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Columbus Statue’s Turbulent History Included State Funds, Design Feuds, Mussolini Message

The 33-foot statue stood in Grant Park since 1933, when it was erected for the new Chicago World’s Fair, the Century of Progress.

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GRANT PARK — The towering Christopher Columbus statue at the south end of Grant Park was removed early Friday — just shy of the 87th anniversary of its unveiling before a crowd of tens of thousands.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called it a temporary removal as part of an overall assessment of the city’s public monuments. Its middle-of-the-night ouster was done to avoid further demonstrations at the statue that had become unsafe for protesters and police, she said. A week ago, protesters tried to topple it by scaling it, tying ropes around it and getting the crowd to pull. The statue survived that night, but more demonstrations were expected.

The statue has been controversial since its beginnings, a battle documented by local newspapers for years. There was a fight with the state art board, a quid-pro-quo in Springfield for a new tax and blessings from an infamous Italian general and the dictator Benito Mussolini. The latter sent a message for the unveiling ceremony that read, in part, “Italy, rejuvenated by Fascism, is happy to join in the celebration.”

Origins and Sculptors

The idea for a Christopher Columbus monument wasn’t new when the statue was proposed in the early 1930s. Chicago already had built statues in his honor, most notably a bronze statue built for the 1893 World’s Fair, which stood in Arrigo Park for years until it, too, was removed this week.

A new Chicago World’s Fair, the 1933 Century of Progress, was in the planning phase. A committee to create a Christopher Columbus monument materialized, led by Italian American Judge Francis Borrelli.

The committee employed Minnesota-based Italian American sculptor Carlo Brioschi, who had already sculpted a Columbus statue in Minnesota, to make the statue. Architect Clarence Johnston was to help with the pedestal.

Artistic Disagreements

A very public disagreement over the statue’s design soon played out between the state Art and Advertising Board and the statue’s designers.

In December 1932, the art board said the design was “very bad” and should not be placed on public land. According to the Chicago Tribune, the report stated, “The board, not having other than advisory powers, has got to report a failure in an earnest effort to save the people of Chicago from what we believe will be a monument unworthy in its artistic expression to its location or purpose.”

Judge Borrelli, in response to Thomas Tallmadge, head of the state Board of Art advisors, replied, “What is Tallmadge to us? I told him the statue is being supervised by Europe’s best artists,” according to the Journal Gazette in Mattoon.

By this time, the Columbus figure had already been sent to Italy to be cast in bronze and the foundation had been started in Grant Park. A day after news of the spat broke, Tallmadge clarified the issue was only with the pedestal, and Johnston, who was in charge of the pedestal, was coming down to Chicago to work out any issues.

Financing from Springfield: “They got their bronze saint”

Gov. Louis Emmerson

Beyond the design drama, funding the statue became an issue. The statue was to cost an estimated $50,000. An inscription on the statue reads it was erected by “Italian Americans of Illinois,” and most reports say it was donated by the Italian American community in Chicago. However, state money partially funded the construction.

First proposed in 1932, a bill to fund the statue was vetoed by Gov. Louis Emmerson. A new bill, brought forward by five Italian American members of the Illinois House, went up for vote again in the General Assembly in May 1933. Asking to allocate $15,000 for the statue, the bill passed the house 79 to 30.

Rep. W.D. Gayle objected to spending money on monuments during an economic depression, saying, “The condition the country is in now, we had better give it back to him rather than tax ourselves to erect monuments.”

Credit: Herald and Review

An article in Decatur’s Herald and Review noted that some of the representatives pushing for the statue to be funded helped pass the first Illinois sales tax in 1933 to gain favor with house Democrats to pass the Columbus Bill.

When the bill got to the Senate, a similar quid pro quo occurred, and Republican Sen. James Leonardo voted to pass the sales tax bill so the Columbus Bill would pass.

In late June, new Gov. Henry Horner signed the bill, and $15,000 was allocated. The Herald and Review concluded: “On Monday they ensured enactment of the governor’s sales tax bill. They got their bronze saint.”

An Unveiling with Mussolini and Balbo

The Century of Progress featured many Italian exhibitions, including an Italian pavilion and General Italo Balbo’s famous transatlantic flight of 25 seaplanes. Premier Benito Mussolini donated the infamous Balbo Monument in Grant Park in 1933 to commemorate the flight. And both Mussolini and Balbo were involved in the dedication of the Columbus statue.

Balbo, whose flight arrived in Chicago on July 15, 1933, attended dedication ceremonies for the statue the next day. He also sent a telegram to Judge Borrelli to read during the statue’s official unveiling on August 3. The southeast end of the statue’s pedestal commemorates Balbo’s transatlantic flight, reading: “THIS MONVMENT HAS SEEN THE GLORY OF THE WINGS OF ITALY LED BY ITALO BALBO JULY 15 1933.”

The official unveiling on August 3 attracted about 25,000 spectators, according to the Chicago Tribune. Speakers included Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson, Catholic Bishop Bernard Sheil, Italian Consul General Dr. Guiseppe Castruccio and Italian ambassador Augusto Rosso.

Mussolini had planned to broadcast a speech at the dedication live by way of short wave radio from Italy, but it Ambassador Rosso read a message from Mussolini instead at the event. The message concluded, according to the Tribune, as follows:

“Chicago is inaugurating today, by the initiative of the Italian community, a monument of Columbus, the daring Genoese navigator who, with inspiration and long-suffering patience, sailed the oceans to discover a new continent. Italy, rejuvenated by Fascism, is happy to join in the celebration. Confident in the future, Italy has sent through the skies the fleet of her aviators to repeat to the American people the assurance that the fruitful collaboration of the two great nations will hasten the advent of a better tomorrow.”

The Columbus statue was built and dedicated at a time when the United States was on relatively good terms with Fascist Italy. In this sense, the acts of diplomacy displayed made sense for the time period, especially at a World’s Fair.

Still, the statue’s commemoration of Balbo and connection to Mussolini put the statue in a similar category as the Balbo monument only a mile south: A visual reminder of the city’s relationship with Fascist Italy.

In Italy, most commemorations of Balbo were removed or renamed after World War II, and shortly after the war Italian ambassador to the United States Alberto Tarchiani requested the same be done in the United States. Chicago did not observe to that request.

Opposition to Mussolini’s involvement in the Columbus statue — and Columbus’ claim of “discovering” America — were circulating even in 1932. A Tribune columnist mused: “Mussolini is going to send a statue of Chris Columbus to our World’s Fair next year. Which was mighty nice of Mussolini and those captious individuals who say the Duce claims to be the discoverer of America ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Columbus, long a hero for many Italian Americans, has come under increasingly intense scrutiny both for the claim he discovered America, which was already widely populated, and for committing acts of violence, enslavement and genocide against Indigenous people. His voyages also marked the beginning of European colonization of the Americas.

For 87 years, his statue stood 33 feet and seven inches tall, looking over Grant Park. Now, just the graffiti covered pedestal remains.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
As crews work to dismantle the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park, a piece of it slips and breaks prematurely, being held up by the crane and harness.
Credit: Grace Del Vecchio/Block Club Chicago
Protesters tie ropes around a statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park and attempt to pull it down during a protest on July 17, 2020
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Police officers stand near a statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park after police and protesters clash during a protest in support of Black and Indigenous people on July 17, 2020.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Police officers stand near a statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park after police and protesters clash during a protest in support of Black and Indigenous people on July 17, 2020.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A police officer carries rope away after police and protesters clash near a statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park during a protest in support of Black and Indigenous people on July 17, 2020.