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In the Name of Columbus

An appeal from Genoa to bring to the US one of two works by Renzo Piano dedicated to the explorer

orologi colombo renzo piano

One of Renzo Piano's clock in tribute to Cristopher Columbus.

Originally meant to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the voyage that brought Christopher Columbus to discover America, two clocks designed by the Ligurian architect Renzo Piano had gone missing. Now they have been recovered and are the focus of a movement to commemorate the Italian navigator.

It is October 12th, five hundred and twenty-five years ago: three caravels led by the Ligurian Christopher Columbus make landfall on San Salvador (now Watling Island, Bahamas); their crews mistakenly thought that they have reached Marco Polo’s Asia. Instead, they came upon a new continent, which would later be called “America,” from another explorer, the Tuscan Amerigo Vespucci, who later realized that this land was not an Asian territory but rather a “fourth part of the Earth.” Columbus is not the first (we now know that most certainly the Vikings preceded him centuries before), but he is the explorer who would make this discovery a landmark moment in European and world history. Without a doubt the figure of Columbus in the New World is controversial, because of his tie to colonialism and to the extermination of native populations. But in his homeland, the navigator’s fame never faded, and Liguria views him as a son they can be proud of.

1992 was the five-hundred-year anniversary of the ships’ crossing and, in the spirit of celebration, the Ligurian architect Renzo Piano was commissioned by the “Columbus ’92” – society that was created to plan the events for the anniversary celebration – two structures to commemorate the ties between America and Europe: one meant for Genoa, the other for New York City. The first, installed in Piazza De Ferrari in 1988, was dismantled in 1992 after Columbus Day, but while it stood in the square, Genoa’s citizens and tourists alike could follow the countdown on the nine different displays that composed it. The second, unfortunately, never made it across the ocean. Later, the two structures disappeared without a trace.

orologi colombo renzo piano

Renzo Piano’s clock.

A recent initiative, in the wake of an extremely fortuitous discovery, has now revived the possibility of finding a home and a happy ending for the artistic project between these sister cities. Giuseppe Varlese, an entrepreneur with a wide array of cultural interests and president of the pro loco organization I Caruggi in Genoa, says he found the two sculptures in the old warehouse of a “frecciamino,” a scrap iron collector, a building that dates back to the city’s days as a Maritime Republic, and now used for grain storage. “I purchased the warehouse along with all its leftover materials, including the sculptures, for a totally different project, which was to produce a new version of Bryton, an ancient Ligurian beer, the first to be made with hops. From that project, I gathered funds to focus on the two Piano sculptures, in collaboration with I Caruggi. The banks wouldn’t help me out, unfortunately, and I went through some tough financial times. But my passion for the project overcame every difficulty.”

From there, a painstaking, complicated, costly restoration project began: “It’s almost like we just wanted to wipe away a period of poor management of public funds, forgetting all about the countdown,” explains Varlese. As of today, one of the two creations has been refurbished and is in its test phase in Genoa. “We’ve identified some important town squares where we can install it, but the scarcity of funds at our disposal right now makes everything very difficult; for the same reason, the restoration of the second sculpture, which is supposed to be brought to New York, is proceeding slowly. Mario Quaglia, the project manager at the time, says that some Italian-Americans have identified and arranged a place for the sculpture in the large square in Columbus Circle.”

And what does Piano have to say about all of this? “The architect,” tells Varlese, “has been kept up to date on our movements and, in a recent interview, has underscored the value of an ‘ephemeral artifact that represents the industriousness of the Ligurian people,’ expressing satisfaction for its ongoing restoration.” Various associations are involved, including the Ligurians in the World Association, which represented Genoa and Liguria in the last year Columbus Day Celebration in New York; the National Committee for Columbus, promoters of the well-attended traditional events in folk costume; and A Compagna, the oldest Genoese cultural association, founded January 21st 1923, which will become the leading proponents. A Compagna’s director, Maurizio Dacca, quotes their mission: “Compagna is an association for all the Genoese who love their city and their land, who are proud of its ancient glories, its beauty, its traditions and the language and customs of its people.”

orologi colombo renzo piano

Genoa representation at Columbus Day parade.

Dacca also explains that the association is no stranger to cultural rescues and recoveries: “Right from its foundation, the association worked to revive certain ceremonies and historical events that had fallen to the wayside, and it is the only association to have had the honor of participating in official celebrations with the City of Genoa. So, it’s clear that we have the figure of our great compatriot in our hearts, and we feel that we must draw new attention to ‘the genius of the seas,’ as P. E. Taviani writes, because Columbus is universally known as our main representative, not only for the Genoese citizens, but also for Italians. He is the man who laid the foundations for the modern age, and we should celebrate him.”

According to A Compagna, now is the moment for Genoa, and for the city’s current administrators above all to recognize this peculiarity and find the pride to dedicate their city to the navigator, officially adopting, with the approval of the Municipal Board, the title “Genoa—City of Christopher Columbus.” “A more complete and honorific name”—continues Dacca—“rooted in the city’s history and effective for revamping the city’s image across all the seas of the world and in all the countries that overlook the seas! So, you see, Giuseppe Varlese’s wonderful initiative, along with the restoration of the sculpture by Renzo Piano, could function as the capstone for this official recognition, and, for this reason, we will continue to work hard until we spark adequate synergy throughout the cultural and socio-economic worlds. Furthermore, during the October 12th celebrations at the Columbus’s house, the United States Consul General has always welcomed Compagna with great affection, attention and friendship, but also the presence of representatives from Genoa’s sister cities is a stimulus to let this project to set sail.”

The Comitato Nazionale per Colombo (CNC – Columbus National Committee) is present in many regions of Italy and, under the name International Committee for Christopher Columbus (ICCC), in various countries, including Panama, Iceland, Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece, Peru and Ecuador. President Bruno Aloi explains: “The committee promoted the celebration of October 12th as a national holiday, because of the historically symbolic role this date has assumed (the end of the Middle Ages, the start of the Renaissance, the meeting of the Old and New Worlds) and due to the desire to preserve the memory of the great seafarers who, like Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Diaz and other valiant navigators, have unveiled new facets of our planet.”

More than six hundred districts have signed the petition, from Rome to Naples, Milan, Turin, Bolzano, Venice, Genoa, and Florence, along with more than four thousand associations; on the bureaucratic front, two legislative proposals signed by members from both the left and right wings have been presented to the Chamber and Senate, and a conference was held on the cruise ship Costa Concordia in the port of Savona, with more than five hundred attendees. As a result, the government decreed October 12th a national holiday (without leave from work), but the committee intends to keep pushing toward their goal and, in the meantime, to continue to focus on conferences, art exhibits (such as the show Artists of the Old and New Worlds), musical performances with authors’ readings on the theme of Columbus and other cultural activities.

orologi colombo renzo piano

Columbus Day Parade in New York City.

For 25 years, the committee has been organizing the historical procession in Genoa called Cloisters in the Age of Columbus, with the participation of European historical societies and Latin American folk groups, along with representation from the maritime world, such as the Italian Maritime Mercantile Academy, the Nautical Institutes of Genoa, Camogli and Savona, The Coast Guard Auxiliary, Marine Conservation and Arms Associations. “We have always included Latin American associations”—continues Aloi—“not only because of the figure of Columbus, but primarily because of the discovery, or better yet the encounter between two worlds and two civilizations that, in the course of these centuries, for better or worse, have been intertwined through the flows of migration. The procession is an homage to the pre-Columbian civilizations and to the New World, in a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood between the two peoples.”

The parade begins at the so-called Columbus’s house with a reading of the notary act that bestowed the home-workshop on Vico Dritto Ponticello to Domenico Columbus; “then we perform brief fragments about Christopher Columbus and his family’s life, readings of letters written by Columbus himself to the King and Queen of Spain, and then courtly and historical dances are performed, alternated with traditional dances from Latin America and readings of texts by friar Bartolomé de las Casas in defense of the indigenous peoples of America.”

orologi colombo renzo piano

Renzo Piano’s clock.

The CNC supports Giuseppe Varlese’s initiative because, as Bruno Aloi explains again, “rather than the figure of the Ligurian navigator, we believe it is more pertinent to focus on the date of October 12th, regardless of the hypothesis of earlier discoveries going all the way back to the Siberian peoples who, without doubt, crossed the Bering Straits. For this reason, we support the installation of the sculptures in Genoa and New York, and I’d even consider a third to be placed at the light house in Colon, in the Dominican Republic, in order to make a logical connection with the island of Hispaniola, which was discovered during that first voyage. The financial problem persists, but we hope for an interest on the part of the Italian communities and political authorities within these three countries.”

The current objective, therefore, is to find within the Italian-American community a partner who will help to complete the project, as Varlese reiterates: “Through crowdfunding or similar initiatives, aimed at cementing the friendship between two peoples: in practical terms, the two screens [editor’s note: the sculptures have a television screen at the top] could air the everyday life of New York to Genoa and that of Genoa to New York. In the meantime, we hope to locate a site or museum where we can install the sculpture within the US.”

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