Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower - The Fascist Sculptor

This is the third of three entries about Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower. See the two previous installments:

"Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower" (July 20, 2020)

"Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower -- The Graziotti Design" (July 24, 2020)

Vittorio di Colbertaldo, the sculptor of the statue of Christopher Columbus that had been located at Pioneer Park near Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, was undeniably a fascist. That affiliation was part of rationale for the statue's removal in May 2020. As we have discussed in the previous entry of this blog, Colbertaldo's prior politics and ideology did not prove to be an impediment to the his post-war career.  In this entry we will look at how fascism informed his artwork.

What exactly is fascism?  According to Britannica, it is a kind of "militaristic nationalism" based upon a "belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites."  Colbertaldo was born in 1901 into such an elite having descended from the Bassanese nobility (Bassano del Grappa). He also shared his birthplace in Forli with the Duce of Fascism, Benito Mussolini.

Colbertaldo had a conventional art career. He studied at the Accademia d’arte Cignaroli in Verona. He later taught at Guidizzolo School of Art in the province of Mantua and at the Liceo artistico statale (State Arts Lyceum) in Rome from 1935.  In addition to working in three dimensional media he was also an illustrator for the Milan-based magazine L'Eroica (The Heroic).

Di Colbertaldo's earliest public artwork is memorial to the World War I soldiers who lost their lives from the commune of Arcole in Veneto. This work, created in 1928 during the rule of the National Fascist Party government, projects a muscular nationalism in its depiction of the Italian men who fought the Austro-Hungarian empire between 1915 and 1918.

Imperial ambitions were always part of the Italian Fascist project. Italy had conquered and colonized Libya since 1911 and invaded Ethiopia (which they called Abyssinia) in 1935.  Colbertaldo created works promoting his nation's colonial ambitions that were featured in the Italian Pavilion at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.

"Abissino" (Abyssinian), source: Icone d'Oltremare nell'Italia fascista

The exhibition featured several works in bas-relief depicting Italy's colonized subjects in Libya and Ethiopia. According to Pretelli one of principal aims of the Italian pavilion at the World's Fair was "to show a brand new Fascist 'spirit' generated by the proclamation of the empire." Italian colonization was portrayed as "pacific and laborious" demonstrating the "supposed civilization of the Ethiopian territories achieved under fascist occupation."

"La fraternità delle armi e del lavoro nella conquista dell'Impero," source: Prima Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d'oltremare

Colbertaldo's enthusiasm for Italy's imperial ambitions are clearly manifested in "The Brotherhood of Arms and Labor In the Empire's Conquest" (La fraternità delle armi e del lavoro nella conquista dell'Impero), a statue displayed at the East African pavilion of the First Triennial Exhibition of Italian Overseas Lands (Prima Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d'oltermare) in Naples in 1940. Linked soldiers and workers march forward for Italy's glory.

"Monumento al Duca d'Aosta," source: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Gorizia

Even after the Fascist government was overthrown and Italy and the Axis nations were defeated in World War II, Colbertaldo returned to military and imperial themes. In 1965 (several years after his Christopher Columbus commission) he created a memorial to Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa who commanded Italian forces there during the war and surrendered to the Allies and died in British captivity in 1942.

"Telegraph Hill," July 21, 1960, source: OpenSFHistory / wnp27.5147.jpg

Was the statue of Christopher Columbus atop Telegraph Hill an expression of fascism? It was certainly an expression of both Italian nationalism and conquest.

"Christopher Columbus," image source: Public Art and Architecture From Around The World, May 23, 2012

We can see in di Colbertaldo's Christopher Columbus the many of the same qualities as his other works. The subjects depicted share a sober virility and project a heroic chauvinism. They gaze forward in full control of their emotions. The Public Art and Architecture From Around The World blog features several views of the now-removed Columbus statue. The comments to this blog entry are striking because they describe this now disreputable work as "wonderful" and "commanding" -- both reasonable aesthetic reactions. It is a well-rendered imposing statue. Given that Christopher Columbus is not well-known by his image, the millions of tourists who passed the statue probably gave little thought to the statue's origins or meaning. It was just another heroic statue.

Vittorio di Colbertaldo was an active artist up to his death in 1979.  His post-war output exhibited a surprisingly wide.  He created works for a Via Crucis at Dachau honoring Italians who died at the concentration camp.  He continued specializing in monumental works, sculpting statues of disparate figures such as Jan Palach, a young Czech who self-immolated in opposition to the Soviet occupation of his country, Prince Diponegoro, 19th century Javanese ruler who fought Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, and Rashid Karami, a Lebanese prime minister.

image source: Rerum Romanun

The memorial to Jan Palach in Rome from 1970 is remarkable presenting the young hero dwarfed by tongues of flame.

Colbertaldo's statue of Christopher Columbus is unlikely to ever return to its pedestal upon Telegraph Hill. The statue has a twin in Miami, Florida that is still standing but has also been vandalized and threatened with removal.  Christopher Columbus statues are in peril all across the United States. Colbertaldo's San Francisco creation is fortunate to have escaped into storage. Some Miamians want to bury the explorer under water, upside down in the sand.


Ceballos, Joshua, "Gramps Owner Offers To Sink Columbus Statue Into The Sea," Miami New Times [online] June 12, 2020.

Comanducci, A. M., Dizionario illustrato dei pittori: disegnatori e incisori italiani moderni e contemporanei (L. Patuzzi, 1970).

"Fascism." Britannica Library, Encyclopædia Britannica, 22 Feb. 2019.

"Monumenti e lapidi," 14-18 Documenti e immagini della grande guerra [website].

"Il monumento ai Caduti di Arcole," Arcole Racconta [blog] October 31, 2013

Merjian, Ara H., "Learning From Fascism," Art In America [online] April 1, 2019.

"Monumento al Duca d'Aosta," Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Gorizia [webpage].

Pretelli, Matteo, "Italian Migrants in Italian Exhibitions from Fascism to the Early Republic," in Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions Nineteenth to Twenty-first Century (Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2014).

"Prince Amadeo, Duke of Aosta," Italy On This Day [blog], October 21, 2018.

"Status di Jan Palach," Rerum Romanarum [website] 

"Vittorio de Colbertaldo scultore in quattro continenti," Corriere Romagna (July 2, 2018).