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Keywords

City of Pittsburgh, Christopher Columbus, Bronze, Barre granite, Harper

Artwork Type

Monument, Permanent, Sculpture



Christopher Columbus, 1958

Frank Vittor



Photo

PhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto
Commissioning Entity Federation of the Sons of Columbus of America
Owner City of Pittsburgh
ADA Services The statue is at the top of a several stairs that can be climbed. It can also be seen from the sidewalk.

 

The sculpture, erected in 1958, is “heroic and colossal” in the tradition of public art of that recent era, an unabashed celebration of the now discredited notion that Columbus “discovered” America. It represents ideas that were so deeply ingrained that it likely that Vittor would be stunned and taken aback by the spray paint defacings of his grand statue, going back to 1997. In some years there are several; in other years it is limited to Columbus Day vandalism. 

 

The sculpture consists of a bronze Columbus atop a granite pedestal; he is handsome, defiant, determined. Wind seems to be flowing through his robes; he has one hand over the other arm and is holding maps, as though he’s just completed a great voyage. The pedestal and figure are symmetrical and vertical in the habit of public art of the era. On his pedestal Columbus stands far above a public is to enter his space and stand in admiration. The flowing shapes of the pedestal (designed by his brother) contain his ships, the Nina, Pinto and the Santa Maria, also heroic in their way. The sculpture is integral to a park that abuts the Phipps Conservatory in Oakland, and the surrounding area contains additional statues that are generally in the same tradition; that is, placing then-important people on pedestals.

The Columbus sculpture is but one of several art pieces Vittor contributed to the Pittsburgh landscape. His twelve-foot bas relief celebrations of working class energy stand at the entrance of the Westinghouse Bridge that connects East Pittsburgh and communities across the Mon River. His delicate art deco water fountains remain in place in Oakland. Vittor’s sculpture of Honus Wagner, completed in 1955, was first an iconic landmark for Forbes Field, the original home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, then moved to Three Rivers Stadium when it was home to the Pirates, before being installed as one of the four symbolic corners of PNC Park, the current Pirates stadium. In the Wagner sculpture two children (sculpted by his brother) look up adoringly at the great baseball hero. Wagner is caught just after he has presumably connected for a home run. Compared to the Columbus statue it is realistic and even a bit mysterious. Did the long ball go out of the field?

But to return to his Christopher Columbus statue. It can be thought of as a trace of what is now, for many, a guilty memory. It celebrates the beginning of the end for native cultures in the Americas, leading to the deaths of millions through war and disease, not to mention the cultural genocide that Native Americans still struggle to overcome. Yet when the sculpture was created Columbus was a one-dimensional, uncomplicated hero and the implications of his actions were part of the myths taught in every gradeschool in the country and celebrated on the national holiday created in his name. Columbus, of course, just sailed the ships across the seas; it was for the waves of Europeans (and others) to destroy the native cultures that inhabited the land. 

Yet it gives pause. The sculpture reminds us in the twenty-first century how the culture thought about these issues just a few decades ago. Perhaps if the site included contextualizing panels that acknowledged the problematical nature of the memories that Columbus represents the country could use the art to create meaningful dialogue.  

By Douglas Harper, sociologist

Douglas Harper, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at Duquesne University and President of the International Visual Sociology Association. He has written extensively on visual culture and his most recent book, Visual Sociology, is a comprehensive overview of the field.


Frank Vittor (1888 - 1968) was born in Italy. After studying under Auguste Rodin in France, Vittor moved to the United States. His wife was a Pittsburgher, so he moved and created several works throughout the city during his career.