Monday 18 January 2010

The Last Journey of Columbus

By Richard Morley.

In 1492 Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue. He left Palos on the 3rd of August and arrived in the Caribbean on October the 11th, seventy days later.

In the last three months of 2009 it has taken him twelve days longer to move just one hundred metres.

Now you see it >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Now you don't!

That journey began at the beginning of October and he finally arrived on the 15th of December. That one hundred metres took eighty two days. And when he arrived not only had he been misdirected, but the great discoverer of a new land has been isolated with water all around him.

In yet one more example of the ayuntamiento moving the street furniture, his column has been moved from the corner of his eponymous plaza and placed in the in the centre of one of the busiest intersections in Madrid.

When I wrote about the Plaza Colon some months ago a comment from a reader in Barcelona pointed out that while Columbus’s column there was higher, at least the one in Madrid had him facing west, towards the New World he discovered. Now, to add insult to injury, in his new position he faces south.

Part of this great remodelling of the city, the wonderful “Plan E” that is designed to provide jobs for the jobless, was a redesign of the confluence of The Paseos de Castellana and Recoletos with the Calles of Goya and Génova. These roads meet at an intersection that a few short months ago had a very active elliptical fountain. In mid summer that was all swept away and I remember thinking that was sensible as it’s a busy intersection and the fountain really impeded the traffic flow. Now the fountains have been replaced by a pool of water with Columbus marooned on a small island in its centre.

So basically, after months of work, nothing has changed and while it might be more aesthetically pleasing to have Columbus face the oncoming traffic coming up from the Paseo de Recoletos, all symbolism has been lost.

Apart from providing work for the unemployed I really fail to see the reason for this.

I have to visit the Plaza Colon twice every week, so I watched while the work progressed with some curiosity. Where he stood before, in the corner of the plaza, visitors could get a close up view of the relief carvings at the base of the column in safety. Now it would be a brave tourist indeed who attempted to defy the traffic for a few digital pictures to take back home.

In his previous spot he stood aloft, triumphantly surveying his world. In the centre of the paseo he now seems isolated and reduced in stature by the towering building behind him. A great man has been diminished.

But this is not the first time he has been moved. Since the time the column was first erected in the late 1800s by his descendants, not by a grateful nation, Madrid seems to have been uncomfortable with wherever they put him.

A hundred years ago he stood not far from where he is now, but the plaza de Colon was then a place of peace, a garden of tranquillity, at least judging from photos of the time.

The monument, base and column by Arturo Mélida and the Italian Marble statue of Columbus on top by Jerónimo Suñol, was erected between 1881 and 1885 in what was then named the Plaza de Santiago, or Saint James’ Square. This was renamed the Plaza de Colón in 1893. With the demolishing of the Royal Mint, which stood on the Calle Serrano side of the plaza, in 1970, the plaza was remodelled into an open, mostly concrete area, and an area known as the “Jardines de Descubrimiento”, the Gardens of Discovery, containing the huge, monolithic monument by Joaquín Vaquero Turcios dedicated to the men and vessels of Columbus’s voyage. At the moment the view of much of these “Macro Sculptures” is obscured by the portacabins of the company charged with the remodelling of the Calle Serrano and the high speed rail link between Atocha and Chamartin. Unfortunately I doubt they will be moving those for some time yet.

All wrapped up and nowhere to go.
So, at the beginning of October I watched as Columbus was hoisted from his pinnacle and dumped, wrapped in green netting, rather unceremoniously on the roadside. Then painstakingly the column and then the base was removed slice by slice. Piece by piece each section was laid behind a flimsy security fence in the gutter of the Paseo De Recoletos. One of Madrid’s priceless monuments could have been crushed to dust under the wheels of some passing juggernaut with a single instance of careless driving.

Each lump of carved stone was laid out like the pieces of some crazy three dimensional jigsaw. A couple of people could be seen, clipboards in hand, wandering around checking it was all there. Across the road – actually, in the middle of the road – workmen began working on the new plinth. After checking, a small front loader, weaving through the interminable traffic, carried the bits across. Another worrying time, I’m sure.

But before they could start erecting the column in its new location they had to wait for the last part of the base to be sliced away from the old column. This was either very complicated or simply a matter of trying to demolish something indestructible. This last phase of the dismantling went on for weeks. The work hidden behind scaffolding and safety netting and it was disconcerting to hear the sound of pneumatic drills working on such delicate frescos.

But to give them their due, when all was ready, the new column went up in a fraction of the time it took to get the thing down. Now, pristinely shiny white, the great man now surveys the traffic coming up Recoletos while pointing the way to Atocha Railway station. I suppose this time of high speed trains is a New World of sorts!

Post Script: The base of the old column seems to have proved too tough for the demolishers. They have concreted over the rough surface and left it in place. So, like London's Trafalgar Square, Madrid now has its own "empty plinth". In London it seems to be used for very strange temporary displays. Suggestions below, please, for what Madrid's empty plinth could be used for.

The Empty Plinth.

Yes, I know! I finished the last sentence with a preposition. Please don't comment on that!



  1. Maybe it's appropriate? Columbus didn't know where he was going, and didn't know where he was when he got there ... :D

  2. Does anyone know what "愛情是盲目的,但婚姻恢復了它的視力。" means, before I ban him.

  3. Great picture of Plaza Colón as it was over a century ago. Hopefully it'll be like that again some day!

  4. Got an idea that 秘密 wrote in Arabic or Japanese or something that the software here won't support ....