Shaw’s Memorial

There have been a lot of significant Civil War anniversaries as we pass through the sesquicentennial (that would be 150 years) of America’s greatest conflict.

Today marks one of those – the failed assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of the first African-American infantry units to fight in the Civil War.

If you’ve seen the movie Glory, then you’re probably familiar with the story and its significance.

But what does that distant battle off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina have to do with Washington, D.C.?

For me, this anniversary hits close to home – literally. I live in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, an historically African-American part of the city near U Street.

The neighborhood is named after Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from Boston, who was the commander of the 54th Massachusetts (and played by Matthew Broderick in the movie).

NPR had a story today on the influential Shaw Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens – an amazing piece of bronze sculpture depicting not only Shaw, but his regiment of soldiers marching out of Boston and off to war.

Shaw Memorial's plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.
Shaw Memorial’s plaster sculpture at the National Gallery.

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From Rome with Love

So last year around this time, I was in Rome for a conference involving my day job.

The Capitoline Venus had just come to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in honor of our newly minted sister city agreement with Rome, and I was at the Capitoline Museum looking at her empty pedestal.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to blog about the similarities between our two capitals – and it would be Historic District’s first official field trip.

Unfortunately, the day job took over, and I never got around to blogging.

Well, tempus fugit, and this month I find myself back in the Eternal City.

The difference this time is that I’m purely on vacation, and I’ve made my offering to the blog gods to keep me writing as long as I’m here.

My offering to the blog gods – do try this at home.

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The Capitoline Venus in the Nation’s Capital

My European visitors are usually a little bit surprised when we tour downtown Washington and they get a first glimpse of our federal office buildings.“All of your architecture, it looks like Rome,” one of them told me, more than a little amused.

I think they’re expecting to see something a little more “American.”

But in the early days of the republic, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped set the tradition of looking back to antiquity for civic symbolism.

As president, Washington was responsible for planning the new federal capital along with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. They encouraged the use of Roman architecture for all of our new buildings – including the White House and the Capitol – to link the new American republic with the ancient Roman one.

Even today, visitors can find traces of Rome throughout Washington, D.C. That symbolic link was made more official last month as the District signed a sister-city relationship with the Eternal City.

As one of the first cultural exchanges in the relationship, Rome lent Washington one of its treasures: the Capitoline Venus.

Capitoline Venus - NGA
The Capitoline Venus will be at the National Gallery of Art through September. (Photo: Robert Yule)

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An April Fool at the National Gallery

Last week , there was another incident involving bare breasts and protests at a District museum – and it wasn’t a nurse-in at the Smithsonian.

Gauguin - Two Tahitian Women - National Gallery of Art
Two Tahitian Women, Paul Gauguin, 1899 (Courtesy of National Gallery of Art)

On April 1st, a woman attacked a famous painting by Paul Gauguin – “Two Tahitian Women” – on display at the National Gallery of Art.

It was no April Fool’s prank – more like  a crazed rant. The woman allegedly tried to pull the painting off the wall, shouting “This is evil.”

She was still pounding on the plexiglas protecting the painting when she was tackled by a tourist and detained by security.

Her reasoning, released in court documents this week:

“I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children…I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.”

Okay, nothing reasonable there.

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