As Artemus Ward once put it, “Old George Washington’s forte was not to hev eny public man of the present day resemble him to eny alarmin extent.”
Some similar thought must have occurred to the legislators of North Carolina when, back in 1815, they decided to empower Governor William Miller to get a full-length statue of the great man, and to get the very best. Governor Miller inquired of William Thornton and Benjamin Latrobe, architects of the Capitol in Washington, if such a statue could be had in America. Both Thornton and Latrobe said Yes. But as no limitations had been imposed as to cost, Miller decided to consult a still higher authority, the great Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed. He would recommend the Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova, whose rise to fame had been dazzling.
Born at Possagno, in the Venetian Alps, in 1757, Canova had been trained by his grandfather, a sculptor of religious works. When Canova’s mother objected to his dirty clothes and took his clay away from him, the boy proceeded to model a lion from butter. The mother, relenting, contrived to have the lion placed on the table of a patrician of Venice, who sent Canova to the Accademia for serious study. At the age of sixteen he began to exhibit, and at 22 he was sent by the Senate to Rome for further instruction. Pope Pius VII made him “prefect of the fine arts,” and he was invited to Paris to do a statue of Napoleon, and then one of Napoleon’s beautiful sister Pauline, Princess Borghese, her lovely seminude figure reclining on a couch. This created a sensation.
At the pinnacle of his fame, Canova could not fill half the orders he received. But Jefferson and the State of North Carolina were determined and, admiring Washington, the sculptor capitulated. At Jefferson’s urging the statue was to be Roman in style, showing Washington in classic dress since “Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect.” And as the hall of the capitol at Raleigh was only sixteen feet high, the figure had to be seated. The sculptor decided to portray his Washington attired in senatorial toga, elaborate sandals, and a Roman general’s tunic and cuirass, his hair a wealth of curls, signing the letter relinquishing command of the army, his sword symbolically at his feet. The price was $10,000.
The completed statue, twelve tons of it, was shipped to America on a war vessel, to Boston, then by schooner to Wilmington, and lastly by river boat up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville. At Fayetteville it was hauled overland fifty miles, drawn by twelve pair of oxen, reaching Raleigh on Christmas Eve, 1821, after a journey of nearly seven months. Met on the road outside the city by the Governor and state officials, judges, and the military, in orderly procession with bands playing and flags flying it was conducted to the capitol, where it was received in state with artillery salutes and addresses of welcome.
When it was set in place in the hall of the capitol, the state architect, with prophetic vision, made the reasonable suggestion that the pedestal be mounted on rollers so that it could be moved readily in case of emergency. This admonition was greeted with derision. The Father of his Country on wheels? Such a thought was beneath the dignity of the exalted subject, and the marble pedestal was bolted securely to the floor.
In the summer of 1831 when the roof of the capitol was under repair, a careless tinsmith left his soldering pot on the roof when he went home for the night. Most of the citizens of Raleigh rushed to the great fire that resulted, and through the hissing flames and clouds of smoke they could see their beloved marble statue. But nothing could be done. When the dome of the building finally dashed in, the figure of Washington was reduced to a pile of pitiful fragments. Fortunately, some 75 years later, Canova’s original model was rediscovered, and the Italian government was able to donate Raleigh a plaster replica of its lost work of art.
If George Washington as the noblest Roman of them all occasions a smile, it is worth remembering that Raleigh, in an era when works of art were practically nonexistent in this country, had the imagination and the determination to reach out for the highest—Washington, the first President of these United States —and Canova, the first sculptor of his day.