Saturday, August 28, 2010

The "Atrocious" Garibaldi Statue - Washington Square

Not long after the death of Giuseppe Garibaldi on June 2, 1882, the editors of the Italian-American newspaper Progreso Italio-Americano began fund-raising efforts for a statue memorializing the Italian hero. Nothing short of grand would do.

Italian sculptor Giovanni Turini was commissioned to execute the work – a complex grouping of three figures arranged on a naturalistic rock pedestal. Garibaldi was to stand atop the rock, reaching across his torso to grasp the hilt of his sword. On one side, below him, an Italian soldier would stand with his bayonet ready; at the other side would be a bugler sounding the call to arms. It would be a costly but memorable monument. The main figure was estimated to cost $4000 with the two others adding $3000 to the total – not including the sculpting of the pedestal.

Because Garibaldi had lived a year – between 1850 and 1851 – on Staten Island, his popularity with New York Italians was especially passionate. Donations to the newspaper initially poured in.

By September 8, 1885 enough money was raised to forge the main statue. A preliminary unveiling was held at Bauer’s Union Park in Harlem to the raucous approval of 3000 Italians, many of whom had served under Garibaldi.

Despite the popularity of the hero and the overwhelming desire to memorialize him, donations tapered off. The working class Italians had given what they could. Nevertheless, the ambitious project plodded ahead. Three years later The New York Times reported that a site had been chosen for the statue.

“Work is advancing on the foundation for the statue of Garibaldi, which will occupy a prominent place east of the fountain in Washington Park…The site was selected by the Park Commissioners and is entirely satisfactory to the Committee, but not so to the Sculptor, Mr. Turini, who claims that it is too near the sidewalk to be effective.”

Mr. Turini would find other things unsatisfactory before long.

With everything apparently under control in New York, the sculptor went to Europe for a brief stay. While he was gone the committee in charge of the statue project realized the funds for their grandiose grouping would never be raised – already the single forged statue had cost $10,000; well over-budget and more than they had raised for the entire project altogether.

With the scheduled unveiling closing in and only one figure cast, the committee decided to forego the grouping and, instead, mount Garibaldi on a traditional stone base. But there was a problem.

The Garibaldi figure had been designed to stand on an irregular rock, not a flat surface.

The New York Times later reported, “Mr. Turini is always very sad when he tells what happened next, and art must have felt very badly indeed when the legs of Garibaldi were yanked into a new position after being cast in bronze.” Indeed, Turini called the foundry workers who disfigured his art in order to make it fit the pedestal “cruel amputators.”

The Times said “The man who suggested the change is said to have argued with Garibaldi’s friends in the Italian colony on the basis that Garibaldi was dead anyway, and he would not object, forgetting that the public might some day realize that it had a monstrosity of a statue on its hands.”

“Without much ceremony,” said The New York Times, “Garibaldi’s legs were made to fit by bending them in the bronze foundry.”

Turini was heartsick. “If I had only known what was to be done to the design,” he said, “I would have modeled and cast a new statue then and there at my own expense. I knew nothing of it until the bent figure was in position.”  The single, now-contorted, statue was out of context, he explained “For example, if you cut 50 pages out of the heart of a 100-page book and try and make sense out of what is left, that is just what was done with my Garibaldi group.”

Nevertheless, the dedication went on. On June 4, 1888 the awkward 8-foot, 10-inch statue of Guiseppe Garibaldi on its granite base was unveiled. More than twenty bands played and an enormous crowd of New York Italians pressed in to hear Vincenzo Palidori, Chairman of the Statue Committee, Mayor Hewitt and other dignitaries. Beneath the 14-1/2 foot pedestal a glass jar had been buried. Inside was a clipping from Progreso Italio-Americano of June 4, 1882 regarding the hero’s death, a listing of the statue committee, and other documents including a flier announcing the unveiling.

The mayor spoke at length about Garibaldi’s life and triumphs. He never mentioned the odd angle at which his statue stood.

In May of 1896 Giovanni Turini announced that he would design and have cast a new statue of Garibaldi as his gift to New York City, provided the old statue was destroyed. Although the newspapers reported that the old statue would be replaced, it never came to pass.

The public was not allowed, however, to forget the vandalism. The New York Times printed a lengthy article on May 7, 1899 that included the Garibaldi monument. The headline read “Unsightly New York Statues.”

In 1901, when discussing a proper site for the new Alexander Lyman Holley statue in the Square, The New York Times again derided the Garibaldi figure, “The bronze contortionist, labeled Garibaldi, on the east of the driveway through the park, means something to the habitual frequenters of that pleasure ground and is appropriatedly placed.”

A reader, in March 1904, wrote to the editor of The New York Times regarding park statuary. “The most atrocious of all is the horrible effigy of Garibaldi in Washington Square. That figure is enough to make the park sparrows quake with fear and to make the babies in their carriages cross-eyed in their endeavors to avoid seeing it.”

Nevertheless, the Garibaldi statue continued to be central to Italian festivities and memorials for decades. In 1907 a procession of 10,000 left from the Washington Square statue to the Garibaldi cottage in Staten Island; and in 1917 the Prince of the House of Savoy visited it, placing a wreath there.

By the 1960s an unexplainable tradition had developed among the New York University Finance School students whereby each first year student would toss a penny to the base of Garibaldi’s pedestal.

The entire monument was moved about 15 feet in 1970, at which time the long-forgotten glass jar was discovered and its contents read for the first time in almost a century.

The monument was restored in 1998, including cleaning both the statue and base, repatining the bronze and applying a protective coating as well as repairing the stone. The general’s scabbard, which had long been stored away after being vandalized, was reapplied in September of 2000.

Garibaldi still stands awkwardly on his pedestal . More than a century after his unveiling, however, the furor over his posturing has greatly diminished.


  1. Even back in 1969 incoming freshman knew that if a virgin EVER passed in front of the statue, Garibaldi would draw his sword.