In 1927, Austrian intellectual Robert Musil dismissively argued: “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not notice them. There is nothing in the world so invisible as a monument.” But modern controversies over monuments remind us that these works, intended as permanent interpretations of the past, are anything but invisible. This dissertation examines this central subject in Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires, as well as the issue of national identity—a subject that has a complex and frustrated history in Argentina. By analyzing the history, iconography, and controversies behind several central monuments in Buenos Aires, I argue that competing constructions of Argentine identity and historical memory have been continually embedded and contested in the urban landscape, in ways that remain influential in the present. I frame these discussions around four monuments in the city’s commemorative core: the Pirámide de Mayo, inaugurated in 1811 in honor of Argentina’s independence; a monumental statue of Christopher Columbus, gifted by Buenos Aires’s Italian immigrant community for the 1910 centennial; and an equestrian statue of former president Julio A. Roca, inaugurated in 1941. I add to these central cases a brief examination of a monument to mestiza independence fighter Juana Azurduy (1780-1862), which replaced the aforementioned Columbus statue in 2015.
These monuments provide the main characters for this dissertation, which follows the life of these works from initial planning to political and public use and appropriation in the years after their inauguration, all the way to debates that have erupted over them in the present. My analysis includes multiple factors, considering each monument’s political and social context, design, materials, location, iconography or inscriptions, and intellectual debates on identity that ran concurrent with its creation. By examining all of these elements, as well as the ways in which each monument’s appearance, location, and/or meanings have changed over time, I argue that each of these monuments reflects Argentina’s frustrated quest for national definition and a contested, still unresolved past.
Reaching from Argentina’s independence in 1810 to modern struggles in the post-dictatorship era, the interconnecting histories of these central monuments demonstrate how each was used to shape identity in times of intense political and social instability. Moreover, these cases also reveal how this was achieved not just through the monuments themselves, but also through public ceremony and rituals around them. Lastly, my arguments illustrate how the symbolic messages behind these central monuments have been appropriated and expanded over time, through the actions of both political officials and popular actors.