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World’s Fair, today and yesteryear

Visitors to a World’s Fair expect to learn about the different nations that are represented there and to experience some of their culture, foods and entertainment. The New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 did not disappoint.


Konnie Benson and family members explore a passageway leading to St. Peter’s Basilica where they will see the Pieta. Benson first saw the statue 50 years ago at the New York World’s Fair. Contributed photo

It was 50 years ago that Michelangelos’s famous sculpture, the Pieta, was shipped to New York for the World’s Fair that began in 1964. The masterpiece had never left Vatican City in the 465 years since it was finished and installed at the old Basilica of St. Peter. But Pope John XXIII gave permission for the famous work to be shipped to New York to be a part of the Vatican exhibit at the World’s Fair.

The Pieta depicts the body of Christ in the arms of His mother, Mary, after His crucifixion. Pieta means “pity” or “compassion.”  The marble statue is 6 feet long and is 5 feet, 9 inches high and weighs 66,000 pounds. It was carved from a single slab of marble in less than two years. It is the only signed work by the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, who finished the sculpture in 1499.  On the sash that runs across Mary’s chest, he carved “MICHAEL ANGELUS. BONARCTUS. FLORENT. FACIEBAT” (Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence created this.) He was 24 years old.

It was a monumental feat to bring the Pieta to the New York World’s Fair. After months of planning, it was insured for $6 million before being carefully packed into a sturdy wooden case and then placed in a waterproof metal container. It was loaded onto trucks and eventually to the ship, the Colombo, where two seamen guarded it throughout the eight- day voyage across the Atlantic from Naples to New York. All precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the statue, including a signaling light buoy ready to go into operation if disaster struck, to signal the Pieta’s location, and to power a flashing beacon visible 50 miles by air or 15 miles by sea.

Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1964, the statue was shipped to the New York World’s Fair.

Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1964, the statue was shipped to the New York World’s Fair.

After the 4,500-mile journey, the Pieta arrived in New York where it was unpacked and placed on a marble base in the Vatican Pavilion at the World’s Fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York. It was placed on the base behind a bulletproof floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas screen and armed guards stood nearby, providing further protection.

During the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, millions of people flocked to the Vatican Pavilion to stand in line to view what became known as the “Crown Jewel” of the fair.  Visitors viewed the statue from moving walkways that took them through a darkened exhibit theater to an area with hundreds of dark blue flickering lights, where the Pieta was displayed. As a young visitor to the World’s Fair, I was mesmerized by the entire experience of seeing Michelangelo’s famous work of art. I have clear memories of the crowds of people, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, as they moved from the darkness to the viewing area and beyond, to the exits. The Pieta, made visible in the dark under glowing lights, was an impressive sight, even though it was some distance away. People spoke in hushed tones or not at all. My youth and the times, only a few months after President Kennedy’s assassination, made it a memory that stands out in a childhood that seemed to go on forever.

Konnie Benson and niece, Taylor Dale, enjoy Spring Break in Rome where they will see the Pieta. Contributed photos

Konnie Benson and niece, Taylor Dale, enjoy Spring Break in Rome where they will see the Pieta. Contributed photo

Before the fair ended in 1965, Pope Paul VI announced that, despite many requests, there would be no further loans of Vatican-owned art. The Pieta made it home safely to Vatican City in 1965. Unfortunately, it was damaged in 1972 when a mentally disturbed tourist climbed over a guard- rail and attacked the statue with a hammer, breaking her nose, arm and hand.  The Pieta was eventually restored after many months of work and it is now displayed behind bulletproof glass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Konnie Benson of St. Cloud saw Michelangelo’s Pieta three years ago, when she and family members visited Rome. Benson was in elementary school when she first saw the sculpture at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 but she remembers little of that experience. During her 2011 visit, Rome was crowded, the temperatures were very warm for March and some members of Benson’s group were weary of sightseeing by the time they stepped inside the Basilica.  Benson remembers it well. “It was just beautiful–the high ceilings, the incredible statues and artwork. You could easily spend the entire day trying to see it all. I was wandering around and there it was (the Pieta), in a little chapel off to the side.” The crowds inside were light early in the day when they visited and she said it was very easy to see the statue up close. “The whole experience was breathtaking.”

Another popular exhibit at the New York World’s Fair was General Motor’s Futurama exhibit, and their ride into the “not-too-distant” future.  Visitors sat in chairs which moved along a track  that traveled through the exhibit hall, and they listened to a narrator invite them to “explore the future together”. There was a sense of thrill and adventure as viewers were introduced to the Space Age. In the “trip to tomorrow”, there were scenes of lunar rovers exploring the moon’s surface and men on the moon monitoring the earth. In Antarctica, scientists were forecasting the world’s climate and working in laboratories beneath the ice searching for earth’s secrets through many centuries of ice.

In the deepest parts of the ocean, food for the growing world’s population was being harvested; and in aquacopter vehicles, geologists explored the ocean floor for minerals and oil. Submarines provided transportation.  Fair-goers viewing the “world of tomorrow” on the Futurama ride were asked to imagine the fun of being able to spend a weekend relaxing at an underwater resort, Hotel Atlantis. It was called a holiday of adventure. In the deserts, a new technology desalted the seawater that was used to irrigate crops planted in the sand. In the jungles, a super highway replaced the river as a means of transportation. In the city of tomorrow, there were skyscrapers or “living plazas” built above the freeway, moving sidewalks and a continental highway.

St. Peter’s in Rome, home of the World’s Fair in 2011.Contributed photos

St. Peter’s in Rome, home of the World’s Fair in 2011. Contributed photo

Another World’s Fair exhibit which became a huge favorite was located at the Pepsi Pavilion where  “It’s a Small World” was located. This attraction, designed by Disney for the World’s Fair, featured singing children from around the world. Animated figures of children, animals and birds danced and sang in their native languages while visitors in boats traveled past scenes with landmarks from countries around the globe. Ten million visitors bought tickets to “It’s a Small World”. It was so popular that the attraction was added to Disneyland the next year. The ride continues to fascinate and entertain visitors, young and old, at Disney theme parks.

Change was around the corner for Americans during the time of the New York World’s Fair. Those changes did include space missions and man walking on the moon, but the underwater Hotel Atlantis did not come to be. Super highways aren’t being built in the world’s jungles but scientists have learned much about earth through their research in Antarctica.

World’s Fairs, now called Expos, do still exist, although many Americans may think they have died out. The last World’s Fair in the United States was held thirty years ago, in 1984 in New Orleans. The Louisiana World Exhibition had financial problems and attendance was lower than expected—seven million visitors compared to over 51 million during the two years of the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The largest Expo ever held was Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China when 73 million people attended the six-month extravaganza. The next world’s fair, Expo Milano 2015, with its theme, Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, will be held in Milan, Italy from May 1-October 31, 2015.

Tickets go on sale next month.

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