The Christopher Columbus statue in an elbow of Boulevard by the city reservoir was dedicated on a frosty December afternoon rather than the explorer’s official holiday because of a schedule conflict with the Italian ambassador, Nobile Giacomo de Martino, who represented dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist government. The monument, typical of many if not most of Richmond’s public art pieces, took a long and bumpy road to its unveiling day.
The idea originated with Richmond barber Frank Realmuto, who in 1925 organized a drive to honor Columbus. Such an effort today would be fraught with any number of political issues. The same stood then, but for different reasons.
Realmuto considered the statue an expression of cultural identity and a symbol of Italian-American pride of their adopted country. The small Italian contingent in Richmond, less than 1 percent of the city’s population, wanted for Columbus a place of prominence — on Monument Avenue.
Richmond resident Ferruccio Legnaioli was chosen to create the figure. Alfonso Grappone, owner of a memorial business, would make the base. He’d been in Richmond since 1890 when he assisted in the construction of what's known today as Old City Hall.
Ferruccio Legnaioli in his studio
(The photo above shows Legnaoili with a bust in progress at his Richmond studio. This and another image appeared in a 1995 Richmond magazine feature, courtesy of Lou Legnaioli.)
Legnaioli was a trained artist from Florence who immigrated to New York City at the age of 29, in 1902, where he was associated with the famous architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White. Stanford White hired Legnaioli to assist in the decoration of University of Virginia buildings, including the ornate barrel-vault ceiling of Garrett Hall.
Richmond second-generation Italian-American businessman Frank Ferrandini brought Legnaioli to Richmond in 1907. For a short while, they were business partners. The artist stayed with the Ferrandini family until he could find a place to live.
By 1910, Legnaioli employed some 30 people, though some of these were seasonal Italian laborers. He designed and/or installed the plaster ornamentation for what was the Empire Theatre (now Virginia Repertory’s Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre), the National and Colonial theatres, the Shockoe Slip horse fountain, the Zero Mile Marker at Capitol Square, and the First Virginia Regiment statue at Park and Meadow avenues. Legnaioli embellished scores of banks, theaters, churches, office buildings and private homes. His creativity remains part of Richmond’s aesthetic appeal.
Legnaioli, second from right, with Italian workmen he imported to complete his commissions, probably behind his Moore Street studio in Scott's Addition.
Legnaioli’s studio at the time of his Columbus commission was at 1305 Haxall’s Lane, at the foot of South 14th St. toward the Mayo Bridge. Richmonder Sidney S. Sheffield posed as the explorer. Legnaioli then draped him to capture the folds and wrinkles of his overcoat. Meanwhile, debate roiled among newspaper editorial columns and public forums.
On May 28, 1925, the city’s committee on buildings, properties and utilities took up the Columbus proposal. Metalworker E.F. Miner stood and presented a petition signed by 200 people. Miner said the group protested the city donating land to any “sectarian body or organization.” An alderman couldn’t understand how Miner saw this as a religious issue while another felt it would be too close to the Confederate-related statues. The crowd in the chamber erupted into the “rebel yell” and was gavelled into silence. The committee voted 6 to 1 to reject Columbus.
The Times-Dispatch learned that Miner spoke for the Patriotic Welfare Committee, comprising representatives of various fraternal organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan, and other critics of public art. They decried Columbus as a foreigner, a Roman Catholic, and wrongly credited as finding the New World. They gave the Vikings that credit.
This outburst naturally occurred simultaneously with a convention of the National Editorial Association gathered in Richmond. The Richmond News Leader editorially complained that the statue’s opponents “could not have selected a worse time at which to humiliate Richmond in the eyes of intelligent people everywhere.” Editorials appeared in papers in New York City, Illinois and Georgia. The dispute became so raucous that an executive of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad volunteered to purchase the statue for his own yard if only to quell tempers and display the piece.
The common council, the lower body of Richmond’s then two-house City Council, chose on June 1, 1925, to defer the matter to the committee on streets, which approved the monument on June 8 without objection. The selected site, though, was next to the reservoir and Byrd Park Lake. Former Richmonder and Legnaioli aficionado Bill Jenkins said in 1995, “It was kind of a grudging Richmond acceptance. The City Council figured it was too far out of the city for anybody to see it.” The Boulevard Bridge, also completed in 1925, ultimately made the statue one of the most visible in Richmond.
In spite of the near-freezing temperature on Dec. 9, 1927, the public unveiling that proceeded included pomp and speech-making watched by some 2,000 people. Italian ambassador de Martino arrived in his official car flying a small fascist flag. Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. praised Mussolini as “one of the few great supreme leaders the world has produced.” The ambassador added in his remarks that Italy sought peace and that war for the nation “would be suicide.”
De Martino pulled the chord to drop the U.S. and Italian flags. The Richmond Howitzers fired a an air-shattering salute. Two young women who assisted that day were dressed not for the cold but a formal occasion, and they made a larkish photo-worthy pose out of the situation, by wrapping themselves in the flags. As shown below, Elannore T. Carrieri took the Italian, and Anna Guarino Gragnani the United States banner. Gragnani, 101 years old, was guest of honor at the monument’s re-dedication on Sunday.
Legnaioli counted the Columbus statue among his proudest achievements, his late son, architect Lou Legnaioli, recalled in 1995. Ferruccio received the title of Cavalier (Knight) from the Italian king and the Cross of the Crown, the highest honor possible from his native Italy. He died in 1958.
Library of Virginia
Elannore T. Carrieri and and Anna Guarino Gragnani at the 1927 unveiling of the Columbus statue. (Photo courtesy Library of Virginia)