Statues forge emotional bonds between cities and their inhabitants. Whether in squares, on the facades of buildings or in museums, they are the product of that city’s collective power of imagination and creativity. Since antiquity urban dwellers have not only enjoyed works of art inside their own houses, but shared emotions by placing them in public places as a form of communication and source of urban memories. Usually they are located near a building of suitable magnificence, and make sitting at a café looking out onto a square adorned with statues a pleasurable interlude. Perhaps a city’s inhabitants feel themselves more secure in the shadow of one of their heroes or a powerful animal carved in stone or cast in bronze.
Legends and stories about statues generated over the ages are probably the consequence of this emotional approach.
Some are supposed to have spoken, others to cure diseases. Such stories show how statues and other works of art are linked directly to human and city life. One of the most romantic of such stories took place on the coast of Turkey in ancient times, when the Dorians migrated eastwards to the islands of the Aegean and Asia Minor, where they established large cities. Every city competed to construct more splendid temples and other buildings, and the great masters of the age were invited to create works of art to adorn them. The city of Cos asked the sculptor Praxiteles to carve a statue for their temple dedicated to Aphrodite, and shortly afterwards the city of Knidos commissioned a statue of the same goddess. Praxiteles carved two statues, one depicting her clothed and the other naked.
The people of Cos chose the clothed statue, leaving the naked Aphrodite for Knidos.
This was the first statue of a naked woman to be produced by a Greek sculptor, and the people of Knidos soon had cause to be glad that the people of Cos had chosen the traditionally garbed figure. Before long the naked Aphrodite was celebrated far and wide, and people travelled from distant lands just to see the amazing statue. In the words of the 20th century Turkish writer Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli, the naked Aphrodite of Knidos was like a moon shining over the city, not just an embellishment but embodying the city’s spirit. The Knidos Aphrodite was made in the mid-4th century BC when the city was enjoying a period of great wealth.
When towards the end of the 3rd century BC economic decline set in, Knidos ran up large debts to nearby countries. The wealthy King Nicomedes of Bithynia then proposed to cancel all the city’s debts in return for Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite. But the people of Knidos rejected the offer, preferring to struggle against all their adversities rather than give up their famous statue. The period 450-400 BC was the golden age of sculpture in ancient Greece. On both shores of the Aegean artists produced works of unequalled beauty. Human figures were portrayed in a powerfully realistic style. Although we find these statues beautiful as they are today, at the time they were usually painted in bright colours. In later centuries Italian sculptors produced statues in a realistic, vivid and natural style that reflected a love of life.
The city of Florence holds a special place in art history where the relationship between city and statue is concerned. Fortunes earned from commerce here were spent on works of art, and by the 15th century the city had been transformed into a sculpture gallery. The main patrons of art in Florence were the Borghese and Medici families who ruled the city for long periods, and several of whose members served as popes. Among the city’s artists Michelangelo is undoubtedly the greatest of all. His works were courageous and forceful. The slave attempting to escape his chains, David and Moses and his other statues have an awesome power of expression. At the end of the 18th century the art of sculpture again sought as its ideal the pure tranquility of ancient Greek sculpture. Paris became the new address for statue production, and at hundreds of workshops in the city sculptors began to use new techniques.
Almost all of them cast their sculptures in bronze. Auguste Rodin indelibly marked sculpture during and after his lifetime (1840-1917). The rejection of traditional styles by Rodin and other artists led to a completely new approach to style and form in the 20th century. The Romanian sculptor Costantin Brancusi who settled in Paris, and his contemporaries not only led to a new concept of form with their uncluttered lines and geometric shapes, but also influenced urban architecture. So, as in the ancient world, sculpture continues to be a source of pride for city dwellers and to be the silent witness to changes in our cities.