The young man sits perched on a mooring post, looking out to sea, with a thoughtful gaze that suggests it isn’t the objects before him that truly have his attention, but rather a vision of something that others, if they were present, would not perceive.
This young man is not, however, merely day-dreaming. His is not the unfocused, introspective look of a boy wrapped up in an inner world, or the wistful expression of an unfulfilled adolescent hoping for a new prospect. Nor is his the complexion of a deeply troubled philosopher. His mind is not wandering, nor contemplating, but rather seeking.
The purposeful quality of the young man’s stare can be seen in the fact that his focus is not straight ahead, but rather slightly to the side. It is the look of a mind that had been considering an idea, but then veered suddenly towards a new possibility, like a hunter who, without moving, catches sight of his prey on the edge of his field of view, or a warrior measuring the full aspect of an adversary before battle.
His finger marks a passage in the book he has been reading, which must have excited this new state. Unlike for Vermeer’s Geographer, however, whose penetrating stare this young figure recalls, the material of past thinkers is not a foundation to support one’s independent grasp of reality, but more of a spur to new thinking.
The young man’s furrowed brow invokes a certain dissatisfaction with regards to the context it represents, or at least the challenge of exceeding its limitations. Still, he retains a link to this past as he seeks a new possibility. The crux of the moment is the sighting of a difficult new truth, which his reading has made possible.
And what a difficult new truth it is!
The young man is Christopher Columbus, and by the power of his own independent perception, he has just gleened the possibility of a westward voyage to the Indies for the first time.
This is the historical theme of the work, Young Columbus, expertly rendered by sculptor Giulio Monteverde. In capturing this moment, however, Monteverde has accomplished a rare thing. He has himself penetrated to the both essence of a man, and the philosophical roots of his ability to change the world.
The man who changes history is always an independent thinker . Like Aristotle and Newton, Columbus had the ability to see all that others had seen before him, and then, of his own volition, by his own unique capacity, to see what other had not.
As a final note, one of the things I find most delightful about this sculpture is that Monteverde has chosen as his subject a young Columbus, rather than a mature man. When one usually thinks of Columbus, one thinks of an established cartographer making his case before Isabella and Ferdinand, or a confident mariner on the deck of his carrack at the climax of his career. What is great about this image, by contrast, is that it sees past this usual idea to that which necessarily underlies it: the moment that truly defines the independent man, and the source of his ability to bring a “New World” into view, his conquest of reality through penetrating, rational thought.
For those who have the chance, I highly recommend a viewing of this work live, which, amazingly is possible to Americans on both coasts. The original work is located at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A very fine copy is on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Columbus Day!
For more images visit the Powell History Columbus Gallery.