By James Ballowe
"Among more than 100 statues and monuments on display in Chicago parks, which is oldest?" To this trivia question sometimes posed to the Park District's new planners and researchers, the answer is the Balbo column. An equally arcane question for most Chicagoans today would be, "Who is Balbo?" The Spanish explorer whose name ends in a and who was the first European to look upon the Pacific Ocean is not the answer.
Italo Balbo, honored by the column that rises above Burnham Harbor, doubly honored by Balbo Drive, and prominently mentioned on the Columbus statue at the foot of Columbus Drive, was the charismatic Italian general who in 1933 commanded an armada of 24 11-ton seaplanes that flew from Italy to Chicago. On June 15 he and his 95 crew members landed after a journey of three weeks and were proclaimed heroes by the city and the nation.
Encountered daily by hundreds of cyclists, skaters, strollers, and runners, the Balbo monument is an incongruity in its pristine setting on the new esplanade between the Field Museum and McCormick Place. Created in antiquity, the four-ton, 18-foot Corinthian column now seems only decrepit, an unsightly relic that looks fated to become riprap. Weeds grow from fissures at its base; the stone of the shaft is mottled with concrete patchwork.
Curious passersby will find it nearly impossible to learn of the column's purpose or origins. Only five years ago, when I wrote on Balbo's flight for the Reader, I had little difficulty deciphering the inscription on the column's 12-foot-square travertine limestone base, though it had been battered by the elements and road salt for more than 60 years. It read, in both English and Italian, "This column / Twenty centuries old / Erected on the beach of Ostia / The port of imperial Rome / To watch over the fortunes and victories / Of the Roman triremes / Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini / Presents to Chicago / As symbol and memorial in honor / Of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo / Which with Roman daring flew across the ocean / In the eleventh year / Of the fascist era." But the vibrations and dust occasioned by the relocation of Lake Shore Drive have virtually obliterated the letters on the relatively porous base.
Statuary historian Julia Bachrach of the Park District's planning department says records indicate that the capital of the column was made of marble quarried in ancient Sparta. The shaft is composed of a rock compound known as breccia. The column is believed to have been brought to Rome during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD), who fancied Corinthian architecture and probably used it in a temple. Later the column became part of a fortress erected at Ostia, the port serving Rome, to help provide safe passage to navigators steering ships bearing the plunder of empire.
During the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, the column stood in front of the Italian pavilion, which was laid out in the shape of a giant airplane and boasted the fair's largest display of technological advances. After the armada landed, the limestone base was inscribed, and on June 15, 1934, the first anniversary of Balbo's arrival, the monument was dedicated to the general and his airmen and given by the Italian government to the old Chicago South Park Commission. Bachrach says the column would have suffered less environmental damage had it remained in Italy on the Mediterranean.
There are those who would prefer to see no reminders of Balbo in Chicago. Critics find it particularly offensive that the monument was sponsored by Benito Mussolini. (Mussolini hated to be upstaged, which probably is why his name wound up on his aviators' monument.) Immediately after World War II, Alberto Tarchiani, Italy's antifascist ambassador to the United States, campaigned unsuccessfully to remove the monument and rename Balbo Drive. Italian-Americans in Chicago resisted and, according to Claudio Segre, the author of Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (1987), were invigorated by the battle.
Though Balbo played a prominent role in Mussolini's march to power in 1922 and remained a fervent patriot until his death, there is evidence of his growing estrangement from Mussolini and his policies. In what seemed an attempt to remove Balbo from the spotlight, Mussolini forced him to resign as air minister in 1934 and take the post of governor general of Libya, which to Balbo was exile. But his administration there brought him international notice as a model colonialist. A northern Italian who'd fought against Germany in World War I, Balbo was a Germanophobe. Segre points out that he criticized Mussolini for collaborating with Hitler and adopting anti-Semitic policies and argued against siding with Germany in the looming war. But Balbo resigned himself to the inevitable and on June 11, 1940, became commander of Italian troops in North Africa.
Balbo accepted this assignment with his usual flair. On June 17, he had himself photographed with two British soldiers he'd captured in their armored car by terrorizing them with low-level flying. That, he told his troops, was the way to do it. On June 28, not three weeks into the campaign, he and members of his family were shot down over Tobruk by Italian antiaircraft guns, presumably by accident but some believe on Mussolini's orders. Despite the war the British air admiral honored Balbo at his death, and in 1950 Eisenhower visited Balbo's family.
Prominent Chicagoans have occasionally suggested banishing the name. In 1983, Vernon Jarrett proposed that Balbo Drive be renamed DuSable, after the Haitian-French trader who was the first non-Indian to settle in Chicago. That year was the 50th anniversary of Balbo's flight; Lawrence Pucci, the Chicago fashion designer who was then a member of the Chicago Arts Council, responded that "what was needed among ethnic communities was reconciliation, not adversity." In 1993 Pucci was instrumental in bringing to the Chicago Cultural Center in DuSable's honor 160 pieces of Haitian art.
In 1990 Don Fiore wrote in Fra Noi, Chicago's Italian-American newspaper, of helping Alderman Helen Shiller, who'd proposed changing the name of Balbo Drive to Mandela Drive, to understand who Balbo was. A year later Fiore told his Fra Noi readers that in the 60s one irate passerby had decided that the four busts around the base of the Columbus statue (where an inscription honors the Balbo flight) were all likenesses of Mussolini. The consternation that ensued when this theory surfaced in the Tribune did not subside until the sculptor's son announced that the figures were allegorical representations of human virtues.
The Balbo monument came under its most recent attack in 1993, when the Park District refused to allow Puerto Rican Chicagoans to erect a statue to Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos in Humboldt Park. Albizu Campos, a leader of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico in mid-century, is a hero to Puerto Ricans who desire self-rule. He was imprisoned in the United States from 1937 to 1943 for revolutionary activities, and in 1950 was charged with inciting assassins in an attempt on President Truman's life. In 1954, the year his supporters fired shots in the U.S. House, he was sentenced to life in prison. President Johnson pardoned him in 1964, one year before his death.
Believing Campos was not a suitable figure for the city to honor, the Park District refused the gift of the statue and the Puerto Ricans sued. They argued that the Balbo monument honored an enemy of the United States, whereas Albizu Campos was a patriotic nationalist struggling for self-determination. The suit was dismissed.
In the early 90s the Park District launched a major project to renovate its statuary. A proposal was drawn up in 1993 to replace the Balbo monument with a replica and move it indoors. The cost was estimated at $20,000 for the move and $80,000 for the replication. An idea put forth by Park District conservator Andre Dajnowsky is to cover the monument with a glass roof, much like the one installed over the Chagall on Dearborn. Recently the Park District asked if the Art Institute would be interested in housing it.
Edward Uhlir, the Park District's director of research and planning, says the resources available for restoration efforts are severely limited. Priorities must be set, and more prominent, less controversial statuary comes first. Lorado Taft's Fountain of Time in Washington Park is currently the Park District's major restoration project.
Don Fiore has all but given up his efforts to preserve Balbo's memory. He no longer writes for Fra Noi, discouraged, he says, by the lack of interest of today's Italian-Americans in their heritage and the Italian government in saving the monument. In his final article for Fra Noi, Fiore pleaded to local Italian-Americans to do something. "Predictably," he recently wrote me, "there wasn't a single response. I can safely conclude that Balbo's flight has utterly no meaning to today's Italian-Americans. It's not that they know all about it but chose to reject its commemoration on philosophical grounds (because of the fascista connection). It's that they simply don't know and don't care. If you do inform them about it (as I have often tried), they still don't care."
In 1993, the 60th anniversary of the flight, Dr. Stefano Cacciaguerra, then consul general of Italy in Chicago, and General Sandro Ferracuti, then Italy's aeronautical attache in Washington, approached the Museum of Science and Industry about bringing to Chicago an exhibit aimed at reviving the memory of Balbo and other transatlantic Italian aviators. The idea went nowhere. At that time, Cacciaguerra told me, a project to restore the Balbo monument was being considered by his government. But neither his government nor Italian-Americans here provided the necessary support.
Uhlir continues to express hope that the monument will be preserved. But the master plan for restoring Chicago's statuary moves slowly. "The intention in the future is for the conservation program to combine efforts with the city of Chicago," he says. "That would provide resources for staff and materials. In particular, it would help the district create full-time positions. There is a lot of work to do, and we must get up to speed again. Temps won't do it."
In the meantime, the Balbo monument has become an enigmatic presence in the museum campus as a battered image of its former self. Quite aware of both the history and the condition of the Balbo monument, Uhlir puts its importance into perspective when he says, "We'd like it to tell the story of Chicago as well as antiquity." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Dan Machnik.