What: Peace Madonna statues by Beniamino Bufano
Where: Various locations in San Francisco (including Fort Mason and Brotherhood Way) and Timber Cove, Sonoma
While families and friends gather to enjoy the scenic views from Fort Mason’s Great Meadow in San Francisco, a serene concrete Madonna and four-eyed mosaic child benevolently watch over the revellers. Without an inscription or a panel providing details, passers-by are unlikely to realise that this unusual sculpture is a relic of San Francisco’s Cold War peace movement.
The statue is one of a number in Northern California on the theme of ‘peace’, created by the outlandish and capricious Italian-American sculptor, Beniamino Bufano. Born in Italy towards the end of the 19th century (Bufano claimed a variety of birth years during his life), the artist moved to New York as a child and came to San Francisco to complete a sculptural commission at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. He remained in the city for the rest of his life. As a notorious San Francisco resident for over 50 years, Bufano’s statues can be spotted at various sites around the city.
Bufano began to produce statues of the Madonna in the 1930s and they increased in frequency during the Cold War period, as Bufano took it upon himself to call for peace between the United States and Soviet Union. This concern even took him to the USSR in 1957 on a ‘one-man peace mission’, where he claimed to have personally persuaded Soviet premier, Nikolai Bulganin, to pause the nation’s atom bomb testing. He took with him a 4-foot-high peace Madonna which remains in the collection of the Kremlin Museums.
Bufano’s pièce de résistance would be the monumental 93-foot-high peace Madonna known as The Expanding Universe, atop a hill looking out towards the Pacific Ocean. Work on the statue began in 1962, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, making the Madonna’s missile-shaped design all the more appropriate.
Beniamino Bufano, Peace Madonna, Great Meadow, Fort Mason, San Francisco. Photograph: Julia Tatiana Bailey