A Christopher Columbus monument which sparks a few questions

Christopher Columbus monument in Bloomfield, NJ

 

I was walking along the Bloomfield Green when I noticed this monument to Christopher Columbus, which I saw in the text on the base that it was installed and dedicated here in 1971. I tried to find out who the artist was who sculpted this, but most of the online searches I did for this particular monument came up with stories about petitions to remove it from this public park … more on that later.

The first thing I noticed was the spelling of the name: “Cristoforo Colombo.” Curious about this, I learned that it’s the way his name was spelled and pronounced in Italy, where he was born in Genoa in 1451. I also learned that in Spain, they refer to him as Cristóbal Colón.

Cristoforo Colombo sculpture on the Bloomfield Green, Bloomfield, NJ
Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) sculpture on the Bloomfield Green, Bloomfield, NJ.

The next thing that had me curious was his appearance, both his face and his clothes. Historical anecdotes have suggested that there are no authentic contemporary portraits of Christopher Columbus, meaning a situation where he sat for a formal portrait. There have been many portraits painted of him over the years, but without any known true portrait (and no photographs, of course), the artists had to construct an appearance based on written descriptions. So where did the artist who made this get his ideas? There’s this portrait painted by Ghirlandaio, which suggests somewhat straight hair just past his ears, and then there’s this portrait, which shows him with thick and curly hair. He has a completely different look in this painting by Cristofano dell’ Altissimo.

Christopher Columbus monument in Bloomfield, NJ
Christopher Columbus monument as seen in Bloomfield, NJ.

On a somewhat joking but still observational note, what about that necklace, above right? From today’s perspective, it looks like Christopher Columbus is rockin’ the Cuban links with an iced medallion … did he get his bling at The Bling Cartel? On a more serious note, another historical anecdote suggests that “Columbus had a custom of dressing simply, in the manner of a Franciscan monk,” so one has to wonder what prompted this artist to give him such a prominent necklace?

One of the more-widely circulated images of Christopher Columbus is this one (below), in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, titled “Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” painted in 1519 by Sebastiano del Piombo (also known as Sebastiano Luciani). There is an inscription on the painting which identifies this subject as “the Ligurian Colombo, the first to enter by ship into the world of the Antipodes,” but the Met’s curator says that the writing is not entirely trustworthy and – on a side note – the fact that it was painted in 1519 means that it cannot have been painted from life, as Columbus died in 1506. At any rate, many people consider this to be the authoritative likeness of the actual man.

Christopher Columbus portrait from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” 1519, by Sebastiano del Piombo, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Speaking of the actual man, Christopher Columbus, let’s go back to my earlier point about petitions for the monument to come down. Here’s one that writes: “Columbus set out on a voyage in an attempt to find shorter passage to the east. He instead ended up in the Bahamas where he committed various atrocities against the indigenous population, including slavery and murder. It is unconscionable that a town that proclaims to be diverse and welcoming of all such as Bloomfield has memorial to this man on full display in the center of town.” This is in fact a thought that is shared in many places far beyond Bloomfield, NJ. Columbus Day began as a celebration of Italian immigrants who faced persecution in the U.S., but for many it has now become a symbol of the colonization and oppression of Indigenous people. In recent decades, it has been replaced by “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in many states and cities.

The main point of this post, however, is to share my observations about the visual appearance of Columbus, the lack of verified authentic portraits, and the artistic elements such as the funky necklace, since this is indeed an arts blog. I want to acknowledge the changing perspective on Columbus and a more recent trend of removing sculptures with objectionable figures or depictions, so if you’d like to share your thoughts on that topic in the comments section below, feel free to do so. Perhaps that topic will be addressed some more in the future – I did share an experience of seeing the Lee Circle (minus Robert E. Lee) in New Orleans, so I’m not new to the topic.

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