When I selected this image for the beginning of Black History Month, I did so because it depicted a remarkable sculpture about which I knew nothing. The illustration showed well-to-do families interested in the freedman holding the Emancipation Proclamation in his left hand and the remains of broken shackle about his right wrist. “Which American sculptor did this?” I wondered.
Well, Frank Leslie’s Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 (held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) doesn’t tell me. On page 133 of this massive volume, all I know was that the “Statue of ‘The Freed Slave’ ” was in Memorial Hall.
I learned that the sculptor was an Austro-Italian by the name of Francesco Pezzicar, who created this sculpture for sale, like many works seen at the Exposition and was part of the Austrian exhibit.The literal translation of the work is “Abolition of Slavery” (l’Abolizione della schiavitù) – which has a subtle, yet importantly different meaning from the listed title “The Freed Slave.” The work is now at the Trieste, Revoltella Museum in Italy.
The work’s display created a lot of negative attention which was not understood by Francesco Pezzicar, because it was well known at the time that Americans spent a lot of money on similar sculptures. For some reason, this one touched too closely onto the sensibilities of white Americans, according to a rough translation of a biography written by the artist’s son, Amerino, in 1911. The work remained at the artist’s studio until his death.
The most well-known critic of the work, William Dean Howells, an editor of the Atlantic Monthly at the time, wrote several articles about the Centennial Fair for the July 1876 edition. He was not impressed with the Italian contribution to the Fair, and most particularly found Pezzicar’s bronze statue “offensive”. Not only offensive, but a sculpture of a “most offensively Frenchy negro, who has broken his chain, and spreading his arms and legs abroad, is rioting in a declamation of something (I should say) from Victor Hugo.”
I couldn’t find a photo of the statute which appeared in Philadelphia, but I did find the work upon which the bronze was based, Spartaco di Vela or Spartacus by Vela (Vincenzo Vela). Pezzicar’s using this statute of Spartacus could not have been accidental. While Vela and Pezzicar were contemporaries, the Pezzicar bronze’s meaning goes deeper than its physical similarities to Vela’s work.
Spartacus was a slave and a gladiator. He lead a famous revolt against the Roman Republic in the century before the birth of Christ. His life and famous battles have been depicted in film, books and television.
Black Spartacus was the name Toussaint L’Ouvertour was given by General Etienne Maynard Bizefranc, comte de Lavaux, one of his opponents who became a great admirer.
Toussaint L’Ouvertour was made a general de brigade in the French Army in 1794. That same year, the French author Alexandre Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie (who changed his last name to Dumas, after his mother, in 1786), achieved the same rank and served in Flanders. Toussaint was captured by Napoleon’s army in 1802 after he staged a revolt in Santo Domingo, the same year Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo were born. He died in 1803 as Napoleon’s prisoner in Chateau de Joux, one of several state run prisons (one of which became famous in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, the Chateau d’If).
Fifty-seven years later, on December 2, 1859, a letter Victor Hugo wrote to the London News about John Brown appeared. In the letter, Hugo reflected upon John Brown’ fate as he writes:
“Viewed in a political light, the murder of Brown would be an irreparable fault. It would penetrate the Union with a gaping fissure which would lead in the end to its entire disruption. It is possible that the execution of Brown might establish slavery on a firm basis in Virginia, but it is certain that it would shake to its centre the entire fabric of American democracy.”
He ends his letter with these words:
“As for myself, though I am but a mere atom, yet being, as I am, in common with all other men, inspired with the conscience of humanity, I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World; and with clasped hands, and with profound and filial respect, I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown, to demolish the threatening scaffold of the 16th of December, and not to suffer that beneath its eyes, and I add, with a shudder, almost by its fault, a crime should be perpetrated surpassing the first fratricide in iniquity.
For — yes, let America know it, and ponder on it well — there is something more terrible than Cain slaying Abel: It is Washington slaying Spartacus!”
A reproduction of Victor Hugo’s work can be seen at the John Brown Museum on the ground floor in Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park. On Sunday, February 5 at 2 pm, Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park will have a Black History Month program.