Statues are symbols, and one of the oldest forms of human communication. In fact, humans were carving statues as early as 30-40,000 years ago, long before we learned how to farm, or write, or work with metals. They not only tell a story, they can be a tribute and symbol of power. For that reason, it is rare to find statues of Roman emperors without a broken nose, as chipping away the nose showed that an emperor had fallen from power.
To understand the true power of statues — check out the Bowdoin College’s Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Their Assyrian relief sculptures tell quite a story. The massive panels were carved for the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in the 9th century BCE/BC, and covered the walls of the royal palace of Kalhu, in present-day Iraq. In the late 7th century, the city fell, and the palace was destroyed. The victorious army defaced the images of the king, and added their leaders face as a conqueror of the “conqueror.”
When regimes fall, statues still fall, - from Stalin to Saddam Hussein. One famous rumor is that the statue of D. Pedro IV high above Lisbon’s Rossio, is really a second-hand statue of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, toppled after his fall from power. The joke goes, the statue was cheap to acquire, and they put it on top of a huge column so no one could see the face.
Stone and metal images often invoke sharp reactions-someone fired a cannon at the Sphinx, the Greeks are still demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles, and David still hails as one of the great works of the Renaissance.
Statues project what we want to see in our past, and what we hope to be. After the defeat of Germany in World War II, all symbols of the Nazi government were expunged. The idea was to remove symbols that could be a rally point for future haters. It took generations, but Germany came to terms with its past, and moved on.
For that reason alone, it is rare to see statues erected to a losing side. Rome did not put up a tribute to Hannibal. I love the “garden of heroes” with images of Portugal’s kings at the Jardim do Paço Episcopal de Castelo Branco. The 18th-century garden features a staircase with stone statues of all of the kings up to the time of its building. All are the same height, except for the Spanish kings that ruled from 1580-1640, who are half the size of the Portuguese kings. The message is clear after 300 years.
The US may be the only nation that celebrates those who fought against it and lost. The majority of Confederate statues, street names and schools were put up between 1890 and 1930-as a revisionist recast of the Civil War in Gone With the Wind fantasy. The statues celebrated white supremacy and ignored the South’s treason, slavery, and brutal violence. While Grant and Sherman became brutes and drunks, those who tried to rebuild the South to be better and heal the wounds of slavery become carpetbaggers.
So many are in shock at the publics' desire to pull down so many images. But the Civil War ended in 1865, so for 150 years images, names, plaques and other tributes have reigned over American offerings false narratives, and celebrating slaveholders and racists. Had the discussion we are having today been held in 1870, the transition would be simpler — but as with any crisis, kicking the can down road makes the cost so much higher.
These images became the focal point for white supremist events, and have prevented old wounds from healing. They became sore points of miscommunication - teaching lies to new generations. They should have come down long ago. The Germans buried and came to terms with their past. Americans have used monuments to misdirect and cover up the ugly truth. These statues and propaganda should have come down long ago.