Here is an image of my favorite war memorial sculpture in New York City (which has no lack of amazing memorial sculptures from conflicts throughout American history). This is a memorial to the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the battleship Maine unexpectedly exploded. When the battleship blew up, it was located in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and the event quickly became a casus belli for the Spanish-American War (a lop-sided conflict which announced the U.S. as a great world power). The events surrounding the destruction of the Maine–and the attendant yellow journalism, which led to war–are complicated and controversial: you can read about them elsewhere (although, frankly, it seems likely the battleship exploded because of an accident rather than due to Spanish perfidy). Today we are concentrating on Attilio Picarelli’s glorious sculpture, which was placed in Central Park at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1913. It is a triumphant celebration of American imperial might, but it is also a poignant evocation of the sodier’s forced estrangement from his family (which sometimes lasts forever–as in the case of the sailors of the Maine).
The monument takes the form of a classical trireme-style warship made of marble with a huge cenotaph in the middle. Atop the cenotaph is a gilded figure of Columbia–a pre Uncle Sam allegorical figure who represents America. All eyes tend to focus on the triumphant Columbia, who is riding in a seashell chariot drawn by three hippocampi (she is reputedly cast from metal from the actual cannons of the Maine, which were raised from the watery depths after the Spanish War was won), however it is the figures near the base which are finer artworks. In the front of the statue, Justice stretches out her arms in a plea for vengeance for the murdered seamen as the nation starts out for war. At her feet, a beautiful mother holds a disconsolate child (left at home by a soldier father or perhaps orphaned outright?). A muscular nude man (who represents the soldier) is forced to turn away from her. At the ships prow a beautiful youth holds a victory wreathe. On the right side of the statue is a half slumbering old sea god which looks like Proteus (and represents the Pacific Ocean). On the left side is an Athenian warrior reclining, whose warlike trappings are at odds with his serene pose and distant expression: he represents the Atlantic Ocean. At the back of the statue is a group of figures titled “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War”. The statue is engraved with the names of the men who died when the Maine sank.
The stone figures are carved with unusual skill and grace which is so often absent in American civic statues. Their faces are solemn and beautiful and every line is simultaneously forceful and yet delicate. Although it takes time to tease out the allegorical meanings of the groupings, there is no mistaking the grave solemnity of the figures.