Friday, July 24, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower - The Graziotti Design

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower [first part]

Heresy Labs, which describes itself as an "autonomous media project exploring anti-authoritarian politics and monitoring fascist presence within cultural space" tweeted the following on June 18, 2020:
The Christopher Columbus statue at Coit Tower in San Francisco has been removed. It was sculpted by fascist Vittorio di Colbertaldo who was Mussolini's handpicked bodyguard.  
The Christopher Columbus statue was controversial when it was erected in 1957, however, this controversy had nothing to with the sculptor's affiliation with the Italian Fascist Party.

Vittorio di Colbertaldo was undoubtedly an active participant in Italy's fascist movement in the 1930s and 1940s.  But during the Cold War that followed former fascists probably came to be seen as strong anti-communist allies.  In any case, Colbertaldo's past political affiliation was no impediment to his post-war art career.

The Italian consul general Pierluigi Alvera had recommended Vittorio di Colbertaldo to the Art Commission for the project as "one of the world authorities on Columbus."  But in their final decision the art commissioners also considered a proposal from a San Francisco artist Ugo A. Graziotti.

The controversy about the Christopher Columbus statue played out in the Letters to the Editor pages of San Francisco's daily papers.  According to a January 29, 1957 letter to the Chronicle, Graziotti claimed that he had suggested the idea of commissioning a Columbus statue for San Francisco to Alvera in January of 1956.  According to him, Alvara followed up this idea by contacting and commissioning Colbertado. In October 1956 he presented a sketch of this artist's sculpture design to the Art Commission.

Graziotti said that Alvara told him:
"If I wanted to, I could submit a design." And may I say that I was told this in a very unsympathetic way. In other words, Dr. Alvera asked me for a design just to toss me a bone for my idea.
Italian Consul general Pierluigi Alvera with a model of the Columbus statue (source: San Francisco Examiner January 4, 1957)

After the Art Commission vote, a Dick Nolan column in the Chronicle reported that the Art Commission's selection of the Colbertaldo had been generated strong community opposition:
The panel rejected a more daring design by Ugo Graziotti, a local master, for a more conventional piece of sculpture by an Italian who also happens to be a friend of the Italian consul, Pierluigi Alvera. The commission, from all reports, based its decision on financial reasons rather than esthetic ones. Alvera somehow conveyed the impression that his man's work was all bought and paid for and hence no problem to install, subito and toot de sweet.
(A side note: one of the Art Commissioners favoring the Colbertaldo work was one of Graziotti's students.)

source: San Francisco Examiner January 24, 1956

Ugo Graziotti (1912-2000) was a native of Brescia, Italy.  While working at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma he was invited in 1949 to teach in the United States in 1949 where he lived until 1970 when returned home to Italy.  He lived in the Bay Area from 1954 to 1967 where he taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Art League of San Francisco and the University of San Francisco. He also operated the Graziotti Studio of Fine Arts that was located adjacent to today's Main Library at 1254 Market Street. His art was exhibited at the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

In the run up to the Art Commission vote in January 1957, Graziotti presented his vision of Columbus to the Examiner.  He told them that he wanted to create a statue:
To harmonize with the distinctive characteristics of San Francisco, and with the time in which we live. It is not intended to be just another neo-classic monument, similar to so many pieces reflecting 19th century taste to be seen here and there about the city. It is designed to provide interest to the spectator from every angle, whether seen from a distance or close at hand.
The mosaic under the statue was meant to depict the known world at the the time of Columbus. The bronze base was intended to represent a ship. The bronze figure showed Columbus gazing forward with his hands clasping the vessel's pilot wheel.

Ugo A. Graziotti's Columbus Statue design (source: San Francisco Examiner December 13, 1956)

Three letters to the editor supporting Graziotti's design were printed in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 24, 1956.  The writers advocated supporting a locally known artist like Graziotti.  They criticized the conservatism of the Colbertaldo design.  One correspondent advocating for Graziotti's design wrote that:
It reaches and exhibits the living spirit of every pioneer, every giant, every man who, with strength and faith, fights for discoveries and for a better world... it is a monument to the Relentless American.
Part of the contemporary opposition to the Colbertaldo statue in Pioneer Park was probably due to the depiction of the explorer like a dauntless conqueror.  The Graziotti work with its symbolism, abstract elements, and even a degree of whimsy might have rankled the today's viewer less than the Colbertaldo statue.

Nevertheless, Graziotti cannot be separated from association with Italian fascism.  He published examples of his work in the magazine Goliardia Fascista, a fascist affiliated student newspaper, between 1936 and 1939.

The next installment of this blog will take a closer look at Vincenzo di Colbertado -- his work and his connection to fascism.

The Newspaper Archive, San Francisco Chronicle Historical, and San Francisco Examiner Historical databases were all used in this research.


Benoit, Monique, "'The City Ignores Its Local Artists'," San Francisco Chronicle January 24, 1956.

Bergman, Harry, "An Artist Leaves The City," San Francisco Chronicle September 3, 1967.

"Columbus Statue Designed for S.F.," San Francisco Examiner December 13, 1956.

Cross, Miriam Duncan, "Gold's But One Treasure In De Young's Current Exhibit," Oakland Tribune June 6, 1954.

"The Editor's Mailbox," San Francisco Examiner January 16, 1957.

"Graziotti Adriano Ugo," Dizionario pittori e scultori Bresciano [online]

Hulburd, David, "Talk Around Town," San Francisco Chronicle January 27, 1957.

"It Was A Tough Break For Columbus Statue," San Francisco Examiner January 4, 1957.

"Letters To The Editor," San Francisco Chronicle January 24, 1957.

"Letters To The Editor," San Francisco Chronicle January 29, 1957.

McQuigg, Clancy, "Bronze Image of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

Nolan, Dick, "Lakeshore Citizens Take G.E.T. Fight To Mayor," San Francisco Chronicle January 13, 1957.

"Polyhedra Forms To Go On Display," Sausalito News April 18, 1962.

"Statue, Landscaping Tentatively Approved," San Francisco Chronicle October 26, 1956.

"Ugo Andriano Graziotti," Wikipedia: L'enciclopedia libera [online].

Watmough, David, "Books, Sunshine, Women and Sculptor Ugo Graziotti," San Francisco Examiner December 27, 1959.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower

Christopher Columbus statue on August 6, 1957 before it was shipped to San Francisco (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

On November 19, 1964, Herb Caen reported in his column:

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: A lonely traveler named Vittorio di Colbertaldo arrived here via Pan Am from Indonesia yesterday at 6 a.m. Since his plane to N.Y. (and on to Rome, where he lives) didn't leave till 10 a.m., he had time to kill. So he took a cab to Telegraph Hill, where he stayed for an hour or so gazing at the statue of Christopher Columbus on the plaza below Coit Tower. In 1957, he had sculpted that $50,000 statue in Rome, hadn't seen it since, was pleased to find that "it seems to be happy here."

Recent years have not been happy for Colbertaldo's creation.  In 1991 the statue's hands were spattered with red paint by protesters pointing out the decimation of indigenous peoples carried out by him and later explorers.  Since then statues of Columbus have prompted protests and vandalism all across America. A month ago (June 18, 2020) the mayor and the Art Commission ordered that San Francisco's Columbus statue be removed from Pioneer Park.

Christoforo Columbo was a native of the Republic of Genoa and a representative of the Crown of Castile when he traversed the Atlantic Ocean.  He never set foot upon American soil and could not properly be called an Italian citizen because there was no Italy in his day.  Yet he was venerated by American settlers since the 18th century and became an emblematic figure for the Italian-American community.

Columbus was a unifying figure for Italian immigrants trying to highlight their identity within the wider American culture.  San Francisco's Italian Heritage Parade traces itself back to "grand processions and festivities" held by the Italian community in 1869 to "celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of America by their fellow countryman."

For many years it was called the Columbus Day Parade.  Charles Speroni's photograph of the 1947 celebration shows a spectacle that is very jarring to contemporary sensibilities.  We see Italian-Americans variously dressed up as Columbus, missionaries, conquistadors, and as native peoples depicted as Plain Indians in feathered headdresses.  Columbus's voyage was conflated with the conquest, civilization and christianization of America.

source: Marysville Appeal Democrat September 23, 1964 [from Newspaper Archive]

A reporter visiting San Francisco's 1964 Columbus Celebration pointed out that his 1492 expedition discovered the Bahamas not America and detected imperialist overtones in the statue: "Many newcomers are startled to find Columbus standing gazing proprietarily toward the Golden Gate." In the 1950s and 1960s Columbus was still a source of national pride for Italians and Americans alike.  Scholarship and advocacy during the 1960s also began to paint a very different picture of Christopher Columbus and the European conquest and settlement of the Americas.

The statue of Christopher Columbus was proposed in a presentation to the San Francisco Art Commission on November 5, 1956 by the Consul General of Italy, Pierluigi Alvera. His letter to the Commission referenced support from Mayor George Christopher and "local civic leaders of Italian ancestry." He had Colbertado's design in hand and the backing of the City's Italian-American community who would raise the funds to pay for the statue.  The Italian government and the city of Genoa would also contribute to pay the expenses. Alvera claimed that:
Among the people who are interested in this project there is the feeling that an ideal location for the statue would be the panoramic circle at Telegraph Hill, replacing the scattered vegetation that is now at the center of the parking place.
The Dedication of the Christopher Columbus Statue (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

At the statue's dedication on October 12, 1957 the Consul General emphasized to his California audience that "Columbus was the first European pioneer."  Entertainment for the festivities was provided by the City's Municipal Band and the University of California Glee Club. The Knights of Columbus and the Color Guard of the Italian Navy added to the pageantry.  Dignitaries in attendance included the head of the Italian delegation to the United Nations, a U.S. State Department representative, and Senator Thomas H. Kuchel.

The dedication also included a communique from the Vatican City.  For the occasion, Pope Pius XII declared:

Because of the many benefits which have derived from the discovery of the new continent, Christopher Columbus can justly be considered a benefactor of mankind. His heroic exploits opened up besides a wide field of expansion for the church. The preachers of the Gospel who accompanied the people that followed him, sent there by the Pontiff, brought to these land the Christian faith…

That is not a widely defended view today. The selection of this statue did generate controversy at the time, but it was not connected to Christopher Columbus's legacy or connections of sculptor Vittori de Colbertaldo to Italian fascisim.

That's the subject of the next blog entry.

The JStor, Newspaper Archive, San Francisco Chronicle Historical, San Francisco Examiner Historical and San Historical Photograph Collection databases were all used in this research.


"'Blood' On Columbus's Hands," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1991.

Caen, Herb, "Big Wide Wonderful Whirl," San Francisco Chronicle November 19, 1964.

"The Columbus Celebration -- Grand Procession and Festivities at the City Garden," San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 1869.

"History," Italian Heritage Parade San Francisco [webpage].

"K. of C. Raps Aid To Tito," San Francisco Examiner May 19, 1957.

Keeling, Brock, "S.F. Quietly Puts Statue of Genocidal Explorer Into Hiding," Curbed San Francisco June 20, 2020.

McQuigg, Clancy, "Bronze Image of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

Pius XII, "Pope Writes of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

"S.F.'s 'Festa Italiana" To Honor Columbus," Marysville Appeal Democrat September 23, 1964.

Speroni, Charles. “The Development of the Columbus Day Pageant of San Francisco.” Western Folklore, vol. 7, no. 4, 1948. [available in JStor]

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

San Francisco Arts and Culture During The 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Alfred Hertz (source:
There is no cause for gloomy prognostications about the symphony season. This epidemic is a terrible calamity, and the prompt action of the authorities in forbidding public gatherings was the best thing that could be done to mitigate its severity. But there seems every reason to believe that the ban, which bears with particular weight upon musicians, will mean the speedy suppression of the disease.

These were the words of San Francisco Symphony conductor Alfred Hertz in early November of 1918, spoken while all of the City's theaters, auditoriums and libraries were ordered shut down at the height of the influenza epidemic.  The California State Health Board announced this measure just as the Symphony was getting set to offer tickets to the first performance of the 1918-1919 season, scheduled for October 25, 1918.

The Symphony season was able to open a little more than a month later, on November 29, 1918.  All entertainment and cultural institutions had been forced to shut their doors for about a month. When activities were permitted to resume, they did resume with great exuberance.  The Symphony reported a record number of tickets sold for the new season. The Argonaut, which had dropped its drama column for the month, printed on November 23 that theater goers "rushed right back into the theaters."

At the time of this writing, San Francisco is approaching four months of a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down all of the City's performing arts venues and cultural institutions.  It's remarkable that the very devastating Influenza epidemic of 1918, which in the end infected 45,000 San Franciscans and killed 3,000 resulted in only a one month lockdown.  On the same page of the Argonaut there was another item entitled "A City En Masque."

Masks! masks! masks! Ugly, white, shapeless, cotton things of a laundered hospital complexion. How amazing it must be to a newcomer fresh from unmasked districts to remark the obedience of San Franciscans in respect to the mask ordinance. The big burly mechanic, the rich, carefully tailored man of affairs, the handsome young soldier, the pretty girl whose daily ceremonial of beautifying herself is a rite, the very children at play, even the infant in arms, all, or nearly all, are masked. 
The majority, I should say, are satisfied to wear the masks, and are in an approving attitude toward an ordinance which may have been instrumental in securing such rapid results. They regard them as a refuge and a protection.

While this author imagined a city of responsible citizens, the Mask Ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisors in late October 1918 stipulated fines and imprisonment for violators of this health directive.  No doubt, such widespread use of facial coverings on such a large scale helped stem the virus's tide.  The City's health officer stated "If the public will do these things, we are confident that we can master the epidemic within a week and that places of amusement might safely be re-opened." The ordinance remained in effect through February 1919.

It's interesting to consider theater audiences all with their masks on. Did thespians and orchestral musicians have to don masks as well?

Masked audience at a boxing match in the Civic Auditorium (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

The San Francisco Public Library was one of the cultural institutions affected by the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.  The library system was closed on October 18, 1918 almost contemporaneous with an Examiner article celebrating the Music Department and its talented music librarian Jessica Fredricks.

The San Francisco Public Library did not reopen until November 18. The minutes of the Library's Board of Trustees tell us that at the time some Library staff volunteered for Red Cross duty.  They also voted to provide wages for staff who were ill with influenza. The minutes also sadly noted the loss of one library employee, Miss Virginia B. Spencer, to the epidemic.  The Board of Trustees also considered extending the mask order within the Library past its expiration in February.

During the Library's closure the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter to the editor:

Why Deny Access to Good Books? 
Editor The Chronicle--Sir: May I ask through your worthy medium why, during the epidemic, the people are not even allowed to procure books from the Public Library? It would not necessarily mean that the public could use the reading rooms but would be the means of helping alleviate the monotony of this period. READER 
San Francisco, November 10, 1918

Imagine the hardship of quarantine in 1918, a time before radio, television, computers, ebooks, streaming media! But no doubt many of our patrons today still desire to "procure" a few "good books."  In the weeks ahead the Library will start making our collections available for pick-up.  We look forward to the day when we open the Library's doors again to all of our patrons.

Masked marchers in the Armistice Day Parade, November 11, 1918 (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)


"At The Orpheum," Argonaut November 23, 1918.

Brown, Ray C.B., "Influenza Halts Season But Does Not Dim Prospect," San Francisco Examiner November 3, 1918

Brown, Ray C.B., "Music Department of the Public Library Offers Help to All Music Lovers," San Francisco Examiner October 20, 1918

"A City en Masque," Argonaut November 23, 1918

"Here Is Text of Mask Ordinance; Violation Incurs Fine Or Imprisonment," San Francisco Chronicle October 25, 1918.

"Influenza Affects Our Symphony Season," Pacific Coast Musical Review October 26, 1918.

"Libraries to Open Monday" San Francisco Chronicle November 15, 1918

Minutes of The Regular Meeting ... / San Francisco Public Library Commission (The Commission, Jan. 1915-June 1925). 

"People Urged To Wear Masks Everywhere," San Francisco Chronicle November 15, 1918.

"San Francisco Symphony Season Opens Nov. 29," Pacific Coast Musical Review November 22, 1918.

"Season Postponed Not Demoralized," Pacific Coast Musical Review November 2, 1918.

"State Health Board Closes All Theaters; Churches Permitted to Hold Half Hour Service, 866 New Cases Reported; Masks Are Recommended; Public Library and Auditorium Shut; Lemare Recitals Are Discontinued" San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 1918.

"Symphony Box Office Will Open Monday," Pacific Coast Musical Review October 19, 1918.

Woods, Arnold, "Spanish Flu In SF: A Closer Look,"