Christopher Columbus is again under siege. New York police currently surround the 75-foot-high bronze Jeronimo Sunol monument to the explorer, which has stood in Central Park since 1894, describing it as “a known target” to those who put Columbus in the same class as Confederate generals and slave traders. Indeed, vandals in Boston decapitated the Columbus statue in the city’s North End waterfront park, following which those described as “local indigenous rights” groups called for its permanent removal. The city’s mayor has expressed sympathy with their cause.
It may be that the only thing that, in our current obsession with identity politics, saves the man who “in 1492, sailed the ocean blue” is his defense by Italian-Americans, who see the Genoa-born seafarer as an ethnic hero. No surprise, then, that the defenders of the Central Park statue — commissioned in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic — include Gov. Cuomo, whose loyalty to his Italian heritage flared in a previous statue-related skirmish, over Italian-born Mother Cabrini.
But those who castigate Columbus profoundly misunderstand the roots of his voyage — and those who celebrate the dynamism of cities should be his defenders. Indeed, Genoa, much like New York, was a city renowned for its commercial prowess rather than its conquistador tradition. Columbus, as Genoa’s most famous son, is a completely appropriate figure to stand in the Big Apple — the contemporary world’s greatest trading city.
The Genoa into which Columbus was born, to a family of small merchants (his father was a weaver who also ran a cheese store), was an independent city-state — one of a group of northern Italian “maritime republics” including Venice and Pisa. These were trading states, reaching east and south. Genoa had ties south to the Levant and the Mediterranean, and east to the Crimea, from which, in the 1300s, it tragically imported the Black Death, not unlike New York City in the COVID-19 era.
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