Scrap metal or monument? Johnston picks the latter.
Removed from its Providence pedestal in 2020 and locked away in storage, a 130-year-old statue depicting Christopher Columbus will be re-erected in Johnston’s War Memorial Park in October.
In the 1890s, the same French artist who sculpted the Statue of Liberty — Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi — crafted a sterling silver statue of the Italian explorer credited with rediscovering the New World.
Impractical for outdoor exhibition, the silver statue was melted down into 30,000 ounces of scrap silver. However, in an effort to immortalize the work of art, Rhode Islanders created a bronze cast and erected the surviving facsimile in Columbus Park on Elmwood Avenue in Providence.
Columbus stood there for 13 decades until a wave of vandalism in 2020 convinced the city’s leaders to remove the statue. Former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr. bought the sculpture and kept it in storage until last week when it was transported to Johnston.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. and Paolino announced the statue has a new home.
“I am pleased to accept Mr. Paolino’s generous offer to display the historic Christopher Columbus statue in the Town of Johnston,” Polisena said. “In the months ahead, with support from volunteers in our community, the Town of Johnston will unveil the statue and provide space to celebrate the Town’s rich Italian American community.”
According to the US Census Bureau, at 49.5 percent, Johnston ranks second place nationally for a municipality with the highest percentage of its population reporting Italian ancestry.
Last week, Polisena announced Johnston was selected by Paolino “to host the Capital City’s historic Christopher Columbus statue.”
“The statue had previously been displayed in Columbus Square in Providence before being placed in storage nearly three years ago,” according to a press release from Polisena’s office. “Paolino purchased the statue from the City of Providence and has selected the Town of Johnston to host the statue as part of the Town’s celebration of its rich Italian community.”
The slightly “larger-than-life-size standing bronze figure … set on a simple stepped granite base” was vandalized numerous times while it was on display in Providence. After a similar statue was beheaded in Boston in 2020, the Providence monument was removed and sold.
“Italian Americans have made tremendous and lasting contributions to the State of Rhode Island,” Paolino said. “The Christopher Columbus statue is a symbol of Italian culture. I am thankful that Mayor Polisena Jr. has agreed to host the statue and create a destination for Italian American history in the Town of Johnston. The Mayor is playing an important role to ensure that this historic symbol is not melted down and turned into scrap metal.”
Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1971 and is typically recognized on the second Monday of October. This year, Columbus Day falls on Oct. 9, the tentative date set to officially welcome the statue to Johnston’s Memorial Park.
“We cannot run away from history, Paolino said. “The Christopher Columbus statue is a source of pride for many families in our state.”
Sculpted by Bartholdi — a French sculptor and painter (1834–1904) best known for designing “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the figure most Americans call the “Statue of Liberty” — and cast at the Gorham Manufacturing Company’s nearby foundry, the Providence monument was originally erected in 1893.
The silver original was shipped by rail to the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. When it returned, the bronze cast was created and the original was liquefied.
Base and all, the monument stands a little more than 11 feet tall (the Westerly granite base is around 5 feet tall, and the figure stands just over 6 feet).
“The explorer is caught in mid-stride, his left foot stepping off the base,” Ronald J. Onorato wrote in the 1999 application to list the monument on the National Register of Historic Places. “In his left hand he holds a globe; his right arm is raised, his index finger pointing, as if giving an order or sighting land. Columbus wears a short tunic; a wide belt wraps the waist; a second belt across the hip holds a sword. A short full cloak billows out around the figure, and he wears a brimmed hat.”
Columbus has become a controversial figure in American history. While his voyage from Europe to North America in the late 1400s sparked a new age of travel between the two continents, the explorer has also been blamed for the mass slaughter of native inhabitants. Born in Genoa, Italy, Columbus (1451 – 1506) has long been a symbol of pride for citizens with Italian roots.
Hoping to cut off controversy before it bubbles to the surface, Polisena has sought volunteer movers and builders to handle the transport and relocation of Columbus in Memorial Park.
“No taxpayer dollars will be used to bring the statue to Johnston,” Polisena said, adding that he’s seeking volunteer donations from local businesses to prepare a site in Memorial Park for the statue.
The town may also beef up security at the site.
“Johnston isn’t Providence, so I don’t think security is a major concern here,” Polisena said. “Nevertheless, we are in the process of securing donations for a fence and camera system. Additionally, I’m not concerned about protests. If people want to take valuable time out of their day to stand somewhere and protest for any cause, that’s their decision and right to do so. Just because I don’t agree with something doesn’t mean I get offended by it.”
Polisena is confident most of Johnston will welcome the monument with open arms.
“It’s my job to represent a majority of the people who live in Johnston,” Polisena said earlier this week. “I think the majority of people either welcome the statue or simply recognize it has no affect on their daily lives and don’t care one way or another. Columbus is an important historical figure not just for Italian Americans but for everyone throughout the world. I’m not going to judge someone who lived over 500 years ago on modern societal standards.”
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Has this city really gotten so dull now that we have to go all the way to Johnston for a story to fill space?
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