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Zappia on Christopher Columbus: When Symbolism Clashes with Narrative

Ambassador of Italy's speech opened the Conference "Columbus - History and Myth" held at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York

by Mariangela Zappia

Ambassador Mariangela Zappia opens the conference on Christopher Columbus held at the Italian Cultural Institute. (Photo by Terry W. Sanders)

Columbus Day celebrations and "Indigenous Peoples' Day" are complementary, not antithetical. They are two sides of the same coin which recognize and honor those roots which were pivotal to the formation of a great country and democracy: the United States of America.

I am delighted to open today’s workshop, and would like start by thanking the Consulate General in New York and the Institute of Culture for having promoted this initiative together with the Embassy. A warm grazie also to the speakers and guests present. Over the course of these two days, we will look at the figure of the Genoese navigator from a historical-scientific point of view.

Columbus’s legacy is the subject of one of the most delicate debates in US society today. The symbolism linked to Columbus deeply permeates this country’s culture. Over 6,000 venues are named after Columbus – starting with the District of Columbia, and on to Columbus Ohio, Arkansas, Wisconsin and more. Not to mention the streets, parks, mountains, lakes and rivers named in his honor, or the 150 odd monuments (36 were removed in the last year): all of this makes him the most celebrated historical figure after Presidents Lincoln and Washington.

Today, however, this symbolism clashes with a narrative which sees Columbus as the precursor to colonization, and all that ensued for indigenous peoples. In this context, today more than ever, we need to find a viewpoint which recognizes the suffering endured by Native Americans during the first European explorations and, at the same time, preserves the historical significance of the figure of Columbus, an explorer who, spurred by courage and curiosity, crossed borders, opened new horizons and created bridges between civilizations and continents.

His “discovery” led to the productive relationship between Europe and this side of the Atlantic which, today – five centuries later – continues to be a cornerstone of international relations, and must be  preserved to achieve those ambitious goals of peace and prosperity for the benefit of our peoples.

Columbus also represents the closeness between Italy and the United States, two countries linked by a long-standing friendship whose strength and prosperity is rooted in our shared common values.

Furthermore, he is a powerful symbol for the Italian community in the U.S., and the epitome of the community’s integration and affirmation in the United States. Therefore, Italians in the United States regard Columbus Day as a traditional and important moment to celebrate their identity and the extraordinary contribution they have made to this great country in every sphere, from the economy to politics, from art to science and research.

In addition to the 332,000 Italian citizens enrolled in the registry of Italians Resident Abroad (AIRE), there are officially close to 18 million Americans of Italian descent, whose contributions to this country were recognized just recently by President Biden, with the Proclamation on the occasion of this year’s Columbus Day, celebrated on October 11th.

To honor them, and at the same time pay homage to the suffering inflicted on native populations by colonization, we must find a positive viewpoint that encompasses both. To do this, we must work together at all levels, be it political, diplomatic, or with civil society, to build bridges and bolster mutual understanding so as to reach a shared reading of the past. We can start by looking at Columbus Day celebrations and at those for “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” as complementary, not antithetical. They are two sides of the same coin which recognize and honor those roots which were pivotal to the formation of a great country and democracy: the United States of America.

Director Fabio Finotti introduces Ambassador Mariangela Zappia at the conference on Christopher Columbus held at the Italian Cultural Institute  (Photo by Terry W. Sanders)

Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs follows this evolving debate closely, through the Italian Embassy in Washington and the extensive Italian consular network, to support and participate in the events honoring the Genoese navigator. We also strive to raise awareness in the US that the figure of Columbus, and indeed Columbus Day celebrations, represent an important reality for Italian institutions and Italian-American organizations alike.

This year we once again took part in several Columbus Day celebrations held throughout the country. In doing so, we emphasized the need to recall the positive aspects of a “discovery” that connected worlds, opened exchanges, trade and a profitable relationship that enriched the two sides of the ocean, while at the same time pay homage to the suffering and pain that followed those first explorations. The importance of Columbus Day for the Italian and Italian-American communities was reaffirmed on each occasion, as a traditional means to celebrate their cultural heritage and contribution to all spheres of life in the United States.

Italy will continue to encourage initiatives that enhance our historical and cultural heritage as well as the associations that promote it. This is in line with the resolution approved a few months ago by Italy’s Parliament to honor and protect the memory of Christopher Columbus. The Resolution “commits the government to take action, on a political and diplomatic level, to safeguard the culture embodied by Christopher Columbus” and to use all available communication tools, both at the level of bilateral Italy-US relations and at the multilateral level, to enhance the true historical role of the Genoese navigator.

Cari amici, I am confident that this two-day workshop will be an excellent opportunity for discussion, and will result in many interesting insights. I wish you all buon lavoro – a most satisfying and productive session.


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