Columbus: The Parade/The
I. On This Parade,
Rain Might Fall
The second Monday of the month,
October 9th this year (it used to be on the 12th every year
until 1970), is Columbus Day. This federal—and now controversial—holiday,
was first established by FDR in 1937. And it will be celebrated,
as it has for the 73rd time here in NYC, with the biggest
parade in the world in his name. It is expected that once
again, 35,000 marchers along 5th Avenue will be cheered on
by a million spectators. So much for the numbers.
This year there will probably
mark an increase in dissenting voices. And Mayor Bill di Blasio
can expect to hear a Bronx cheer or three along the route.
But more on that in a moment.
While commemorating the explorations
of Cristoforo Columbo, the parade has long since come to be
more about celebrating the Italian-American culture and its
significant achievements and contributions to the United States.
One of which is absolutely not, the discovery of
America, as we older folks were taught in grade school. Though
America did gets its name from Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine
navigator and explorer who played a prominent role in exploring
the New World (where’s his parade?). I’ll leave
his expeditions for another day, along with those of Verrazzano,
an almost namesake. (The bridge bearing his name, by the way,
is misspelled. Does the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League
know about this?). Oh. Yeah. Columbus.
II. “Houston, we have a problem.”
Who can ever forget the opening line of that
doggerel poem: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two/
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” But what
no one remembers, is its last lines as we apparently never
quite got that far:
The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.
“Not quite” is the height of
understatement. For one thing, we’d later come to hear
about an interloper in our myth, some Norse guy in weird headgear
named Leif Erikson (not to be confused with American film
actor Leif Erickson), who was the first known European
to have discovered continental North America some 500 years
earlier. For another, Cristoforo was Genoese and not an American;
first or otherwise. Obviously, an overreach in poetic license.
Though no doubt, Columbus was brave. You had
to be when you really didn’t know where the hell you
were going. Which gets to his “brightness,” as
asserted in the poem.
Columbus never set foot on any land that would
later become one of the 50 states. Though he did land in the
Bahamas. And thereby it might be claimed that Columbus was
the first to vacation there and maybe get some rays, when
he finally figured out where he was.
Various sources indicate, that he believed
he had reached East Asia. And then later that month…
when he sighted Cuba? He thought it was mainland China. And
then, oy, to quote one source, “in December the expedition
landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan.”
It raises a serious question: How could you get so lost? The
answer to which might be threefold.
First off, he greatly underestimated the size
of the world in planning the expedition. This is true. No
wisecrack. Which debunks that Disneyland ride claiming in
that endlessly maddening song that… “It’s
a small world after all.” Wisecrack.
To dispel yet another myth regarding the globe,
it was not believed at the time that the world was flat and
that Columbus (age 41) was out to prove otherwise.
Secondly, men hate to ask for directions.
Finally, alas, no GPS (“Bear right
at 21° 30' North latitude”). In effect, he
accidentally stumbled upon the Americas. (“Recalculating:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed ‘without
And as for those three ships that drip so
trippingly off the tongue, the Nina, the Pinta,
the Santa Maria? This last and largest, ran into
trouble on December 24th on the return trip home. It sank
the next day. (“Merry Christmas!”). Something
else I never “loined” in school.
But it’s his moral compass, not his
directional one, that has now been seriously questioned for
at least the last twenty-five years or so and counting. By
now, all are familiar with the controversies regarding his
legacy. One of the more blunt assessments I’ve come
“To celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy
of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder. It commemorates
the violent and bloody accumulation of capital for the
ruling classes of Europe and, later, the U.S. Columbus'
voyage was financed by the Spanish monarchy. ... Columbus
was the first European slave trader in the Americas.”
In truth, a number of states have totally
ceased celebrating Columbus Day for assorted reasons: Alaska,
Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont. Add to that, the whole
“Indigenous Peoples’ Day” movement which
is gaining steam.
While as awkward-sounding a day of an alternative
celebration as you can imagine (though “Festivus,
for the rest of us,” from Seinfeld may have
it beat), there are now some 22 cities across the country
that have jumped on this Indigenous bandwagon. One of sizeable
wheels, it includes the likes of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle,
Denver, Phoenix, and just this year, Los Angeles.
Of course, Native Americans have been the
most vocal and demonstrative in their protests. Most especially,
in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s non-discovery.
In light of all of this, one might now be pressed to wonder
what did Columbus actually Dorite?
The best takes I’ve come across
might be consolidated to read:
Columbus’s voyages (there were four in all), and
1492 in particular—perhaps more than any other year
in modern history—truly represented an historical
watershed; a vehicle of discovery and progress, which
forged a lasting link between the civilizations of the
Old World and the “New.”
A long route to take in arriving at the statues,
but let’s go there.
III. Statues of Limitations?
Unless one has been living under the proverbial
rock, the controversies (and bloodshed) surrounding the removal
of statues, monuments and flags of the Confederacy, has spread
out across the land. So that now it seems, any statue
of any stripe is subject to review. And to paraphrase
that famous line of interrogation from Watergate: What
do we know about a statue’s transgressions, and how
long have we known it? The exception perhaps being that
fantastical one of Alice in Central Park, who continues to
sit on a mushroom uncontested; looking a bit stoned if you
ask me (someone ought to look into that, no?).
Mayor Bill de Blasio, of Italian heritage,
announced last month that a commission was being set up to
make recommendations as to what to do about statues and monuments
in the New York City that he has called “symbols of
hate.” Of particular focus at the moment is Christopher
Columbus. Ergo, the aforementioned Bronx cheers he’ll
likely hear at the parade.
If Melissa Mark-Viverto, the speaker of the
City Council has her way, the statue at Columbus Circle —created
as part of the 400th anniversary commemoration of Columbus'
landing in the Americas, by sculptor Gaetano Russo in 1892
— would be immediately removed. And presumably, the
name of the location of where it has stood would also be changed?
To Indigenous Peoples’ Circle? (“I’ll meet
you later at ‘Ipcee.’”)
Unsurprisingly, elected officials and leaders
within the Italian-American community, have railed against
the removal of this statue. Even Comedian Joe Piscopo, who
spoke at a recent rally chimed in —“leave our
statues alone.” (Wonder if he said it in his Sinatra-impression
voice?). But really, up until now, the statue was hardly noticed
as it's standing 75 feet in the air and in the middle of traffic.
Who in New York City ever looks up? Especially while crossing
the street? Except perhaps, the mere 54 million tourists who
come here each year?
while the hyphened Ms. Mark-Viverto didn’t single out
the other prominent statue of Columbus standing in Central
Park, a vandal certainly did. He or she defiled it, leaving
“blood”-red paint on the explorer’s hands
and scrawling a warning on its pedestal. An ugly and criminal
incident that certainly goes beyond the right to peaceful
protest. Not to mention its threat of future violence.
Columbus-statue controversy has not been confined
to New York. There was a recent protest in the eponymous Columbus
Ohio, at the site of their Chris standing in front of city
Statues in public places, like that of any
environmental art, which I’ve addressed before (MAY,
2017 MUSE-LETTER, Charging Bull and Fearless Girl
at Street Level), really should go to intent and public acceptance.
And there should be no presumption of perpetuity in the matter.
What goes up, can come down.
For those so passionately deposed, various
questions should be asked and answered. When did the statue
in question go up? Who decided? Why is this person (entity)
worthy of a statue? Who cares? Why? What effect if any, has
the passage of time had on it? To this last question in particular,
speaking of Italian-Americans, Joe Paterno’s statue
was taken down at Penn State when an FBI report revealed that
he had concealed allegations of child sexual abuse by his
top subordinate for several years (“Say it ain’t
Ultimately, one could make the case that perhaps
we shouldn’t erect statues in honor of any, alleged,
figures of great achievement. Especially those who are more
myth than man, so to speak.
Ancestral figures meriting statues as far
as I’m concerned, are those who have played a major
role in defining who we are, or who we aspire to be, and who
speak (sometimes with a heavy accent), to our better angels.
From a personal perspective, that would be my immigrant grandparents
from Calabria— my true heroes. Who had no trouble finding
their way into the new world by way of Ellis Island.
As that is not likely to happen, and speaking
of “other worldly explorations,” how about a statue
of Galileo? Who dealt in science? Who dealt in looking skyward,
rather than in “Land, ho!” Too controversial,
what with his audacious insistence that the earth revolves
around the sun? For which he spent the last eight years of
his life under house arrest?
Anyway, to be honest (though why start now),
I really could care less about Columbus. And you might care
even lesser or least, about my caring less. Which is what
makes the world go ‘round.
Quote of the Month
and Design by Ron Vazzano©
Alongside Edward Hopper’s
“Early Sunday Morning,” which is incorporated
into my website logo, my favorite painting is “The Starry
Night” by Vincent van Gogh. Arguably his best work,
he painted it 1889 while in an asylum. As it appears on virtually
any list of favorite paintings of all time, and with van Gogh
considered to be one of the world’s top two or three
most popular painters, I’m going to make a wild assumption
that a few others share my passion for this work.
I have not only visited it several times over
the years where it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art (and
is the most “selfied” work according to the chief
curator), I once carved its likeness into a pumpkin and entered
it in an office Halloween party contest. (I won). If anyone
else might be so obsessed, and with Halloween almost here,
I’ve provided the pattern I concocted from the painting.
If so inclined, or given to OCD tendencies, feel free to use
“The Starry Night” also served as an inspiration
for “Vincent,” a bittersweet poetic song, written
and first performed by Don McLean in 1971. It opens with the
paint your palette blue and grey
look out on a summer’s day
with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.”
It is sung at the conclusion of “Loving Vincent,”
an unusual new movie, which in a left-brained description
by Variety reads… “a fictionalized, mystery-driven
biopic.” True. But more to the point of its right-brained
conception, it has been billed as “the first fully painted
feature film in the world.” It premiered in New York
last month (a national rollout due October 6th), and I rushed
out to see it.
My review, as it were, encapsulated in six
words and two exclamation points: “Beautifully mind-boggling!
In concept and execution!”
Created and directed by a husband/wife team
who have an obsession with van Gogh that goes light years
beyond carving one of his paintings into the side of a pumpkin,
they spent seven years bringing this project to life.
True to its boast, each of the 65,000 frames
“all of which are derived either from the artist’s
original works, like ‘The Starry Night‘ and ‘Café
Terrace at Night’ (and ten others), or are heavily inspired
by his distinctive thick brush strokes,” are hand-painted
in oils. The goal was to enter a strange middle ground
between still painting and moving image.
This Herculean task, required a recruitment
of 125 painters from around the world. Given the sustained
flow and nuance of movement they achieved during the course
of an hour and a half movie, it would seem that it would have
involved even more than 65,000 oil paintings. The triptych
below, might provide a sense of what was involved in the process.
And this for just a single frame.
In a sense, in transposing van Gogh’s
work to the screen—though it was greatly reimagined
throughout, and with extensive flashbacks in the storyline
done in black and white —one might say the painters
had a head start. Do not many “van Goghs” (of
his approximate 850 total), seem to have movement within them
already? Is not that sky in “The Starry Night,”
When the stunning trailer was first posted
on line last year, it became an overnight sensation garnering
115 million views on Facebook. But not all film critics have
been enamored with the entire 90-minute feature itself. Some
have carped that the story it tells has the feel of a crime
novel, leaning so heavily as it does, on the mysterious circumstances
surrounding van Gogh’s suicide. Not a fan myself of
such a genre, I didn’t think its plot, such as it is,
would be compelling. Yet mysteriously, it was.
Still, as grudgingly conceded by one critic…
“Of course, nobody is going to watch
“Loving Vincent” for its plot. The style of
the film is its substance, and Kobiela and Welchman (the
creator/directors) seem to recognize how oppressive and
backward it is to impose logic on an artist who so vividly
Or as another chimed in with this backhanded
compliment… ”Still, there’s something ineffably
beautiful about such a pure-hearted folly….”
Such criticisms would be akin to saying, “The
moon is ineffably beautiful. But it’s rocky, and therefore,
not really worthy of unbridled approval.”
the movie and the labor of love in its making, there is the
man himself. And given his complexity and torment, one cannot
help but come away with the thought, that only a thin line
lies between insanity and genius. And what line judge gets
to make that call?
you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They did not know how”
In an ancillary way, this groundbreaking film,
on top of all else it achieves, raises that question as well.
Though more implicitly.
Upon a Visit to Montauk
Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse
While all others were making ships.
— Theodore Roethke
|In days gone by who has not built a ship
from the wood of a backyard tree
Absent direction but bent on a trip
Through white-capped waters of identity?
The ship itself is all that is ingrained.
Lack of direction ends in errant sights.
Intoxication at the siren's refrain,
Blinds us to jetties on moonless nights.
The depths of the sea are littered with
Ersatz pirates who set sail in dead prose,
Nearsighted ones who never saw the reef.
But not of prophets and poets and those
Who would dare to think inside the
And avoid the rocks while going full throttle.
Gig: A Reading of
I Remember Mama
I will be participating in
a public reading this month, of that old chestnut of a play,
“I Remember Mama.”
A story about a Norwegian immigrant family living in the 1910’s
in San Francisco, it premiered on Broadway at the Music Box
Theatre on October 19, 1944, and ran for 713 performances.
The cast included Marlon Brando, who in a minor role as Nels,
made his Broadway debut.
My role of Uncle Chris, was originally done
by well-known character actor at the time, Oskar Holmolka.
He would reprise it for the film version three years later,
and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Those of us of a certain age, will remember
the popular TV series that followed and ran from 1949-1957.
At the start of each episode, the eldest sister in the family
would open with a narration while looking back through the
pages of the family album, and conclude wistfully with…
“But most of all when I look back
to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember ...
I Remember Mama
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
7 West 55th Street
October 28, 2017 Saturday at 7pm
October 29, 2017 Sunday at 2pm
Entrance is free of charge