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How to read (or over-read) an ancient monument

If you’ve read either of my last couple of pieces then you’ll know that just before I arrive at my place of work in Oxford each morning I pass by a building that copies aspects of the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in Athens, the 18th Century Radcliffe observatory. A couple of minutes before that I pass by another monument, far less imposing, which also makes a reference to the ancient world. It’s a fountain in the form of the merman Triton, the son of the sea god Poseidon. With bulging muscles he holds a shell above his head and is blowing a jet of water through a hole in the bottom. It stands in front of the old Radcliffe infirmary which now houses The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH for short), which I’m technically a part of though I’ve only been in the building once so far.

The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary
The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary

I didn’t really pay the fountain too much attention in my first few weeks of being here. I usually get a ridiculously early bus into Oxford to avoid the journey time being doubled by the rush hour traffic and by the time I arrive at work the only thing on my mind is coffee. But I’ve now discovered that the fountain is actually very interesting for thinking about the way that different layers of meaning can be packed, concertina-like into the history of a single monument.

The 19th century Radcliffe Triton - now in storage
The 19th century Radcliffe Triton – now in storage

It turns out that the current statue was set up very recently in 2012, a copy of a mid 19th century statue that had stood on the same spot. The original statue was set up in 1858 to enhance the appearance of the courtyard in front of the infirmary, which had been opened in 1770. This statue was made of terracotta and had become badly damaged as in winter water seeped into cracks and froze. That statue was itself a copy of the apparently famous Fontane del Tritone (though I’ll confess that I shamefully didn’t know it) that was set up in Rome by Pope Urban VIII, and created by the master sculptor of the baroque, Bernini.

Bernini's Fontana del Tritone
Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone

Well, the Oxford fountain isn’t an exact copy of Bernini’s. For some reason the artist John Bell has substituted a flat, disc-like shell for Bernini’s conch, which does look rather less natural a thing for Triton to be blowing through. Bernini’s triton, raised aloft on the fanned out tailfins of four Dolphins is also far more grandiose and if it had stood outside the infirmary would no doubt have caught my eye even before I had my first shot of caffeine of the day. But, reducing the height of the Oxford fountain was definitely a good decision. The fountain embellishes the square without dominating the space.

The layers of meaning don’t stop with the fountain at Rome because Urban VIII in commissioning Bernini to sculpt his Triton was inspired by a verse in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Triton is described as blowing his shell as a trumpet to command the waves. Ovid in writing his masterpiece in the late first century BC was in turn heavily influenced by Greek mythology and earlier Greek poets and may therefore well have drawn on an even earlier source or sources for his description of the water god. So, the Radcliffe Triton is a brand new replica of a Victorian statue, modelled on a baroque masterpiece, inspired by a Roman reworking of a Greek myth!!

The reason I want to talk about the fountain here, however, is because it got me thinking about how we go about trying to read the meaning of ancient monuments. You might remember from my last two pieces that the figure of Triton also stood atop the Athenian Tower of the Winds where he functioned as a weather vane, whereas Oxford’s “Tower of the Winds”, the Radcliffe Infirmary is topped by statues of Atlas and Herakles supporting a celestial sphere. If the observatory and the Radcliffe Triton were ancient monuments, considering that they stand in very close proximity to one another, it would certainly be tempting to ask whether the Triton-connection between the two had any significance. To reflect on how historians and Classical archaeologists try to answer such questions for ancient public monuments I want to think about how we might try to “read” the connection between the fountain and the observatory if we were able to look back on these monuments from a vantage point some two thousand years into the future. Of course the evidence available to us would need to be just as patchy and fragmentary as we are faced with for an ancient city like Rome or Athens.

Let’s imagine that the Oxford statue of the Triton survives only in fragments – perhaps just a piece of the head and arm – just enough to be able to recognise that the statue is a copy of Bernini’s original which has itself long since been destroyed but is known from a couple of surviving photos. Perhaps there’s a record in a local archive in Oxford of the Radcliffe Triton being set up in the mid 19th Century but the date troubles the sculpture experts who have studied the surviving fragments because they can see that techniques were used that weren’t developed until the late 20th century.

The Radcliffe Observatory has been demolished to make way for office space but it is known from a 19th century painting. For the intended meaning of the building and the significance of its artistic references to the Athenian Tower of the Winds all that we have is my blog piece from last time – written two and a half centuries after the building was erected, highly speculative and citing only one slightly earlier scholar and giving absolutely no references to any 18th century sources. The Tower of the Winds miraculously does survive in tact. It is now four thousand years old and encased in a purpose built museum where it is surrounded daily by swarms of tourists who come from all around the world specially to visit it. Of course, for this exercise to work, we also have to imagine that the internet has disappeared, or perhaps that it has become so overloaded with information that it is impossible to find anything anymore. My blog survives in print form in a single surviving manuscript of a self-published collection of personal highlights.

Of course this is a bit of fun but the serious point I am trying to make is that this mishmash of scraps of information is pretty close to what we actually are faced with in reconstructing the monumental landscape of ancient cities……..if we are very lucky. Often the evidence is even worse. So what would an archaeologist or historian of the future be likely to make of this evidence?

Well, no doubt there would be considerable discussion about the mystery relating to when the Triton fountain was built. Was the 19th century archive date wrong or were the so-called experts mistaken in their analysis? Given time somebody would no doubt come up with the theory that the original statue had been copied and replaced at some point. The ingenuity of the theory would be accepted by some, seen as contrived and implausible by others. The fact that the statue copied Bernini’s fountain in Rome would surely capture the scholarly imagination and be attributed great significance. And in trying to understand just why this fountain was copied reference would probably be made to the spatial setting of the Radcliffe fountain and its relationship to the observatory.

The Triton, present in the fountain would no doubt be seen as a deliberate reference to his missing counterpart on the roof of the observatory. This would allow all sorts of speculation about the statement that was being made here. Perhaps this was a deliberate turning away from the philhellenism that had led to the observatory being based on an old Greek building by looking to a Roman model for the Triton of the fountain. But which Rome was being referred to here? Was the fountain a statement of preference for the values of ancient Rome or for the Counter Reformation Rome of Bernini and Urban VIII – a statement about a preferred kind of classicism or of covert allegiance to Roman Catholicism? The fountain’s playfulness as a decorative ornament might also be contrasted with the function of the Tower of the Wind’s Triton as a weathervane, and with the observatory as a building of scientific observation. This new preference for ornamentation over functionality might be put forward as a symptom of cultural decadence, or even seen as a piece of ostentatious revelling in frivolity. The fact that the fountain was “deliberately” placed so as to be seen before the observatory by a visitor arriving at the Radcliffe quarter from the city centre would also be stressed as significant. In short, the jumble of assorted facts would provide ample scope for several learned papers, each presenting their “reading” of the relationship between the two monuments as self evident. But let’s now return to the present and ask whether such readings would be right? I believe they would not be.

I am convinced that it is useful to interpret the design of the Radcliffe Observatory in the context of its time as an expression of growing philhellenism and Enlightenment scientific curiosity, as I argued last time. I am also convinced that when the Triton fountain was set up before the Radcliffe Infirmary in the mid 19th Century educated viewers were meant to recognise that Bernini’s fountain had served as the prototype, and perhaps even to think of Ovid’s verse. Looking for a Triton-connection between the two buildings, however, is I believe over-reading the evidence. The hypothetical readings I put forward for our historians of the future sound rather too farfetched and contrived. The basic problem here is that it is hard to believe that the figure of Triton, in either the 18th or 19th centuries was an important enough symbol for the connection to have been significant.

Looking at the ancient world we equally run the risk of over-reading the evidence and I have come across these kinds of arguments in scholarship on ancient Greece. I’ve probably even made these kinds of arguments myself. Because our source material is so fragmentary and so slight we have an understandable desire to want to squeeze every last drop of significance out of each piece of it. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to reconstruct something of the meaning of ancient monuments. I fully believe it is. That’s exactly what I tried to do in my first three blog posts, and that is the heart of my research project. But we do need to be aware of the danger of assuming that each and every connection we can find between different pieces of evidence or between different monuments must have had a profound significance in ancient times. Sometimes two Tritons standing in the same part of a city might just be a coincidence.

The Radcliffe fountain also raises two other problems that are relevant for my research into ancient public monuments: firstly how the meaning of monuments can change over time and secondly the extent to which passersby really pay attention to the monuments in the midst. There must have been some public feeling in 21st century Oxford that the old Victorian statue of Triton needed to be replaced – that the courtyard before the old infirmary wouldn’t look right without it. But how many of the hundreds of people who walk by it every day are now aware that it is a copy? How many know that it is based on Bernini’s statue, that Bernini drew on a poem by Ovid, or that it is a representation of an old Greek god? As I mentioned, I largely ignored it for several weeks and only paid it more attention because I happen to be interested in that kind of thing and was busy writing a blog in which the figure of Triton kept coming up. How many other people even notice the fountain? For my research the next question that the fountain gives rise to is whether the inhabitants of ancient cities paid more attention to their public monuments than we do today. Or did the fact that their public spaces were so cluttered with statues and other pieces of sculpture mean that they noticed them even less?

If accessing the intentions of those who set up ancient monuments is difficult, exploring the way that people responded to them in their daily lives often seems to be near impossible. I’m hopeful, however, that we can get closer to understanding both issues and that is precisely what I’m going to be trying to do over the next two and a half years.

But what do you think? How close can we come to knowing how people in historical times experienced their public monuments? To what extent do our own preconceptions get in the way of interpreting the evidence? Is there even enough evidence from Greek or Roman culture to answer these questions? If you’ve got any thoughts on the issue please do leave a comment.

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2 thoughts on “How to read (or over-read) an ancient monument”

  1. Thought provoking read.. Never stopped to put historical pieces into context… How the creators of such pieces connected to them and on what level.. How did the common man relate to these pieces.. What thoughts.. Emotions… Etc… Did they provoke.. Inspire… Elicit.. Lots and lots of jewels here…

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