MIAMI — The myth of racial equality in America finally appears to be toppling, and the monuments that commemorate centuries of brutal injustices are coming down with it. During weeks of global demonstrations against anti-Black police violence and racism, statues of slave traders, Confederate soldiers, colonial criminals, and authoritarian monarchs have been lit on fire, painted over, beheaded, and removed by local authorities.
In Miami’s Bayfront Park, seven people were arrested after defacing a bronze of Christopher Columbus on Wednesday, its hands, face, and chest painted with symbolic red stains and George Floyd’s name and “BLM” sprayed on the pedestal along with a hammer and sickle, the popular working-class emblem. A nearby statue of Juan Ponce de León was also graffitied with the words “Libertad ya” (“Liberty now”) written in Spanish across the base.
Only three of the seven suspects arrested were charged with vandalism. The rest face a number of charges, including resisting an officer, disorderly conduct, and incitement to riot.
The likeness of Columbus, notorious for pillaging, raping, and murdering Native people on the lands he is credited with “discovering,” has been a popular target of protesters: this week, a group led by members of a local Native American advocacy organization took down his statue outside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul after decades of attempting to have it legally removed. In Boston and Richmond, monuments to the colonizer have met similar fates.
The Columbus statue in Miami’s Bayfront Park, however, is a little-known but curious piece of fascist history. It is the work of Count Vittorio di Colbertaldo, a former bodyguard of Benito Mussolini. The count was part of Mussolini’s “moschettieri del Duce,” known as the Black Musketeers for their dark uniforms. Di Colbertaldo was also the group’s designated sculptor: during his tenure in the corps — which was voluntary and not remunerated — he produced a work commemorating the 15th anniversary of its founding, which was presented to Il Duce himself.
That’s not where Di Colbertaldo’s problematic antecedents end. For the East Africa Pavilion of the First Triannual Exhibition of Italian Overseas Territories in Naples in 1940, he created a sculptural group titled “La fraternità delle armi e del lavoro nella conquista dell’Impero” (“The fraternity of arms and work in the conquest of the Empire”). The propagandistic exhibition’s aim was to celebrate the “achievements of value and of Italian work in Africa,” positing its colonialist expansion not as conquest, but as a natural continuation of Italian territory.
In 1952, the Italian Consul in Miami organized a committee to erect a statue honoring Columbus in Bayfront Park. The City of Miami agreed to the site, but would not provide the funds, so the consul led a successful fundraising mail campaign. Di Colbertaldo was commissioned to create the 27-foot bronze, unveiled October of that year.
Five years later, the count was asked by the Arts Commission of San Francisco to create a Columbus sculpture for the city’s Pioneer Park, erected beneath the famous Coit Tower. That statue, though seemingly still intact as of this writing, has been defaced on other occasions; in 2019, it was doused in red paint, a call to action written across its pedestal — “destroy all monuments of genocide and kill all colonizers.” A recent petition to the San Francisco mayor demanding that it be taken down has over 500 signatures.
Then as now, some members of the Italian-American community have expressed their opposition to the defacement or toppling of monuments to Columbus. In the state of New York, home to 1.3 million Italians and Italian-Americans in the NYC metro area alone, a statue of the colonizer in Central Park has been guarded by NYPD officers since Thursday. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo stood firmly against its removal, saying the colonizer “represents the Italian American legacy.”
Those who still defend and heroize Columbus tend to argue that his alleged achievements took place in the 15th century, when humankind apparently could not yet grasp that genocide was immoral. It’s worth noting, though, that Columbus was stripped of his noble titles during his lifetime, accused of abuse and mismanagement. His men’s mistreatment of Native people and colonists in Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) prompted a bloody rebellion that led to Columbus’s arrest.
In response to Cuomo, one Twitter user pointed out that Columbus was not Italian-American, and even the concept of Italian national identity did not exist at the time — the explorer spent most of his life in Spain, and Italy did not become a unified nation-state until 1861.
“Put up a memorial to Sacco and Vanzetti instead,” they suggest, evoking two leftist, anti-capitalist Italian immigrants living in poverty in Massachusetts, who were wrongly convicted and executed for murder in the 1920s.
On social media, others have quickly risen to the occasion with their own, often humorous ideas for the Italian heroes who should be immortalized in bronze and marble.