Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Lady Liberty breaks free of shackles on both sides of Atlantic

While the use of the guillotine symbolizes a reign of terror during the early days of the French Revolution, its usage was adapted in the late 1700s as a more humane way to carry out public executions. It was regarded as both efficient and fast, sparing the sentenced unnecessary pain. It is said that before it was sanctioned as the official executioner’s tool, King Louis XVI (1754-1793) suggested improving the design to utilize an angled straight blade instead of the original curved one. He himself, along with his queen, Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), benefitted from the enhanced efficiency when they were beheaded.

The tool became a hallmark of the political maneuverings carried out by one of the leaders of the revolution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Robespierre definitely established himself as a kind of “if-you’re-not-with-me-you’re-against-me” kind of guy, placing those who found themselves in that category labeled as enemies of France. He was also adept at rallying the masses, the sans-culottes tradesmen in Paris, to protest against these enemies.

A loosely knit group of legislators, known as the Girondists, felt the course of the revolution had taken too violent a turn but soon found themselves on the wrong side of the blade. Twenty-two “members” of the group were put on trial in Paris, and, a week later on October 31, were executed one after another in the Place de la Revolution. The tables soon turned, many beheadings later, and Robespierre and 21 of his followers received the same sentence of off with their heads.

Almost a century later, the city of Bordeaux decided to conduct a competition for a monument to memorialize the executed Girondins. A design sending Lady Liberty soaring upward about 17 stories by Bordeaux-born sculptor Achille Dumilatre (1844-1923) and architect Joseph-Henri Deverin (1846-1921) was selected. “Gloria Victus,” or “Gloria to the Vanquished,” was packed with seemingly all the French symbols needed to inspire the populace, including clusters of grapes and a rooster.

In Latin, gallus means both rooster and the territory known as Gaul, so the rooster’s roots as a symbol of the Republic run deep. Napoleon objected, wanting instead to harness the majestic power of an eagle. But the rooster has prevailed in popular culture, one that recognizes “the farmer feeds us all.”

But, wait. There appears to be quite a major ruckus taking place at the base of this majestic perch for Lady Liberty.

An outbreak of civic pride demanded the lily be gilded; leaders wanted more.

Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) originally had designed a site-specific monumental fountain for another location, but its construction had been deemed too costly. The city council returned to the design though, and added the fountain to the base.

It is easy to see why the bronze sculptures had been deemed expensive to execute. There is a whole lot going on there. Wearing a laurel wreath, the central figure of a woman represents the Republic. It gets more complicated after that. A small herd of seahorses (see webbed hooves below) spew water through their nostrils compounding the confusion. Supposedly, the figures grouped on one side represent the triumph of the republic; another side represents peace. Nothing appears peaceful amidst the mist and charging horses, but it is an awe-inspiring work.

Near the end of World War II, occupying German forces spirited away the bronze figures of Bartholdi’s fountain, presumably to melt them down for cannons. Somehow, they turned up hidden safely away in Angers. They finally were returned to the base of the statue in 1968.

Bartholdi should prove a familiar name to Americans; although I certainly did not recognize it. After failing in attempts to defend his native town of Colmar against a Prussian invasion in the early 1870s, the sculptor fled to New York City. There, he began to promote his dream work, a statue funded by French abolitionists opposed to slavery.

According to the National Park Service:

Armed with letters of introduction…, Bartholdi secured meetings with some of America’s most influential people, with mixed results. In a little under three months, Bartholdi found a preferred location for the statue on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor…. However, he received little more than words of encouragement regarding the construction of a colossal statue.

Bartholdi sketch of the Statue of Liberty

Over the next few years Bartholdi and Laboulaye set up committees in the two countries. France would raise funds for the statue while Americans raised money for the pedestal. Bartholdi involved himself and his work in the fundraising efforts, displaying the torch and arm in Philadelphia and New York, and the head and shoulders in Paris, all while selling miniatures and charging admission in some cases. As money came in, Bartholdi oversaw the construction of the statue at the warehouse of Gaget, Gauthier & Co. The colossus was assembled in Paris and taken apart to prepare for shipment to America. The statue’s completion in France provided an impetus for Americans, most notably Joseph Pulitzer, to galvanize support for the pedestal fundraising effort.

Bartholdi returned to New York with a French delegation to set his eyes on the completed Statue of Liberty and participate in its inauguration, saying to a reporter “My dream has been realized. I can only say that I am enchanted. This thing will live to eternity, when we shall have passed away, and everything living with us has moldered away.” 

A broken shackle and chains at Libertas’ feet represent the recent abolition of slavery, and, since its completion in 1886, the statue in the harbor of New York City has become a welcoming beacon of hope for immigrants. Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) penned “The New Colossus,” inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, as part of the project’s fundraising efforts:

Replica of The Statue of Liberty in Place Picard in Bordeaux

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The city of Bordeaux received a small replica of Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in 1886 as a gift from the United States. Bartholdi was commissioned to build a major fountain topped with the statue in Place Picard. Unfortunately, this sculptural work did not escape the Germans’ melting pots for scrap metal. An eight-foot bronze replacement was installed in the park in the year 2000.

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