When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
(Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn)
Amongst the Grecian urns in Rome’s Capitoline Museums stands the ancient equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a noble, somber monument that once commanded the public square outside the museum (figure 1).
A potent symbol of their past, the Italians honor it on their 50-eurocent coin. Once upon a time, Rome’s bronze statues numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. The sad fact is that Roman bronzes in comparable condition can now be counted on one hand. What a loss.
Many fell prey to metal scavengers thanks to indifferent or ineffective authorities: only late could scraps of antiquity save themselves by granting luster to a king. Marcus escaped the flames because of his timely conversion to Christianity: wrongly identified as Constantine I, he passed dangerous centuries buttressing the papal regime at the Lateran Palace.
Ideology played its part: the Regisole (figure 2), a similar statue in Pavia, had nearly reached the safe haven of a gentler age when it was wrecked by Jacobins offended by its supposed glorification of monarchy in 1796.
The Jacobins are not the only zealots who have brought monuments to human civilization crashing down, but if they teach us anything, it is that a cause we cherish too much may lure us into breaking the humane rule (taken for granted by Keats) that art and monuments are to be preserved despite our politics against the day when the world will have gone on to ‘other woe than ours.’
A good example of this is a bronze eagle from the Reich Chancellery (figure 3) I saw on public display in the Imperial War Museum in London. It bears the small stamped phrase, Im Shicksalsjahr 1938 (“In the fateful year 1938”).
Punctured by battle damage, this eagle had hung over Hitler’s head and now bears witness to the broad support for his government that extended even to foundry workers. Such details are important, and monuments—artifacts that inform us about an earlier age—can be valuable without being subjected to the unreasonable criterion that they be masterworks.
One of my teachers once said, and rightly so, that we must try to fit into the shoes of the people we study so as to understand them sympathetically. Artifacts help, and a sympathetic understanding is hardly on a slippery slope toward admiration or imitation. No one in her right mind will think that the British endorse Nazism by displaying that Reich Chancellery eagle, or that we do by exhibiting canisters of Zyklon B in the US Holocaust Museum, or for that matter that we as a society somehow endorse racism or slavery by suffering Confederate statues to remain in our public spaces.
But it is conceivable that in a generation all major public Confederate monuments will have been destroyed. That would be a disastrous loss for urban studies, art history, Southern social history, and the study of racism in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates sees this more clearly than most: “I don’t know if I want to forget that, at some point, somebody was crazy enough to have a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest. That’s a statement about what society was. That shouldn’t be forgotten.”