Sculptures, statues, monuments and memorials are Greco-Roman in origin and constitute the many forms of public art that are now scattered throughout the world. Rhode Island is home to many of these masterpieces and the City of Providence has its fair share that now stand as a testament to the people, places and events that have had a profound impact on the shaping of the history of Rhode Island’s capital city.
Providence is also home to the very first statue installed at a public site in Rhode Island. A statue of Benjamin Franklin cast in zinc by Richard Greenough, depicting Franklin holding a scroll in his hand with a tricorn hat tucked securely under his arm, was positioned in 1855 in front of the Franklin Lyceum building on Westminster Street. The location of the statue today is shrouded in mystery.
Providence sculptor Frances Hoppin remarked during the statue’s impressive ceremony, “This is the first public statue in Rhode Island! Let it be but the beginning of a phalanx of statues! Let our heroes, our poets, our statesmen, our philosophers, and our men of worth, live among us not only in the form of their achievements, but in monuments of iron and bronze and marble, adorning our streets and parks, perpetually preaching their virtues and telling us that they once lived and acted, and were flesh and blood like ourselves.”
Hoppin’s vision speaks to our reality, as hundreds of examples now dot the Rhode Island landscape. Providence leads with its 100-plus samples of monumental fine art. Though most of the great monuments were placed from 1870 to the 1920s, figurative sculpture continues to be in demand.
Some are architectural gems while others evoke wonderment and amazement. Still others defy most logical attempts at discernment. Yet each represents an era past and possibly forgotten by the casual observer if not for this lasting remembrance of what once was.
Perhaps the grandest of all Rhode Island monuments is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Downtown Providence’s Kennedy Plaza. It is programmatically complex, with over a dozen relief plaques, four larger-than-life figures, and one monumental figure. The monument is large in scale – the base alone is 32’ high. And, it was an expensive enterprise for a small state, costing $57,000 in 1871 dollars, exceeding the $50,000 budget by some 14%.
These monuments to the past can be found in many places throughout Providence and take on a plethora of forms. Some honor the men and women who fought our wars for freedom while others memorialize the story of intense love shortened by premature death (Bajnotti Fountain, Carrie Clock Tower, The Spirit of Youth, etc.). Still others pay tribute to mythological figures (Orpheus Ascending, Terpsichore, etc.). Each magnificent piece of art has a story just as breathtaking as the piece itself.
Take the time to notice this magnum opus as you travel throughout the state. Learn the story that inspired each work. You will surely gain a new appreciation for Rhode Island’s tour de force!
Paul Caranci co-authored, with his daughter Heather Caranci, Monumental Providence: Legends of History in Sculpture, Statuary, Monuments and Memorials. The 323 page book describes all 103 piece of public art throughout Providence and includes over 100 photographs.)
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