestal at this point.”

“We’re not putting up statues of Hitler, is what it comes down to,” he added.

Both Goulatia and Parsakian emphasized they spoke as individuals, not as representatives of the art commission. They said they looked forward to discussing the issue, both this week and potentially in a formal public hearing on the matter.

“We need to have this conversation now,” said Goulatia. “You know there is a problem with the statue, we all know there is a problem with it, but why is it not being talked about? Why are other cities talking about it, and why are we quiet?”

The art commission meets virtually, via Zoom, at 2 p.m. Wed., Aug. 26. Those wishing to comment must sign up in advance here.

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