looking back

‘Looking Back’: Gladiator Statue

By Kinen Carvala

Is the naked bronze man with a cape and helmet in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse Roman or Greek?

The base of the bronze statue has the inscription “Georges Geefs,” who was a member of the 19th century Belgian family of artists. Another inscription on the base, “Cie des Bronzes,” is an abbreviated name of the foundry that cast the statue, Compagnie des Bronzes, in Brussels, capital of Belgium. Also inscribed are the year 1881 and the artistic method “cire perdue” or “lost wax.”

The process of making a bronze sculpture, as described by the Victoria and Albert Museum, begins with the artist’s wax model of the art piece. The wax model is a guide for creating a plaster mold that’s the inverse of the wax model (then the original wax model is discarded). Hot wax is poured into the plaster mold sections to recreate the outer layer of the original model in sections. Then the cooled wax shell is filled with a mixture of sand and plaster, while outside pins and wax rods are added along with coats of plaster, except for a hole in the bottom. In the heat of a kiln, the wax shell and rods melt and drain through the hole, but the plaster mold keeps its form as held by the pins; turning the plaster mold upside down allows molten bronze to be poured to fill the void left in the plaster mold. After the bronze solidifies, the plaster mold is broken open by the artisan, and the bronze rods formed around the art piece are removed.

The sculpture was previously exhibited at various expositions, including in Brussels in 1880, Amsterdam in 1883 and at the World Columbian Exposition of 1883 in Chicago, according to Hugo Lettens writing in “La Sculpture belge au 19ème siècle.”

The gladiator statue on the north side of Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse was placed to commemorate the inauguration of the California Midwinter International Exposition. Photos by Michael Durand.

A parade before the Midwinter Exposition groundbreaking marched from the Golden Gate Park Panhandle’s eastern tip to the Music Concourse, the future fair site. The sculpture was installed in its present location to commemorate the groundbreaking of the Exposition on Aug. 24, 1893. The sculpture’s pedestal plaque states:

In Commemoration of the Inauguration of the California Midwinter International Exposition

On this spot the first shovelful of earth was turned with ceremonies on August 24th, 1893.

The Exposition would open on Jan. 27, 1894, for six months. It was the first international exposition west of the Mississippi River.

At the time of the Midwinter Exposition, more than 300,000 people were living in San Francisco, but less than 50 years earlier (pre-Gold Rush), fewer than 250 people were living here, according to Dr. William Lipsky in the book “Images of America: San Francisco’s Midwinter Exposition.”

A silver case contained earth shoveled in by director-general of the Exposition, Michael Henry de Young, and additional coins were auctioned on that groundbreaking day for $650. The crowd “cheered very lustily” when Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger acknowledged the contractors who started working on the construction that very day. Shipbuilder Irving Murray Scott noted in his speech that the Exposition would mark a new industrial era in the history of California. The San Francisco Chronicle estimated that 40,000 people were in the Music Concourse with 60,000 in total, including those in surrounding hills and valleys who were too far away to hear the speeches in the bandstand, in the reporter’s judgment.

While the statue today is referred to as the Roman Gladiator Sculpture on the Golden Gate Park 150th anniversary website, an 1880 Belgian catalog uses a different French description: “Léonidas aux Thermopyles, exhortant ses soldats au combat,” or “Leonidas at Thermopylae exhorting his troops to battle.” Also, Lipsky referred to the statue as part of the Exposition’s “Fair of King Leonidas of Sparta.” The statue depicts King Leonidas from the ancient Greek city state of Sparta. Leonidas is famous for holding out with his 300 Spartan soldiers during a heroic last stand to defend the narrow pass of Thermopylae against a much larger invading Persian force in the year 480 BCE for a few days before succumbing to the Persians. (Ancient Greek sources mention several hundred other Greek soldiers defending the pass at various stages of the battle before being dismissed by Leonidas or surrendering to the Persians, according to Michael A. Flower’s article “Simonides, Ephorus, and Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae.”)

Research by Christopher Pollock, historian in residence at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, confirmed that the Roman Gladiator and Leonidas statue are one and the same.

Before the gladiator sculpture ended up in Golden Gate Park, it was exhibited at various expositions, including in Brussels in 1880, Amsterdam in 1883 and at the World Columbian Exposition of 1883 in Chicago.

The bronze statue and granite pedestal together are 11 feet, 3 inches tall, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission. The statue depicts a caped Leonidas holding his sword up high with his right arm. Leonidas’s gaze over his right shoulder is in the opposite direction as his outstretched left arm, possibly gesturing at the Persian invaders.

The sculpture is on the northern part of the Music Concourse, across the street from the de Young Museum.

Last month’s column unfortunately contained an error. Here is the correct information: The Sharon Quarters playground (now known as Koret Children’s Quarters) opened on Dec. 22, 1888, and the carousel pavilion was built in 1892, according to Christopher Pollock, the historian in residence at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

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