Andalucía's own Statue of Liberty

Huelva's remarkable monument to Columbus was created by an American sculptor

ALEKK M. SAANDERS

La Fiesta Nacional de España commemorates the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. The expedition started from Huelva so it is unsurprising that this city in the most western province of Andalucía also has the most impressive monument to Columbus and his discovery.

Cubist style colossus

Officially-called the Monumento a la Fe Descubridora (Monument to the Discovering Faith), the 37-metre high cubist-style colossus was funded in the 1920s via a popular subscription in the United States, channelled by the Columbus Memorial Fund Inc. The sculptor was also American - Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. She was born into the wealthy Vanderbilt family and married Harry Payne Whitney, member of another prominent family, in 1875.

It appears Europe moulded the young lady's aspirations to become a sculptor. While visiting France in the early 1900s, Gertrude discovered the burgeoning art world of Montmartre and Montparnasse that encouraged her to pursue her creativity and to devote herself to sculpture.

Her first public commission was Aspiration, a life-size male nude in plaster, which appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, in 1901. Gertrude founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York 90 years ago but it was prior to this that she had managed to visit Andalucía and create one of her biggest works.

Gertrude's first visit to Huelva

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney visited Huelva for the first time on 17 March 1927. It is believed that when Mrs Whitney arrived in the city she immediately decided where the Monument should be erected. Originally, only two locations (Palos de la Frontera and La Rábida) were offered by local authorities for the installation, but in the end, Punta del Sebo in Huelva-city was chosen. In that period it was an unattractive beach surrounded with industrial buildings and docked ships.

Her stay in Huelva was covered by the local newspaper La Provincia which published eloquent headlines - 'A Yankee sculptor and architect in Huelva' and 'Visit to Punta del Cebo (the venue of future construction)'. Journalists also highlighted some details - 'The author of the project says that the monument will be the second most important in the world' or 'The monument will be built in Spain, with materials from this country'.

It appears Ms Whitney was very reserved with the local press. For example, she avoided discussing her work in terms of its artistic merit. She simply assured journalists that she had sought to symbolise the importance of the navigator and his enterprise. The next day, the newspaper sarcastically announced that without a doubt, Columbus really would be honoured.

However, the finished sculpture of a man leaning on a Tau cross looks quite remarkable. He is sometimes described as representing a friar from the neighbouring Franciscan friary La Rábida although Gertrude originally described the person in stone as Christopher Columbus himself. In any case, the monument in Huelva is more commonly known as 'The monument to... Columbus.'

Honoured

When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney came to Huelva again, in the end of March 1929, she was surprised and pleased because the work was nearly completed. It appears that on 30 March the head of Columbus was placed on the massive shoulders, and the city started preparing for the inauguration.

The Prime Minister of Spain, Miguel Primo de Rivera, and the US ambassador Ogden Haggerty Hammond, attended the ceremony on 21 April. In the speeches, The Monumento a la Fe Descubridora was even compared to the Statue of Liberty in the US. That same day, the American sculptor was named an adopted daughter of Huelva. Later, an avenue in the Matadero district was named in her honour.

On 24 June 1930, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of King Alfonso XII in recognition of her artistic work. The Royal Columbian Society also remembered her in 1989 with an academic act on the 60th anniversary of the monument.

Mrs Whitney never returned to Andalucía and left without looking back but she also left he impressive colossus, framed by two rivers - the Odiel and the Tinto, and it remains a permanent reminder of Columbus' faith in discoveries.