It may well have been Cato, but which I'm not sure, who wrote that he would rather men would ask why his statue is not up than to ask why it is. The statue of the noblest Roman of them all is up in Mantua, Italy, and I have paid my respects.
We had not been thinking about Virgil as my wife and I drove our VW Beetle on our invasion of Italy, and we were as yet unaware that we were not to become so passionately fond of the place as so many others have been.
I've always blamed it on my complete ignorance of the Italian language and the reluctance of its speakers to try anything else. In all other places when I faltered in communicating, somebody would help me and I would be glad. But I found in Italy that if I couldn't say it. I didn't get it, and everybody turned and walked away. We tried valiantly, but a week of lasagna at every meal sent us back to France where I could get des oeufs au jambon (ham and eggs) for breakfast.
A high spot of our short visit was not the sights of Rome, but the thrill of finding that Virgil's statue is up in his native town. We had been counting swans as we came along the canals, and wondered what a swan is like when roasted, when suddenly we came to Virgil. He stands tall, and has an index finger aloft as if explaining an ictus, and I quoted, "I salute you, Montivano!" We pulled up to park and we sat there under his finger in awe and respect. Nobody paid us the slightest heed, yet many people walked past while we gazed. We drove along, and when I tried to buy an Italian road map the girl turned away.
We also saw the statue of David somewhere, and as far as I could tell he was a good-looking young man. He did not, however, please me as did Virgil, who sang of arms and the man and had his clothes on. Queen Victoria had hers on, too, the day I called on her, and I have to say her statue is up and I consider it one of the two best statues I know about. The other one is of Benjamin Franklin. Art is art, and I know that, but a statue doesn't have to be art to get my approval.
Queen Victoria sits in front of Government House in Winnipeg, Manitoba, orb and scepter in hand, gazing forever up the capital's wide main street, austere and Victorian, the finest kind. Two sturdy bison keep vigil with her in her imperial duties. Hers is certainly as good a statue as anybody needs.
Benjamin Franklin is in the garden of the United States Embassy in Paris. Like Queen Victoria in Winnipeg, old Ben seems alive when you come upon him, seated on a stone settee with book in hand, his spectacles laid aside for a moment. One is bound to do a double take, so real he seems, and I did. Then I smiled, because he worked so hard to persuade France to help in our effort to leave England and he seems vastly content to be there. Just off the Place de la Concorde, in the shade of a tree, book in hand, he still serves his country with shrewd judgment and witty wisdom, forever alert.
When Arthur Watson was our ambassador to France I saw him when he came home to vacation on the Maine coast, and I asked, "How goes it with Old Ben?" He didn't hesitate. He said, "I know what you mean! That's the greatest statue in the world! I go out and sit with him and we talk. I always go back into the embassy rewarded."
Contrasted with Victoria's and Franklin's are three statues from fiction that I've seen and admired. First is that of the four city musicians of Bremen, Germany: the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster that frightened the robbers. It tickles my whimsy that a great city like Bremen can play at fairy tales and keep the musicians in front of the City Hall to prove that there are believers still. What if the statue were just across from the stock exchange?
Then I remembered a couple of statues I'd seen back in the US that offer the same think-about message. In Minnesota we have a statue of Babe, Paul Bunyan's blue ox, and in Bangor, Maine, may be seen a statue of Paul Bunyan himself! Paul is a monstrous man, in toque and Mackinaw coat, with peavey in hand and ambition in his eye, ready to perform monster tasks in the forest. As fictional as Peter Pan and the Bremer musicians, he has his statue up and is ever ready. Babe is cement and Paul is fiberglass. Must all good statues be of white marble?
It's not a statue, but I must include the famous bust of Rossini. It is in the public library in Portland, Maine, where it is the pride and joy of the Rossini Society, a women's group for upright cultural purposes. Some years back the ladies were duped by a scalawag cousin of mine who had read in a magazine that nobody knows what Rossini looked like. The composer never sat for a portrait.
My cousin liked to set up practical jokes, and this gave him an idea. He got in touch with the Italian Embassy in Washington, found out how to get a block of marble, and how to reach a qualified Italian sculptor. Shortly his project was under way. A bust of Rossini would be made and presented to the Rossini Society. All went well until my cousin got a letter from the sculptor asking what Rossini looked like, anyway. My cousin replied that he always left such research to the sculptor and to proceed as per agreement. The bust of Rossini was delivered, and the ladies were delighted. It was several years, I was told, before anybody in Portland found that nobody knows what Rossini looked like. But his statue is up, and that's what counts.