From the Strasbourg Monument to the Statue of Liberty
The connecting thread binding the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Strasbourg Monument near the Basel SBB train station begins in Colmar, France, and entwines one prolific French sculptor: Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904).
By Shirley L. Kearney
Everyone who goes to or from the central train station in Basel (SBB) might at some point look around to get orientated. At the edge of the Elisabethenanlage Park, facing the station, looms a sculpture of an angel and three figures. Colourful seasonal flowers, one of the city’s many floral installations, surround its base. Its steps provide an unusual spot for a picnic. Between late June and mid-October, the Strasbourg Monument has been scheduled for cleaning and restoration, according to the Basel Historic Monuments Service. Thanks to its creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the monument also has a connection with the Statue of Liberty.
Bartholdi, born in Colmar in neighbouring Alsace, moved to Paris with his mother after the death of his father. His birthplace – 30 rue des Marchands – now houses the Bartholdi Museum. In Paris he studied architecture, painting and sculpture, the last of which soon became his overriding preoccupation. He travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East. In the late 1860s he formulated plans to build a lighthouse with a neo-classical, allegorical and robed female figure holding a torch (representing the Roman goddess Libertas) for the north entrance to the Suez Canal: Egypt (Progress) Brings Light to Asia, The project never came to fruition, but it must have planted the fertile seed for the eventual Statue of Liberty.
Bartholdi served in the Franco-Prussian war (1870–71); during this period his design for the Statue of Liberty took root. Inspiration arrived from Edouard de Laboulaye, a French political thinker, known as the Father of the Statue of Liberty, who was convinced that by honouring the United States with such a monument, the cause of democracy in France would be strengthened.
Travels to the United States
In 1871 Bartholdi made his first trip to the United States in search of a suitable location for the memorial which, in the long run, would foster the fraternal and mercantile relationship between the republics of France and the USA. Bedloe Island (today known as Liberty Island) in New York Harbour was his choice. His plan met with approval. The monument and its transport to its new home was a gift from France; the United States was responsible for the construction of its pedestal. Fundraising was difficult and slow; the economic situation was chaotic.
In Paris and New York
Construction of the thinly copper-clad, iron-supported edifice took place in France, with the assistance of the engineering skills of Gustave Eiffel. The hoped-for date of delivery was for the centenary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – the declaration of freedom from the British Empire – but delivery would only take place 10 years later.
On 4 July 1884, a formal ceremony was held in Paris and the completed statue was presented to the American ambassador. It was then disassembled and packed in hundreds of crates, and in 1885 its ocean voyage began. On 28 October 1886 dedication of the colossal statue on its bespoke pedestal was celebrated with great joy and pride: an icon of freedom, friendship and liberty. It lived a short life as the tallest structure in New York until it was surpassed by the Empire State Building in 1929.
Bartholdi in Basel
The Strasbourg monument in the park near the Basel SBB train station was designed by Bartholdi following the inspiration of Baron Hervé de Gruyer. If you go around to the back of the monument, there is another grouping of people in need, a mother and her three children; the young boy’s arm is in a sling.
In 1895, the memorial was offered to the Swiss Confederation by France in recognition of the humanitarian aid given to Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War: The Strasbourg Monument or Switzerland Succouring Strasbourg. On the base at the front of the sculpture is a figurative panel depicting the dedication with the inscription: “à la Suisse hommage reconnaissant d’un enfant de Strasbourg, 1870”. (grateful recognition to Switzerland from a child of Strasbourg, 1870).
On the base at the back of the sculpture is a depiction of the saga of the millet gruel travelling from Zurich to Strasbourg with the inscription: “Le culte des traditions d’amitié honore les peuples comme les hommes”. (The belief in the tradition of friendship honours peoples as it does men.)
The saga originated in 1576 when the Confederation organised a record journey of 17 hours from Zurich to Strasbourg in order to illustrate how quickly Switzerland could react in case of need. The ship travelled on the then wild Limmat, Aare and Rhine Rivers loaded down with a gigantic kettle of millet gruel, which miraculously arrived still warm.
The Lion of Belfort and other works
Major works by Bartholdi are found throughout France. Several are in Colmar; an equestrian statue of Vercingetorix in Clermont-Ferrand; in Paris on the Ile des Cygnes stands a replica of the Statue of Liberty, reputedly facing west in exact alignment with the one in New York; the Lion of Belfort, a majestic 72-metre long lion carved in sandstone, lies below the former fortress. It alludes to the heroic struggle by the French to ward off a Prussian attack at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.