Monuments and statues in public places have always reflected the nature of the times they were built in. But art and artifice sometimes don’t blend too well.
Popes, kings, queens, and pioneering statesmen through the ages exhibited their visionary zeal through landmark statues. Their sense of history must be appreciated. Perhaps they did not often put up their own statues like our Mayawati! Prime Minister Nehru was one who vehemently opposed the idea of a statue of himself during his lifetime.
Just think of all the beautiful statues in public places around the world that are a feast to the discerning eye! Unfortunately many of us world travellers are like the Zoozoos..... sprinting around landmarks in the capitals of the world, eager to “do” as much as possible in a day! Just Imagine what a waste it would be if one did not bother to look...
My very first “look” at a famous statue was from the air. You guessed right.... the statue of Liberty, as we did a turn to land at Kennedy airport. From the air, the majestic lady continues to fascinate me even after decades of viewing her with awe. She gave hope to immigrants who headed to Ellis Island long ago. She probably makes the Shah Rukhs of this world uneasy. But she still looks great!
Perhaps one of the most worthy as well as the most admired statues is Michelangelo’s David. Any visitor to Florence would stand awestruck for long to admire this 17-foot high figure of the youthful David. Although the original, sculpted from white Carrara marble in the early 16th century is well secured inside the galleria dell’ Academia, a perfect replica greets one in the main square of Florence, Piazza della Signoria. The artist has captured the Biblical youth, David, ready to take on his opponent Goliath. With the light changing through the day, the fabulous details of Michelangelo’s masterpiece draw one to gaze at him. An epitome of male beauty, Michelangelo’s David was replicated for shows everywhere. And when Queen Victoria was to admire a museum copy in London, the authorities even covered David with a fig leaf to maintain the epoch’s reservations about nudity in art!
Speaking of Queen Victoria, she can lay claim to be the brain behind one of the most interesting public statues of London. Her beloved husband prince Albert has been suitably commemorated in Kensington gardens. Known as the Albert memorial, it stands in Gothic splendour opposite the Albert Hall. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, this imposing monument is virtually a gallery of sculptures and fine mosaics. The gilded statue of the prince seated majestically is only the centre piece. He is surrounded on all sides by allegorical figures, well sculpted and beautifully maintained by National Heritage. As it was commissioned at the height of Empire, the monument emphasises all aspects of Great Britain’s claim to fame in the Victorian era. Even large animals like the elephant and the camel stare down at you from their majestic perches, reminding you of Britain’s presence in Asia, Africa and so on. Certainly the Albert memorial is well worth a walk-and-look.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do — rather, as all other visitors do, go to the Fontana de Trevi, and toss three coins into the fountain over your right shoulder without looking back, to be lucky with romance, love, marriage! For one generation, this act of pure make-believe cannot be achieved without at least humming the eternal Sinatra melody —“Three Coins in the Fountain” — from the 1954 Hollywood movie. In ancient Rome, aqueducts that brought water to the city, terminated in a landmark fountain. Trevi too is one such. Over time, several Popes who ruled Rome saw to it that the fountains reflected their power and wealth in grandeur. The present fountain is a fabulous monument set against a palazzo with arches, niches and columns to illustrate renaissance art. Built over many decades, Trevi was crafted by many great Italian artists including, Salvi, Pannini and Bernini. The central figure is Oceanus, the god of all waters, riding his chariot: a giant shell, guided by tritons. The whole monument is striking in its magnificent kinetic energy. To linger around it by day and by night is as good as a walk through a sculpture garden. What’s more, one can also make a wish and hope it comes true!
Perhaps the funniest little statue/fountain is the Manneken Pis in Brussels. No great work of art, he is a tiny boy, peeing into a fountain, with tourist cameras clicking away around him all day! He was put up to commemorate a little boy’s helpful act in detonating an explosive during some ancient war. Legends abound about the little boy’s statue. Some say a rich merchant lost his son and found him, in the end, in a quiet corner. To thank the city and its dwellers who helped him, he erected the fountain and put the statue of his boy as he found him!
There are many statues and monuments worth lingering over when one travels. Some are such impressive works of art that one should not sweep past them without observing their sheer beauty, style and elegance. Whether it is a sky-scraping Bhima of the Mahabharata in distant Bali, or a quiet Tiruvalluvar at the entrance of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, statues, monuments, and fountains are signifiers of history and culture.
The writer is a well known danseuse and author.