The Titan and the Dictator
Every New Yorker, when asked directions, has a different way of getting to the same place. This gives the impression that New Yorkers are helpful; in reality, most are just very eager to tell others what they think they know.
Likewise, New York City history is often subject to an arrogant and belabored information literacy.
A thing is heard, or maybe even read, somewhere; people believe it because they want to believe it, or because it is "fascinating." They repeat it to others as if no one else had ever heard it before.
It becomes "history."
It has been said, written, and said again, that in 1937, New York’s Italian community protested the statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center because the face of the Titan bore too much resemblance to Benito Mussolini, the fascist ruler of Italy.
Tour Guides riff upon the story. Online, it is cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia. Books repeat it. But scarcely are citations provided that indicate a source showing evidence of actual outrage by Italians or Italian-Americans against the perceived similarities in countenance between the face of the Titan and the mug of the Dictator.
The statue stands in the forecourt of the International Building, at 626-636 Fifth Avenue, in the northeastern complex of Rockefeller Center. Atlas is wrought of seven tons of bronze, and, according to Greek myth, is doomed to bear the Heavens on his shoulders.
Sculptor Lee Lawrie ornamented the rings of the celestial globe with the twelve signs of the zodiac. One hulking, mountainous leg of Atlas staggers off the pedestal, while no promise of relief is yielded by the tiny bronze holymen and holywomen carved into the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral across Fifth Avenue.
Note that the south structure, at 626 Fifth Avenue, is known as the Palazzo D’Italia, which the Rockefeller family had offered to Italy in 1932 as an anchorage of midtown office space. "It would afford me utmost satisfaction,” John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wrote to Mussolini, “if your great nation were to be represented." In return, the brute bald nationalist admired that the American billionaire was "more powerful than any monarch." As Rockefeller employed his sons Nelson, John, and David in the family business, Mussolini appointed his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, as chief of the Office of Press and Propaganda, and later the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1944, Ciano was executed by firing squad after conspiring against Mussolini. "It is peculiarly my destiny to be betrayed by everyone,” said the Duce, “even by my own daughter,” who fled to Switzerland.
Classical mythology is a historical canon from which public art in New York City seems no longer interested in drawing for inspiration and meaning, opting instead for giant puppy dogs, orange curtains, and winsome subway murals.
Inspired by classical myth or not, the art inscribed unto the Rockefeller business complex is found in murals, elevator doors, lobby turnstiles, and ice rink monuments. Nowhere is art not an experience of anywhere in the place.
The press office of Governor Andrew Cuomo claims that the Second Avenue subway is “the largest permanent public art installation in New York State history.”
This would be a true statement, if Rockefeller Center were in New Jersey.
Orange curtains and puppy dogs are examples of pop iconography, which may have most reflected the epic heroism and lyric fatalism of classical mythology in the 1963 Andy Warhol silkscreen print of Elvis Presley, an Atlas of Memphis who once begged to “make the world go away… get it off... get it off my shoulders…”
The city is often impolite when new things are built. It will soon embrace them, but first it must subject them to a cranky hazing ritual. This is a town that otherwise prides itself on its urbanity and grit, but denies its own smarm and anxiety.
For example, it is repeated in books and articles that the Empire State Building was nicknamed the “Empty State Building” because six months after its opening at the beginning of the Depression only 25% of its 2.2 million square feet of office space had been occupied.
After multiple trial-and-error keyword searches of NYC newspaper databases, actual usage of this phrase in print in the early and mid-1930s is shown to be infrequent. There is no listing for the phrase in the New York Times Index. Books about the Empire State Building bandy the claim without a published example.
Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for President in 1932, called it the “Empty State Building” in a campaign speech at the Elmwood Music Hall in Buffalo, New York, when remarking about the two chief backers of the skyscraper, ex-Governor Al Smith and former Democratic National Committee chairman John Jacob Raskob.
Pedestrians of the city, marveling at the size but also unemployed in droves, were likely put off by the new Eighth Wonder of the World.
Ephemeral New York blogs about the statue of Atlas and cites New York: The Unknown City, a 2004 guidebook, for the Mussolini story, but the book provides no source information that the statue was “picketed after its unveiling in 1937.” The authors say that “critics and politicians” compared the “visage” to Mussolini, but that sculptors Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan “insisted no such tribute was made.”
Wikipedia references a pejorative quote by the painter James Montgomery Flagg that Atlas "looks too much as Mussolini thinks he looks,” suggesting that the titanic ego of tyrants drives the habit of interpreting reality as it is not. The virtual wiki author cites Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan (2007) for the quote, in lieu of the original source where Flagg’s comment appeared.
Healthy information literacy should repel the use of Wikipedia as less a research resource than a feckless mansplainer. In the Atlas entry, Wikipedia is one “source” among a handful, providing a cross-reference that should be checked out before trusted. Wikipedia may aim to democratize knowledge, but that does not mean it supports good information. However, as noted by Freeman Dyson, a retired physics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, "distrust and productive use are not incompatible." Wikipedia is like a quick pit-stop in an eerie podunkville before hightailing it back on the road to continue the long strange trip.
The author of Outdoor Monuments indicates that Flagg's quote was published in a NY Times article by Edward Alden Jewell, and written on behalf of an informal “committee” of self-appointed artistic tastemakers. The article, published March 7, 1943, targets numerous public monuments in New York City as overdue for the scrap heap, and the tone is snobby and rancorous. Flagg compares Atlas to Mussolini, and the rest of the committee is equally disdainful. Joining company with Atlas in the junkyard is the Teddy Roosevelt statue out front the American Museum of Natural History, and the U.S.S. Maine monument at Columbus Circle.
In published secondary sources, the Flagg quote is the sole direct source, if any, for the comparison of Atlas to Benito.
There are other vague and misinformed references.
Not only does Manhattan: A Photographic Journey use “picketed” as verbiage to describe alleged public opposition to a Mussolini resemblance, but the author also has the International Building opening in 1933, which is incorrect. Excavation began in 1933, and the building opened in 1935.
The 2016 Fodor’s New York City repeats the claim about protests, and even dates them as having occurred in 1936. The statue, however, was not installed until 1937.
Podcasters “The Bowery Boys” claim that “protesters picketed” Atlas because the statue was “modelled” on Mussolini, instead of simply happening to resemble Il Duce. The boys give no citation.
The search for reports of anti-Atlas protests or pickets at Rock Center in 1930s newspaper databases yields zero results. The evidence for demonstrations is absent. It is very likely they never occurred.
Three additional mentions of Atlas in the context of Mussolini precede the quote by Flagg:
In 1937, the Citizen-Advertiser, a newspaper published in Auburn, NY, featured the syndicated column “New York Inside Out,” which noted that “Radio City has a new statue.” The author, gossip-jabberer Don O’Malley, uses the earlier and more futuristic term for Rock Center. "Everyone insists that the face on Atlas is Mussolini’s.” The column was printed at the end of January, 1937, the same month the statue was installed.
In 1942, the NY Evening Post “Reader’s Forum” printed a letter by citizen J.J.P. urging the city to scrap “that statue of Mussolini, the one that is supposed to represent Atlas.”
The following week, another reader explained that J.J.P.’s letter “aroused my curiosity and I went to see the statue. I was indeed surprised at the resemblance it has to Il Duce.” A. Kint agrees that “this monument to a man who tells his people to hate Americans ought to be turned into scrap.”
As a member of the Division of Pictorial Publicity during World War I, James Montgomery Flagg created the modern image of Uncle Sam, who points his accusatory finger to the American public and demands, “I want you.” Militancy and nationalism were highly valued by Fascists, too. If Flagg believed that Atlas "looks too much as Mussolini thinks he looks,” one might also say the same thing about Uncle Sam; Flagg modeled the face of the star-hatted recruitment-hustler after his own.
- A Digest of Facts About Rockefeller Center. 1958. Milstein Division Clippings File.
- Cull, Nicholas John. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present..
- Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths.
- New York Evening Post; New York Times; Buffalo Courier-Express.
- Okrent, Daniel. Great Fortune.
- Rockefeller Center | Designation Report | Landmarks Preservation Commission.
- Roussel, Christine. A Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center.
- Smyth, Howard McGaw. The Ciano Papers: Rose Garden. CIA Historical Review Program. 1993.
- Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building.