The Graduate Center - City University of New York

"Something About Monuments," The Nation (1865)

In the years after the Civil War, the United States saw more monument building than in any other era and extensive public debate emerged over appropriate locations, forms, and meanings for such monuments. Following Lincoln’s description in his Second Inaugural Address of a “new birth of freedom” arising from the Civil War, many communities, civic associations, and municipalities undertook to honor the role of the common soldier. Citizen councils proposed commemorative sculptures or buildings as a testament to popular sentiment and to help bring closure to the divisive war. In many cases funds were raised by broad public appeals and decisions for design and location rested on civic committees. Yet, as this 1865 article from The Nation reveals, not everyone trusted the populist and democratic impulse to create suitable monuments.

Date: August 2, 1865

Publisher: The Nation

Source: American Social History Project

Let us assume that about one-half of the memorial buildings which it is now proposed to erect within the United States will be built during the next two or three years. It appears, then, that many American cities and villages, now somewhat bare of other ornament than wayside trees, will either be adorned by good buildings or disfigured by very bad ones, and that many cemeteries will either gain their first good monuments or be more than ever burdened by those which are poor and tame. For it is difficult to build a monument of negative merit. Such buildings, as they have no utilitarian character, must be truly beautiful, or they are ugly and hurtful; they cannot be respectably because appropriately designed; like statues, they must be noble, or they are worthless. And there is a necessity, similar and almost as positive, of great artistic excellence in those buildings which unite a practical use with their monumental purpose.

It will be well, therefore, if those who intend to give money or time to build monuments will give a little thought on the subject as well. We Americans are not so sure of ourselves in artistic enterprises that we can afford to omit the common precaution of thinking about the work we mean to do. Good monuments are not so plenty anywhere in the world that habit has grown to be second nature, and that monuments in the future will somehow be good also. But, in both these cases, the converse is true. Of thousands of sepulchral and commemorative monuments built during the last three hundred years in Europe, statues, triumphal arches, columns, temples, towers, obelisks, scarce one in a thousand is good. One of hundreds of architectural enterprises brought to some conclusion in America, scarce one in a hundred has been even reasonably successful. There is no undertaking for which most people in the United States are less ready than this of building the monuments which they earnestly desire to build—monuments to their townsmen, college-mates, or associates, who have fallen in the war—monuments to the more celebrated of our military heroes—monuments to the honored memory of our dead President.

Peculiar difficulties will surround and hinder these undertakings, because nearly all these proposed memorials will be built, if at all, by associations; few by private persons. When a gentleman of average intelligence wishes to erect a monument to his brother or friend, there is a reasonable chance that he will employ an architect or sculptor of reputation and professional ambition, even if not of the first artistic skill, and so get a memorial that neither artist nor employer need be ashamed of. But there is much less chance of this in the case of action by a community or association. If a city or society employ an artist, without experimenting with a “competition,” they very seldom select the best or even one among the best of the artists within their reach; political influence, private friendship, personal popularity, accidental availability, or temporary popular favor, always interfere to govern the choice. If they resort to competition the result is not practically different; for, supposing the most absolutely fair and careful consideration by the judges of the submitted designs, and supposing the submission of a great number of good designs, what likelihood is there that the judges are fit to judge? How many committees of management, or boards of trustees, or building committees with power, contain each a majority of men who understand the complex and many-sided art of ornamental architecture? How many persons are there in the land, not professed architects of sculptors, who can select the best among twenty or ten designs, each design illustrated only by formal and technical drawings, or by these aided by a fancifully colored and shaded “perspective view” of a building which it is proposed to erect? It is not enough to have “good taste”—to have a correct natural feeling for beauty of form, or to be accustomed to drawings. No man is at all fit to pick out one design among many, unless he has some knowledge of what has been and of what can be done in actual marble, stone, and bronze. There is apt to be a gentleman on every committee who has travelled in Europe, and who gets great credit for knowledge and judgment, and great influence over his colleagues on that account. But that gentleman must give proof of a better than guide-book knowledge of what he has seen, and of a less confused memory than most travellers bring home, and of having bought photographs of the best buildings instead of those most beloved by valets de place, before he can be considered an authority by sensible stayers-at-home. It will often be better if the judges will decide by lot—as judges have been known to—among the designs laid before them. There will then be a reasonable chance that they accept the best design, which chance dwindles indefinitely when most committees of selection attempt to select.

It will be well, therefore, if the people will give some thought to this matter during the months that are to come, that they may learn to bring some wisdom of choice and some appreciation of beauty to their chosen task of grateful remembrance, and that the nation may give its best art and its most poetical feeling, as well as its material abundance, to honor its noble dead. We proceed to offer to our readers some suggestions concerning parts of the general subject.

Private tombstones are not included in the class of monuments we are considering. But there is one simple and not necessarily expensive kind of monument which is often used for a private tombstone, and which will answer as well for many other occasions, namely, the obelisk. The word means any object of the well known shape, square in plan, higher than thick, gradually diminishing in size from the base upward, until the gradual taper suddenly ends at a sharp edge, and a square pyramid with much inclined sides terminates the whole. The form is wrongly used in such cases as Bunker Hill Monument, because so large and expensive a building can be much more effective and beautiful in another form; the famous monument named has the one merit only of being likely to endure a long time. It is wrongly used in such cases as the monument at Munich to the Bavarians who fell in Napoleon’s Russian campaign, because bronze cannot be more foolishly used than by being cast into flat plates, and so built up into a hollow square tower, and the cannon which were melted to make this monument would have been better employed if they had been piled in pairs like a child’s corn-cob house. The obelisk should always be a monolith, a single block of granite; and in that case it is not a contemptible ambition to get your obelisk as large as possible, and pay largely for quarrying, transporting, and setting up a great stone. It would not be a work of art, but it would be a labor of love and a worthy work for a city, to try to get out of American quarries a rival of the Egyptian Obelisk at Paris, red syenite, seventy feet high, and half a million pounds in weight; or the equal of the yet vaster one at Rome; or one such as a czar might have had, according to the story, a hundred feet high, had not his workmen obeyed orders too literally. But the purpose of an obelisk is not all fulfilled when it is smoothed and set-up. The Egyptian idea of this monument was the idea of an excellent place for inscriptions. They covered their obelisks with their picture-writing, from base to summit. Not as the Worth Monument in New York carries the names of battles, cut in raised letters at great expense; not as the same ugly structure carries its bas-reliefs, and “trophies of arms” in cast bronze; but simply cut into the smooth face of the granite, these inscriptions can be seen from a far, and will remain for ever. The obelisk shares with the pyramid the honor of being an emblem of eternity. The granite monolith is indestructible by time, and nearly so by the hand of man. Cut, to-day, your inscription, half a volume long, on the four smooth faces of a monolithic obelisk of hard granite, and there is no reason why three thousand years rather than one year should efface the letters.

The obelisk has generally been injured in effectiveness as a monument by the addition to its simplicity of other members, making it part of a composition. The simplest and lowest base is the best. And any attempt at union between this and other architectural forms is sure to fail, as in the noted instance of that most inappropriate and offensive design for the great monument to Washington at our national capital; a circular temple, over a hundred feet high, surrounding the base of an obelisk-shaped tower rising four hundred feet above the temple’s roof. A very recently built monument, that at Lowell, in memory of Ladd and Whitney, the soldiers of the Massachusetts Sixth who fell at Baltimore on the 19th of April, 1861, is a similar instance of unsuccessful combination of parts. The singular infelicity of the idea of erecting what seem to be four sarcophagi, two of them—the longer two—bearing the names of the two soldiers, and the other two bearing inscriptions in their honor, is equalled by the want of harmony in the design. These four seeming tombs project from the four sides of the base of an obelisk, forming a cross of two longer and two shorter arms. The central tower itself is made up of three plinths or bases, one upon another, the obelisk crowning the highest; the entire height, of which the obelisk itself is about half, reaching twenty-seven feet and six inches. There can be no doubt that a very noble monolith could have been brought to Lowell and erected, with two inscriptions cut upon two opposite sides, for the money that has been spent on this feeble design. And there can be no doubt that the plain obelisk would have been as good a monument as this is in every way unsatisfactory.

Almost all forms of monument that have been sanctioned by the use of ages, and are in themselves excellent, are more or less associated with sculpture. And memorial sculpture is, of course, generally portraiture. It will be found that most of those monumental forms which are the best and the most universally loved, were originally intended for the reception, protection, and exhibition of portrait statuary; such, for instance, is the monument in Trinity Church-yard, New York, in memory of those who died in British prison-ships during the Revolutionary War. It is a canopy of four Gothic arches, raised upon a high base, and surmounted by a tall spire. It is pleasing in outline and in detail, but the open canopy is blank and empty, nothing being seen through its arches but the sky beyond. The original type of this form of monument is found in those canopied tombs of the Gothic time, so numerous once in northern churches, still so numerous in Italy both in churches and in the open air. And, looking back to these, the models—models, also, of all artistic excellence—we find the canopy put to use, covering nearly always that modification of the ancient sarcophagus known as the altar tomb. These tombs vary in style and character with the different ages of the art, but the typical form is a sarcophagus two or three feet high, long enough to receive a life-sized effigy, and wide enough for one such effigy of for two. Upon the slab forming the cover was laid the figure of the dead, as if asleep, the head upon a round pillow, the feet together and often resting upon a lion or hound, or else crossed one over the other, the hands brought together as in prayer. These effigies were sometimes carved in marble or stone, sometimes cast in bronze. The sides of the tomb were decorated with heraldic devices or with figure sculpture representing incidents in the life of the deceased, or, more simply, with little arcades or with tracery. This representation of the figure as in placid and motionless sleep is perfectly appropriate and right. It has been felt by the best sculptors of our own time to be the most fitting form for memorial statues, and, with the revival of mediaeval architecture in Europe, the sarcophagus and effigy have been restored to use. It is hard for modern sculptors to retain the composed stillness of the early statues; the figure must be less stiff to suit modern notions of gracefulness, and much of the pathos and dignity of the old work is lost when the change is made. Baron Marochetti’s statue of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I, on the tomb erected to her memory by Queen Victoria, is one of the loveliest portrait statues of modern times; but lovely as it is, it is open to the objection that it has too much action for the effigy on a tomb. In some modern tombs in Germany, the carefully modelled statues are made ridiculous because couched upon an elaborate mattress and pillow, and because posed in different attitudes of uneasy sleep.

Many tombs remain to us from the best times of art without the life-size effigy on the top, but covered with a heavy stone, figured only with a cross and sacred monogram, but having the sides panelled and each panel filled with sculpture in relief. This plan has also been followed in modern times, in cases where the portrait statue was not to be had, as in the case of soldiers who have died away from home, leaving no sufficient material from which a portrait could be made. But, as we have said above, memorial sculpture will generally be portraiture. No other casting or carving can be so fitting as a likeness of the dead whom we wish to remember and honor.

The tombs of the Scala family at Verona, deservedly celebrated as the most perfect monuments known to us, have the sarcophagus and effigy, as was customary at the time, but also the statue of the dead chief as in life. The figure on the stone coffin is clothed in the long gown of peace, and wears a simple fillet around the head. The sides of the sarcophagus are carved with incidents in the life of the dead man. A noble four-arched canopy, resting on slender shafts, is raised above it, and the arches support a square, steep roof or spire, which is truncated and bears upon the flat top a small equestrian statue of the chief in his armor of battle. These tombs, or the best two, those of Can Grande and Can Mastino della Scala, are as perfect in design and execution of details as in general feeling, and are models of excellence in monumental work.

It should be observed, though, that these monuments, consisting of the sarcophagus and recumbent figure, are designed for tombs proper—designed, that is, to be placed over or to contain the body itself. They are not suitable for memorials, merely, to be erected in memory of one who lies elsewhere. There is a certain difficulty in fitting any monumental building, if of the nature of a tomb, to this purpose. No structure yet proposed is as suitable as a life-sized portrait statue, erect or in sitting posture. The difficulty is, of course, to get the statue. The cost may not be an objection. Money can be raised to pay for the noblest figure, in bronze or marble, of McPherson, or Wadsworth, or Stevens, but who is the artist that is to carve it? There are one or two sculptors in the country who have approved ability, and they should be kept busy for the five years to come modelling nothing but portraits, that we may rightly remember our gallant dead. That they should be left to waste their time on fancies and “ideals” proves a radical deficiency somewhere in the glorious laws of supply and demand.

The need of statues of eminent soldiers suggests inevitably the appropriateness to this need of equestrian statues. And in connection with this theme, as the bronze horseman at Rome, at Venice, and at Padua occur to the mind, the need of some knowledge on the part of our people of what other people have done to honor their illustrious dead becomes evident. Cannot something be done to reproduce by a carefully made cast—as was done for the Sydenham Crystal Palace Company—the great statues of Colleone and Gattamelata? When shall we learn that the way to teach people art is to show it to them? One great work of art is worth a thousand lectures on art. If the lectures also are good, they will be better when the work of art is present to enforce their doctrine.

If the newspapers speak truly, some of the great colleges propose to build memorials to their graduates who have fallen in the war for the national life. It seems that one of these great colleges has put head and heart to the consideration of the matter, for the rational and worthy conclusion is arrived at to build a hall for her living alumni in honor of the dead. A good building thus serving each present generation, and full of memories of a past generation of heroes; greeting every graduate who enters to share in literary or social festivity with welcome from a noble past; holding up, within and without, the names, to honor, of good men and true who have gone before—such a building would certainly be better than any huge pile erected to memory only. But it must be a good building. It must be a noble building. Every memorial must have these two characteristics, or it is worthless; it must be rich and ornamental, and even profusely decorated; and it must be built to last for ever. A plain building, well fitted to its purpose, and intelligently designed, such as would make a good alumni hall, would not serve for a memorial. There must be the evidences of lavish expense of money, all well spent indeed, but also freely spent, of beauty sought for itself, and ornament loved for its own sake, and used to dignify the building. Then durability—of course no public monument is to be allowed to rival those wooden head-boards which are still set up in German village grave-yards—the Harvard memorial should stand as firmly as Bunker Hill Monument itself.

This Friday morning, as we conclude, the Times’ correspondent sends us his account of the action of Yale College in the matter; and it seems that a sort of sub-chapel to the proposed new University Chapel of Yale is the form proposed. This plan is so far good that it gives a good chance to set private memorials—tombs, tablets, memorial windows, and pavement slabs—where they can be well seen. It would seem, however, that this purpose is as well suited in an independent building, and that an independent building would be a better monument to the soldiers, one and all.

In another case, a campanile has been proposed, a tall tower within which a gradual stairway or inclined plane should ascend continually from base to summit—those who have ascended the great bell tower of St. Mark, in Venice Square will remember the slow ascent to the belfry chamber—the walls of the stairway to be incrusted with the tablets in memory of the dead. And other forms of building have been and will be proposed. We return to our first request and ask the American people to think a little of all these things, and see to it that their willingly-given money shall be well spent. No afterthought will avail. We must all give our minds and hearts to it now, or we shall only perpetuate our carelessness with our sorrow, and compel pity for our ignorance and narrowness of mind when we seek to inspire admiration for the gallant deeds of our dead servants.