When officials of the S. Croce Opera in Florence contacted their colleagues at the Ellis Island Museum for the first time to propose the ‘Sisters in Liberty’ exhibition, which will be inaugurated in October, they did not get the enthusiastic response they expected. Later, they learned that every year dozens of institutions propose questionable twinnings between the Statue of Liberty and more or less similar sculptures in many parts of the world.
The story changed once the curators of the American museum were able to analyze the rich documentation and, above all, the photographs sent from Florence. The statue in question, completed in 1883 by the sculptor Pio Fedi, is part of the funeral monument to Giovan Battista Niccolini, a now almost unknown poet of the Risorgimento period. It represents the Freedom of Poetry and it’s located on the façade of the basilica of Santa Croce. As we know, however, the competition at S. Croce is fierce: among the sepulchers there are those of Galileo, Foscolo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli, in addition to the works of Cimabue, Giotto, Brunelleschi and Donatello; and so, the poor Niccolini and Fedi have been a little bit forgotten.
The occasion to bring the statue of Fedi back into the limelight became the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Florence, the then capital of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the United States. And so, after a patient work of cleaning funded by the Friends of Florence and just completed recently, Fedi’s Liberty is ready to return to the limelight and to symbolically complete the long intercontinental journey of reunion with her sister, greater in size but not in age, that has stood out in the bay of New York since 1886. The journey will be “symbolic” because the monumental complex is anchored to the floor of S. Croce and cannot travel. An exact resin copy, which has been made by Kent State University using the most sophisticated 3D scanning techniques developed so far for medical diagnostic purposes, will come to New York.
The similarities between the two statues are quite extraordinary, as is the common allegorical message. Both are formally inspired by classical Greek-Roman models. Liberty is a young woman, but she is already strong and matronly in shape, she is togated and proudly wears a radial crown, and in her hands she displays allegorical symbols: Lady Liberty, with the torch of reason and the Declaration of Independence, and Madame Liberty, with a broken chain (which is also found at the feet of the American colossus) and a laurel wreath.
It is not a certainty, but it seems very probable that Frédéric Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty, a fervent republican, Mason and unconditional admirer of Garibaldi, drew inspiration from the sculpture of Fedi during his travels in Italy. The Ellis Island exhibition, curated by David G. Wilkins, Ann Thomas Wilkins, Giuseppe De Micheli and Paola Vojnovic, may not give a definite answer, but it will certainly contribute to the understanding of this three-way dialogue (Italy-France-United States) on the concept of freedom and its flexible representation in the 1800s. A dialogue representing the Enlightenment, democratic and republican ideals, which Fedi, Bartholdi and the forgotten Niccolini shared.
According to some hagiographies, in 1889, at the end of their first transoceanic journey, Mother Cabrini and her sisters, entering the port of New York and seeing Lady Liberty in all her majesty, with her torch lit up, fell to their knees and chanted the hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’. For them, that illuminist and Masonic symbol of reason that lights the path to freedom was an image of the Madonna that would accompany their mission among Italian emigrants. I am sure that neither Lady Liberty nor the Virgin Mary, both very open-minded women, were offended by the misunderstanding.
Translated by Yulia Lapina