I happened to be in South Bend, Ind., a couple of days after the University of Notre Dame, a distinguished place, announced that it would cover twelve murals by Luigi Gregori from the early 1880s depicting scenes from the life of Christopher Columbus. Some students, local organizations, and several national Native American advocacy groups found the murals offensive to indigenous people. In their view, the paintings whitewashed the ruin of many along the route of Columbus’s four voyages, which took him nowhere near Indiana but to faraway Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Triggering bad feeling were scenes of the locals embracing Christianity when forced conversion, enslavement, or murder were more likely to occur, sometimes, complainers insist, at Columbus’s instigation.
On the one hand, the murals are part of the university’s aesthetic history. Many people still look at Columbus as a revered figure. No one, much less the stewards of a Catholic institution, wants to be called an iconoclast. Only mobs, nuts, and Puritans get their thrills destroying art. On the other hand, lots of people, not only the Native American groups and outside mischief-makers, are uneasy. The offense taken is more than fringe fractiousness. Serious people committed to the school’s Christian mission find the artworks unfair and divisive. The university is removing a longstanding irritant.
The murals are not triumphs of painting. They’re workmanlike and professional. This isn’t a hill to die on. I understand that. The school’s leadership has looked at its options carefully. They’re people of goodwill and have to deal with Native American students as well as local Native Americans looking for new causes now that they’ve gotten a casino. There’s a national corps of outrage pimps agitating against Catholics and Catholic institutions now. They are bottomless-pit people, with an agenda that goes well beyond Columbus. They’ll be back on campus before long, aggrieved by something new and more essential to the school’s ideals.
I visited the building this week and looked at the murals. They occupy choice real estate in the first-floor ceremonial entrance hall of the university’s elegant Victorian Main Building. The hall leads to an impressive rotunda and dome. The murals were commissioned for the space immediately after the building opened and are part of its architectural integrity.
The school proposes to cover them with a bland, blank woven material. This sea of beige won’t be ideal. To the university’s credit, it will do nothing that’s permanent. Years from now, Columbus might be rehabilitated. Like the fig leaves slapped on Roman and Renaissance nudes by the prigs of the day, the Columbian cover-up may then be stripped away. Everyone, of course, will ask, “What were they thinking?”
Notre Dame is a great university with pretty, comfortable, but conspicuously undistinguished architecture. It continues to build in a wimpy collegiate Gothic style that was most in vogue in the 1920s. It’s getting a new art museum designed by Robert A. M. Stern. I hope it’s not as hideous as Stern’s residential colleges at Yale, done in what is now a very unfresh collegiate Gothic style. Its oldest buildings, such as the Main Building, done in what I call the “state capitol style” popular in the 1870s and 1880s, offer restrained, dignified opulence, solidity, and a sense of purpose. They don’t have much swagger, but flourishes like the Columbus murals are part of their character and presence. People with good design taste will miss them.
I’m a Methodist, so I’ll leave it to others to articulate the profound significance of Columbus in combatting the terrible anti-Catholicism in America dating from the Irish immigrant wave in the 1840s and 1850s through subsequent waves from southern and Eastern Europe. Columbus was a central figure in integrating Catholic Americans into the national story. It’s probably more faithful to the artist’s intent to say the murals rebut hate in the manner of their day rather than foment it.
Columbus Day is a holiday with multiple meanings but mostly, in the Northeast and Midwest, it’s a gesture of respect to millions of Italian Americans. The no-goodnik conquistadors were Spanish. Columbus was from Genoa. That Italian Americans haven’t risen in riot about the diminution of Columbus is a sign both of their assimilation and their transition to concerns more important than tribe, such as the economy, health care, or, in the case of students, their homework. Those stuck in the identity swamp, take note.
In thinking about most questions of 19th-century American taste and culture, it’s always smart at least to look at Washington Irving, who did the most to establish Columbus’s fame and heft. His 1828 four-volume biography of Columbus was America’s best-selling biography in the 19th century. With more than 60 editions and never out of print, it’s probably the best-selling biography ever. Irving is known for Rip van Winkle and the Headless Horseman, but he was in his day among America’s most respected historians. More than a third of his copious production concerned not American subjects but Spain. He was the American minister to Spain in the 1840s. In the 1820s, living in Spain and working for the American consulate, he was the first American with access to Spanish court records.
Irving often tripped the light fantastic in his histories. His Columbus was a chivalric hero in the spirit of fictional characters crafted by Sir Walter Scott, his British parallel. He did, though, strive mightily and with much evidence to pry Columbus from the grips of Spanish conquest, which, even in Irving’s time, carried serious baggage. Irving’s Columbus was a man of science and courage who fought the Flat Earthers in the Spanish court. He was can-do among a crowd of it’ll-never-happen, how-dare-you bigots, dolts, and flunkies. He was scorned as a dreamer. He was also flagrantly Italian. His Columbus is as much the guiding storyline for the Notre Dame murals as his ardent Catholicism.
The Notre Dame story has a national angle. Prominent in the Capitol’s rotunda in Washington, D.C., is a painting by John Vanderlyn from 1842 depicting Columbus’s 1492 landing. It’s not thematically different from some of the Notre Dame murals. William Powell’s 1853 painting of De Soto’s discovery of the Mississippi is there, too. Vanderlyn’s picture shows Columbus as a Christian proselytizer. De Soto and his conquistadors look like grabby, gaudy adventurers. Near it are two paintings: one of the baptism of Pocahontas that mostly concerns Christian conversion and the adoption of an Anglo lifestyle, and a painting of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Unlike the conquistadors, who were men without women and coarser for it, the Pilgrims traveled as families. They sought permanent settlement, not a fast peseta.
These aren’t billboards with one message, though, and neither are the Columbus murals at Notre Dame. Their iconography is complex. We can treat them as one-note cartoon cutouts, but that’s for idiots. Are these rotunda pictures next on the chopping block? Where does it all stop? Do we banish Pocahontas because she became a rich London housewife rather than Cher? Do we force Italians to apologize for what the Romans did to the Etruscans? It turns silly and a waste of energy really fast.
Irving’s view was settled history for generations. Columbus became the Jacques Cousteau of his time, surrounded by Spanish evil-doers, who, in Irving’s view, turned a voyage of adventure, exploration, and science into a get-rich-quick scheme. Today, our knowledge about Columbus and his era is far from complete. New documents continue to emerge from archives. Before a war on art gains traction, might a few history classes be useful? I hear Notre Dame has a great department.