The Statue of Despotism

The Bronze Horseman and the Summum case.

Jonathan Zasloff’s very sound attack on policy “czars” (tsariks?) reminds me of the latest developments in the entertaining Summum case. Mark wrote:

Adherents of a religion called “Summum” are suing a Utah town with a Ten Commandments monument in its park to insist that it put up a monument to Summum’s “Seven Aphorisms …”

The case has reached the US Supreme Court. From Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, we learn that CJ Roberts asked Summum’s lawyer the hypothetical:

You have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a statue of despotism?

St Petersburg has a statue of despotism: the Bronze Horseman, a gigantic equestrian statue of Peter the Great put up by Catherine:

Bronze Horseman.jpg

The Statue of Liberty and the Bronze Horseman were both designed by Frenchmen, Falconet and Bartholdi –

appropriately enough given the notable contributions of France to the rival political traditions. The famous poems associated with them were by natives, though Pushkin was a far greater poet than Lazarus:

Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,

Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,

Wilt plant thy hoof?–Ah, lord of doom

And potentate, ’twas thus, appearing

Above the void, and in thy hold

A curb of iron, thou sat’st of old

O’er Russia, on her haunches rearing!

The Bronze Horseman looks to me technically the better piece of sculpture; and the more daring, as Falconet, breaking with tradition for equestrian statues, succeeded in transmitting the weight of the massive work entirely through two small hooves. The Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius, the Bamberg Knight (ca. 1230), Donatello’s statue of the condottiere Gattemelata, and others all show horses with three or four feet on the ground, conveying an image of noble dignity and poise. A rearing horse on two legs is a more exciting image of raw power – compare David’s flashy portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps on an apparently rabid white steed. (The horses on the Parthenon frieze are also rearing, but a frieze has different aesthetic requirements; it would be rather dull if the horses were just trotting.) But it’s also an image of instability. What’s keeping the statue up? – you ask: leading to the thought, what’s keeping up the régime it represents?

BTW, the Summum case looks straightforward to me (but then I’m not a constitutional lawyer). Summum has no standing to ask for anything in a public park. My answer to CJ Roberts would be: yes, the town council can put up a Statue of Despotism if it feels so inclined. For that matter, New York could constitutionally replace the Statue of Liberty by a giant Bronze Horseman or a holographic projection of Rudy Giuliani and all his wives in rotation. Cities rename streets all the time to express political viewpoints. Palencia, in Castile, still has a street named after the fascist thug Queipo de Llano. The forum for judging political statements in monumental form is the democratic election.

Political statements, mind. The Establishment Clause surely prohibits American public authorities from making explicit religious statements. A public monument to the Ten Commandments is a very explicit religious statement, if you take the trouble to read them, and thus unconstitutional. But I expect SCOTUS to decide the case against Summum without saying so.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web