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If this NC statue had survived the fire of 1831, it would be one of the country's masterpieces

This reproduction of Antonio Canova's George Washington statue stands in the Capitol rotunda in downtown Raleigh. The original was commissioned by the state government and planned by Thomas Jefferson, but it was destroyed by fire in 1831. Xavier Salomon's new book "Canova's George Washington"  tells the story of what would have been one of the most important pieces of American sculpture.
This reproduction of Antonio Canova's George Washington statue stands in the Capitol rotunda in downtown Raleigh. The original was commissioned by the state government and planned by Thomas Jefferson, but it was destroyed by fire in 1831. Xavier Salomon's new book "Canova's George Washington" tells the story of what would have been one of the most important pieces of American sculpture. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

Every spring, hundreds of fourth-graders parade past the 16-foot statue of George Washington standing inside the Capitol rotunda, a masterpiece in Italian marble.

If they recall anything about this monument to a founding father, they most likely notice the sandals strapped on his enormous feet, or the Roman military kilt hiked halfway up his muscular legs, or the pen he holds to sign his name "Giorgio" on an enormous tablet — his pinky finger raised.

But this curious piece is only a replica of the original created by Antonio Canova, the Italian sculptor personally recommended by Thomas Jefferson. The former president not only chose Canova and recommended an unheard-of $10,000 fee, he suggested ancient Roman garb for his fellow patriot, explaining that American costumes would have a "puny effect."

And in the new book, "Canova's George Washington," New York museum curator Xavier Salomon argues that if the statue had survived the fire of 1831, it would rank among the most important American sculptures. Instead, the fire destroyed Raleigh's original statehouse and broke Washington's likeness into pieces when its dome collapsed.

A rich history

Salomon's coffee table book brings new elegance to the familiar statue and detail to its short, wild history. The fourth-graders snapping pictures probably can't imagine the statue's rich history: a Navy ship toting Canova's work across the Atlantic Ocean, or a team of 12 oxen dragging it to Raleigh as cheering crowds lined the road. That history is even more gratifying to learn considering it looks very little like the man on the $1 bill.

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"Canova's George Washington" by Xavier Salomon with Guido Beltramini and Mario Guderzo will be published June 8 by D Giles Ltd in association with The Frick Collection. It is available for pre-sales at $45 on amazon.com. An accompanying exhibition at The Frick Collection is May 22 to Sept. 23. Courtesy of D Giles Ltd

"People praise it as this great masterpiece that is gone for America," said Salomon, who is curator of the Frick Collection in New York. "The life of the sculpture was so short-lived it didn't leave an impression on people."

In 1815, when North Carolina decided to grace its new Capitol with the finest marble, the country was dancing on air from its second victory over the British — a time of swelling patriotism that opened the state's wallet.

In the book, to be published June 8 by D Giles Limited, Salomon notes that Jefferson held the unofficial title as the young country's "arbiter of taste," so when he caught wind of Raleigh's idea, he weighed in heavily.

"Who should make it?" Jefferson wrote to an N.C. senator. "There can be one answer to this. Old Canove of Rome. No other artist in Europe would place himself in line with him."

As for the traditional military uniform shown in earlier depictions of Washington, Jefferson scoffed, "Every person in Europe of taste would be for the Roman ... Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect."

Canova, who never saw Washington and had to work from a bust, relished the chance to sculpt his likeness. A commission from the United States in 1820 was coveted, Salomon said, because the young country was so distant, almost as if the artist's reputation had traveled to an alien planet.

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In the new book, "Canova's George Washington," New York museum curator Xavier Salomon argues that if the 16-foot statue of George Washington hadn't burned 10 years after it was sculptured, it would rank among the most important American sculptures. Instead, the fire destroyed Raleigh's original statehouse and broke Washington's likeness into pieces when its dome collapsed. From "Canova's George Washington," to be published in June by Giles in association with The Frick; available at bookstores, online booksellers or at gilesltd.com. Used with permission

'Crowds lined the way'

But North Carolina residents swooned over their connection with such an artist, who not long before had been personally selected by Pope Pius VI to fetch back art Napoleon had taken to Paris. North Carolina was a poor state at the time, many newspaper accounts have noted, and artwork of any kind was scarce.

Canova's statue arrived in 1821 to the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade.

Once carried from Italy to Boston, then to Wilmington, then up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville, "the statue made a triumphal process over-land to Raleigh on a heavy wagon drawn by 12 pairs of oxen," according to the N&O in 1965. "Crowds lined the way and there was a gala air about the whole event."

"You have a new country that really doesn't have a king," Salomon said, "and you have to create a state figure of some kind. The intent was clearly there with Washington."

No less an admirer than the Marquis de Lafayette viewed his old compatriot's statue in Raleigh, declaring it to be an accurate depiction.

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The first statehouse in Raleigh, destroyed by fire in 1831, housed Antonio Canova's George Washington statue. The statue is the subject of a new book, "Canova's George Washington" by Xavier Salomon with Guido Beltramini and Mario Guderzo. NC Archives

But Canova's work got little time to draw raves from the world's art lovers. Fire destroyed the statehouse only 10 years after Washington arrived.

Both Jefferson and Canova were dead by 1831. In one of the most interesting twists in the statue's history, North Carolina paid English sculptor Robert Ball Hughes $2,800 to fuse the broken pieces back together. But the sculptor took the money and ran without lifting a chisel.

The state rebuilt its Capitol, but the rotunda sat empty until 1970, when a reproduction finally arrived. Salomon confessed his opinion that it probably isn't a very true likeness of the original statue. But though only a copy, and despite Washington's kilt, the president greets school children with an imposing air, seated atop a tall pedestal.

But as Canova's book notes, pieces of the majestic original persist, mostly in state government storage: the upper torso and each of the thighs. Fire and passing decades have yet to take them.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08

Details

"Canova's George Washington" by Xavier Salomon with Guido Beltramini and Mario Guderzo will be published June 8 by D Giles Ltd in association with The Frick Collection. It is available for pre-sales at $45 on amazon.com or gilesltd.com. An accompanying exhibition at The Frick Collection is May 22 to Sept. 23.

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