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Why does San Francisco have a statue of Christopher Columbus?

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Italian explorer’s edifice installed 60 years ago now a curious sight

A low-angle photo of the Columbus Statue next to Coit Tower with a blue sky in the background. Photo by Tinnaporn Sathapornnanont/Shutterstock

Officially, it’s Columbus Day today across most of the United States. However, cities like Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, and Watsonville observe it as Indigenous People’s Day.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the 12-foot tall statue of Christopher Columbus right next to Coit Tower celebrated its 60th birthday this year, installed on October 12, 1957 (also Columbus Day) to much evident rejoicing at the time.

As the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin reported:

"Singers, sailors from the American and Italian Navies, and spectators stand in reverent silence as 12-foot statue of Christopher Columbus is unveiled today on Telegraph Hill. Massive sculpture piece was the work of Italy's Vittorio de Colbertaldo. Columbus Day weekend will be highlighted here tomorrow with parade that starts at 1 p.m. at Market and McAllister and winds along Grant, Bush, Kearny and Columbus ave. to Washington Square."

Columbus never visited California, never set foot on what is today the United States, and never even sailed the Pacific Ocean, onto which his North Beach likeness now gazes. So, why in the world is the statue here?

According to the dedication inscribed nearby, the Columbus statue was “presented to the people of San Francisco by the Columbus Monument Committee, with grateful acknowledgement to [...] the city of Genoa for the donation of the pedestal and the Marini family.”

Incorporated 60 years ago, the Delaware-based Columbus Monument Committee still exists and is still erecting Columbus effigies, recently unveiling a new one in Southington, Connecticut as a “gift to the Italian-American community.”

The reference to the Marini family recalls Frank Marini, the noted North Beach philanthropist.

According to a 2007 report by the San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, the statue is meant to “celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans and their heritage,” hence its presence in the North Beach/Telegraph Hill area.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian Americans embraced Columbus as a hero figure to combat anti-Italian sentiment.

NPR reported in 2013:

Because Italian-Americans were struggling against religious and ethnic discrimination in the United States, many in the community saw celebrating the life and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus as a way for Italian Americans to be accepted by the mainstream.

As historian Christopher J. Kauffman once wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."

Making the presence of the North Beach statue even more worrisome, the sculptor, Vittorio de Colbertaldo, was a noted fascist.

Vandals have taken to painting the hands of Columbus statues across the country blood red in recent months as a gesture of protest. In 2001, a Santa Cruz man attacked a statue of Columbus at San Jose City Hall with a sledgehammer.

Photo by Benny Marty/Shutterstock