March 8, 2010

The Maine Monument in the First Light of March

A week ago, on a bright afternoon before the snow melted, I was walking south along a path in Central Park toward the entrance of Merchant's Gate. Looking toward Columbus Circle, I was arrested by the spectacle of warm afternoon sunlight cast upon the Maine Monument. It was the kind of sunlight that suffuses surfaces almost like a golden fluid.
The Maine Monument stands as a memorial to the American sailors who died on February 15, 1898 when their battleship exploded in the Havana harbor. Six week later, Spain and the United States were at war. When the war ended in December of that year, the treaty agreement left the world power of Spain considerably weakened, turning over their large territorial claims throughout the world - the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii - to the United States.

With his own empire of newspapers, publisher William Randolph Hearst called for the creation of a memorial to honor the sailors, resulting in a flood of contributions by citizens, many of them schoolchildren. As the historic sign on the monument (NY Parks) explains, Hearst favored the idea of placing the monument in New York Harbor, but eventually the Times Square area was selected. When it was discovered that a comfort station was being erected in the spot, the current location near Merchant's Gate became the solution, a fitting counterpoint to the statue of Christopher Columbus. Architect H. Van Buren Magonigle and sculptor Attilio Piccirilli subsequently created the monument. The monument was placed here in 1913.
From 2010

Piccirilli immigrated to New York from Tuscany, Italy and became the most accomplished artist in his family of marble cutters and stone carvers. The Piccirilli Brothers carved the famous pair of lions at the entrance of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue as well as sections of the Washington Square Arch and the allegorical carvings on the cornice of the Customs House at Bowling Green.

Typical of Beaux-Arts design and architecture, the visual language of allegory in the Maine Monument conveys the lofty ideals of the civic structure as well as the particular details of a story. At the top of the monument, a bronze sculpture depicts a woman riding a chariot commanded by sea horses. Figures on either side of the pedestal represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On all surfaces, sea creatures and shells symbolize the dominion of the sea and the rising global aspirations of the United States.

The allegorical group shown here, facing Columbus Circle, is titled The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble. Within the context of the Spanish-American War, it's easy to understand the allegory. The ship of the United States takes to the high seas, poised and ready to sail into any harbor. The boy is at the bow of the ship, arms open and stretched to the vast ocean. Above, the maternal figure at the pedestal is Peace herself, while the seated male figure (Courage) and the nurturing female (Fortitude) bring serious weight to the voyage at hand.

Because the figures were so well aligned with the afternoon sun this time of year, they looked like they were communing with the sunlight, the kind that hints at Spring before the arrival of leaves and blossoms. It was easy enough to ignore the intended allegory of war and peace and read the figures instead as a story of sunbathers looking forward to spring break.

Image by Walking Off the Big Apple.

Related post:
A Roundabout Walk in Columbus Circle

2 comments:

Pascale said...

Welcome back :) Am so longing for Spring too...

Tinky said...

Great description--although your "sunbathers" look a little cold to me!