Three years before the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor, a similar monument, representing equivalent values, was installed at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. They were designed by different sculptors, and there’s no evidence that the Frenchman Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi ever met the Italian Pio Fedi, let alone that Bartholdi was copying Fedi’s design. But as a new exhibition at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration suggests, the statues are deeply related, and the significance of each monument is enhanced by the other statue’s presence.
The Liberty of Poetry by Pio Fedi. Courtesy of the Basilica of Santa Croce and the Ellis Island. Paolo Rosa.
That wasn’t feasible in the past. For well over a century, American visitors to Santa Croce and Italian visitors to New York Harbor speculated about possible connections between the statues, observing how both versions of the Roman goddess Libertas wore spiked crowns, and stood with raised arms over broken chains. Then, several years ago, researchers at Kent State University created a high-resolution scan of the Liberty of Poetry. An eighty-percent scale reproduction, 3D-printed in resin, now stands in the Ellis Island museum, encouraging careful on-the-spot comparison.
Major sculptural differences trace back to different origins and disparate motivations. Liberty Enlightening the World (as the Statue of Liberty is formally known) was intended as a French gift to the United States on the centennial of American independence. The Liberty of Poetry, on the other hand, was conceived as a memorial to the Italian poet and playwright Giovan Battista Niccolini, an important figure in the 19th century Italian unification movement known as the Risorgimento.
Niccolini’s vocation is directly referenced in the laurel wreath in Liberty’s left hand (the hand in which Liberty holds the Declaration of Independence in the statue on Liberty Island). Her posture is also different. Liberty Enlightening the World has the gait of a warrior, proud and stolid. The Liberty of Poetry is softer and perhaps more contemplative, as befits a figure holding vigil. And yet Fedi’s Liberty paradoxically bears more evidence of real action. While Bartholdi’s Liberty enlightens the world metaphorically with a torch, Fedi’s holds part of the broken chain aloft with her raised right arm, dangling from a hand that points upward, not so much toward the heavens as in the direction of progress.
In at least that respect, Fedi’s Liberty is more wrapped up in narrative than Bartholdi’s, which is a static symbol of an abstract principle. In other words, Fedi’s statue appears to be creating the conditions of liberty, whereas Bartholdi’s is a declaration of a fait accompli.
This distinction, like many of the differences in sculptural details, can be explained in part by the different contexts of a tomb and a harbor. A memorial to a deceased patriot doesn’t serve the same purpose as a diplomatic gift to a national ally.
Nevertheless, seeing the Statue of Liberty in tandem with the Liberty of Poetry, you may begin to perceive certain psychological predilections built in to our national icon. In her pride, Liberty reveals disturbing arrogance: the vain assumption that enlightenment ideals are self-evident and perfectly embodied within her, a radiant example for others to follow. With her raised arm and eternal flame, she appears to declare unequivocal victory. Her people are led to assume that freedom has been fully realized for all, and to take liberty for granted as a permanent condition.
Fedi’s statue is not necessarily better than Bartholdi’s; artistically each has its own weaknesses and merits. However their near-simultaneous genesis – and a real possibility that Bartholdi was influenced by Fedi’s statue while traveling through Italy – encourage comparative self-reflection, and a timely reconsideration of American ideas about liberty. Here in Liberty’s own shadow, there are still chains being made, and fetters that remain unbroken.