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RENAISSANCE CITIZEN

Newark’s Colleoni

Cities must periodically reinvent themselves, or try to.  The notion of renewal, when confronted by urban reality, can at best be only partially fulfilled, and at worst can fail miserably.  For Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, renewal has been the way, and the struggle, from the start.

Newark was settled, in 1666, by Connecticut Puritans seeking to build a rural religious society more strict than the one they had come from.  But theocracy soon yielded to a more ecumenical system of government, and well before the Civil War the town had become a center of industry, producing much of the country’s leather, jewelry, millinery and beer. After the Civil War, electrified manufacturing and immigration transformed Newark economically and socially.

Such growth made Newark an aesthetically disagreeable place.  In 1834, a returning Newarker perceived “a want of public spirit” and a disregard “for the general appearance and condition of the town except as far as individual interest is concerned.”  (Newark Daily Advertiser, May 5, 1834)

The idea that with wealth came a responsibility for the city’s appearance was slow to take hold.   When it did it produced a flowering of public art, including one very unlikely specimen:  a commanding bronze horse and rider on an elegant pedestal, across Clinton Avenue from Lincoln Park.  The piece was a commission from brewer Christian Feigenspan to sculptor J. Massey Rhind. Completed and presented to Newark in 1916, it is a replica of an Italian Renaissance masterpiece.

The work portrays Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary army captain from Bergamo who served two great rival states, the duchy of Milan and the republic of Venice.  Colleoni promised his entire fortune to Venice with one inconvenient string attached:  his statue was to be erected in Piazza San Marco, the secular and spiritual heart of the city.  Venice accepted the bequest but altered the location, placing the monument instead in Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, where it stands today. It recently underwent a detailed analysis and restoration.

The conception and model of the Colleoni were by Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence.  (Leonardo da Vinci was one of his pupils.)  When Verrocchio died in 1488, casting the bronze and creating the pedestal fell to Alessandro Leopardi, a Venetian. Leopardi completed the work in 1495.  In the process of casting to Verrocchio’s design, he signed the work across the girth of the horse ALEXANDER LEOPARDVS V F OPVS, V standing for VENETVS and F for FVDIT or, more extravagantly, FECIT, an ambiguity that was perhaps not unintended.

Owing to the monument’s great height – about 45 feet – it is difficult to make out Leopardi’s signature on the Newark replica, and indeed to admire its workmanship, with the naked eye.  The inscription on the front of the pedestal, by contrast, is easily viewed:

BARTOLOMEO

COLEONO

BORGOMENSI

OB MILITARE

IMPERIVM

OPTIME

GESTVM

S C

The base is not an exact copy of the Venice original, but shows some stylistic alterations in both decoration and lettering.  There are two minor variations in the Latin, the original having BARTHOLOMEO and BERGOMENSI.  The inscription at the rear, which gave the original monument’s date and the names of the officials who superintended its completion, is replaced by a more modest one in English.  It reads:  “PRESENTED / BY A CITIZEN / IN COM­MEMORA­TION OF / THE 250TH ANNIVERSARY / OF THE FOVNDING OF THE / CITY OF NEWARK / 1916.”

In a relatively short existence of ninety some years, the Newark Colleoni has borne witness to much transformation, and that continues with the current efforts at renewal.  Could this Colleoni speak, he would certainly tell us that this is not the first Renaissance he has seen, nor will it be the last.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory J. Guderian

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Fall 2005, page 6 (.pdf).

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