A Maryland sculptor has completed a replica of Little Italy’s controversial Christopher Columbus statue, and a local group plans to bring it back to Baltimore.
Eastern Shore artist Will Hemsley created the new statue using pieces of the original retrieved from Baltimore’s harbor, where the monument was tossed after it was toppled by protesters on the Fourth of July two years ago.
“The statue is done,” said John A. Pica Jr., a former state senator who is president of Italian American Organizations United Inc. and chairman of the Italian Heritage Festival Committee. “We are now searching for an appropriate home for it.”
The crowd knocked down and dumped the original statue in 2020 at President Street and Eastern Avenue in protest of the Italian explorer’s violent enslavement of native people. It came down as cities across the US experienced a racial reckoning and the Black Lives Matter movement expanded following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and after monuments of those with ties to slavery were taken down in Baltimore and elsewhere.
The replica statue was finished in February. It will move from Hemsley’s studio in the Queen Anne’s County seat of Centerville to Baltimore, likely in the coming weeks, Pica said.
“It’s not going back to its original home. It’s not going back to the plaza,” he said.
The statue will go into temporary storage. Where it ends up permanently is still being determined.
“It’s sad that it ever happened,” Pica said, referring to the statue being toppled. “And it’s caused a lot of distress among the Italian American community.”
Hemsley recalled watching footage in dismay with his father as the protesters dragged and destroyed the statue.
“It was very hard for me, politics aside, to watch an important monument get taken down, because my original sympathies are with the artist,” Hemsley said. “That’s someone’s piece of work, a piece of themselves that’s getting torn down for political reasons. And it wasn’t created for that.”
The pair decided to organize a diving and crane operation to salvage the statue with support from community stakeholders. A civilian crew, including Hemsley, his father and Pica, showed up two days later and fished Columbus out of the water.
Columbus Celebrations Inc., a local nonprofit group that Pica is president of, paid several thousand dollars for the expedition. They retrieved 90% of the statue and whisked it to Hemsley’s studio, he said.
“There’s a lot of Columbus sculptures that were put up over the past couple 100 years. This one in particular is a fantastic sculpture,” Hemsley said. “The Italian sculptor that made this put his heart and blood into this thing.”
Carved in Italian Carrara marble by sculptor Mauro Bigarani, the statue had stood at the edge of Baltimore’s Little Italy since 1984. It was gifted to the city by Italian American Organizations United and unveiled by the US president and the mayor at the time, Ronald Reagan and William Donald Schaefer.
“It was definitely 100% my father’s idea” to save the statue, Hemsley said. “Had citizens not taken the initiative and stood up to it, I think it would likely still be in the harbor.”
He said the city wanted nothing more to do with the statue, which had become a political hot button. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks director signed a termination agreement, finalized Aug. 26, 2020, to give the statue back to Italian American Organizations United.
A New Columbus
The new statue is approximately 9 1/2 feet tall and weighs and 2,000 pounds with the base, Hemsley said. The original was 14 feet, 2 inches, and weighed 17 tons.
Hemsley chipped away at the restoration process, which took 19 months and included a 3D scan of the recovered pieces. Technicians stitched the scanned pieces together like a puzzle before Hemsley and his father, Tilghman Hemsley, hired a company to make a mold, which was filled with 90% crushed marble and 10% mixed resin, he said.
Tilghman Hemsley, who’s also a professional artist and trained painter as well as a lifelong charter-boat captain on the Chesapeake, spearheaded the mission to recover and recreate Columbus, his son said. Tilghman gave his vision and used his money to help launch the project, Will Hemsley said
“It’s just a big pride for them right now,” Hemsley said, referencing the Italian organizations invested in the project. “I think they’re really happy to have it done in a modest fashion and to get it back to the community.”
The project costs $80,000 to $90,000 and was paid for in part by private donors and a $30,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities, said Bill Martin, who is a treasurer at the Italian organizations Pica heads.
“We’re going to support the replica statue. We’re going to support Columbus,” Martin said. “But at the same time, we’re not going to ignore the comments from” those who oppose it.
The Fable is the Hero
Jennifer Folayan is a member of Indigenous Strong, an advocacy group representing Maryland’s Native Americans, and a board member of the Baltimore American Indian Center. She said Italian culture and history should be celebrated — but not Christopher Columbus.
“The actual person was not the hero. It’s the fable that was the hero,” she said. “I think we’ve moved beyond celebrating Columbus as any type of hero.” Moving forward, we should continue to have reconciliation and partnerships.”
Some good did come out of the chaos, Folayan said, even though she said her group did not organize the protest that led to the statue’s toppling. The Baltimore City Council voted in October 2020 to rename the city’s Columbus Day holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and this was a win, she said.
“The truth will always come out. Relics that praise wrongful history are hurtful to the community,” she said. “We’re coming into a time where black and brown people are visible, and to go forward for justice, we cannot allow false stories to continue.”
Folayan hopes this has been a teachable moment and that the statue doesn’t end up in a position of celebration.
Ideally, Martin said, both statues would end up in museums, where they can be respected and referenced in regard to history.
Piazza Little Italy
While the fates of both statues are undecided, officials are considering renaming the statue’s former location, Columbus Piazza, as Piazza Little Italy and putting a new, different statue there, Pica said.
“The Italian American community has discussed this over the last year or so and came up with the idea of an anonymous immigrant” as a replacement, he said.
The city has granted Italian American Organizations United permission to build a fence around the old base to protect it, Pica added.
Talks within the Italian groups have also taken place about putting up signs in the area to recognize other cultures that lived in Little Italy before Italians, such as Indigenous, Jewish and Black people.
“History is not a black-and-white thing. It’s full of nuance,” Hemsley said. “And I think it’s our responsibility as informed citizens to acquaint ourselves with history.”
Any historical figure is going to have a checkered past by today’s standard, so relics reviled by one community could be a source of pride for another, he said.
“I think it’s important not to view history and make a moral judgment based on the standards of today,” Hemsley said. “I think it’s our responsibility as informed citizens to look at history for what it is.”