The Original Busts
Surrounding the top of library’s mezzanine are 16 niches, in which busts have sat for almost two centuries. Ten of these “well-executed busts of illustrious personages, ancient and modern,” indicated below with an asterisk, were donated to the library in 1840 by member James Phalen. Phalen, a Providence resident, was a managing contractor for U.S. lotteries. In 1838, Phalen’s Exchange and Lottery Office was located on North Main Street, very close to the newly opened Athenæum.
Homer* (c. 800 BCE)
Very little is known about the life of Homer, the fabled poet of the epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. It may be that there never really was a Homer, but rather a series of poets who passed down the epics using the oral tradition. In the Homeric epics, we see the introduction of poetic devices like meter and rhyme, which were invented to preserve the integrity of the story, and to train the memory for oral recitation. It is believed that Demodokos, a blind traveling singer from the Odyssey, may be a self-portrait of the poet. As a result, most images of Homer have been created in the character’s likeness.
Socrates* (c. 470 – 399 BCE)
Executed in 399 BCE on charges of heresy and corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates is the most influential figure in Western philosophy. Although he left behind no written works of his own, his students Plato and Xenophon immortalized his dialogues in their own works. The Socratic Dialogues were revolutionary in the fields of ethics, metaphysics, political science, moral philosophy, and epistemology. Plato would go on to mentor Aristotle, who in turn would mentor Alexander the Great.
Demosthenes* (384 – 322 BCE)
A contemporary of Plato and Aristotle, Demosthenes is known for rousing Athens to fight against Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. In 354 BCE, he gave his famous speech “On the Navy Boards” to the Athenian Assembly, convincing them to expand their navy to win the fight against the Persians.
This is the Athenæum’s only bust without confirmed identification. It is possible that when it was given to the library in 1840, he was thought to be Napoleon. Further research reveals that this figure has been identified in other collections as Aratus, Lysimachus, Demosthenes, a Roman general, and simply, Bust of Man. The original 2nd century marble in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, known as Lysimachus, was a regular stop for European travelers on the Grand Tour in Italy during the second half of the 17th century. The library has chosen to acknowledge this bust as an unknown Roman General.
Marcus Tullius Cicero* (106 – 43 BCE)
Statesman, translator, and philosopher Cicero lived through the final days of the Roman Republic. He survived Julius Caesar and the chaotic civil wars that engulfed Rome, and he advocated for a return to republican government. After Caesar’s death, Cicero found himself on the wrong side of Mark Antony, who had him executed in 43 BCE. In the years that followed, the Roman Republic would collapse, and Rome would descend into empire under Augustus Caesar. Apart from being an influential political and moral philosopher in his own right, Cicero was an important translator. He brought Hellenistic ideas into Latin, a language that ensured their preservation for centuries. It’s even argued that Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in the 14th century launched the Renaissance itself, as it brought antique ideas like humanism back into the public consciousness.
Dante Aligheri (c. 1265 – 1321)
Dante is best known for his epic poem the Divine Comedy, widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language. Though Latin was the preferred language of scholarly writing at the time, Dante promoted the Italian language as a respected literary dialect, which allowed his work to be read by a more general audience. Dante was virtually unknown in the United States until 1867, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [1807-1882] produced his own translation of the Divine Comedy. This bust was likely donated to the Athenæum in the 19th century, although the donor and exact date are unknown.
Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374)
One of the early renaissance humanists, Petrarch was a revolutionary poet and scholar. His rediscovery of Cicero’s letters brought classical ideas back to the fore, and ignited a frenzy to rediscover classical teachings — a frenzy that soon became a renaissance. After briefly studying law in Bologna, Petrarch, who was born in Tuscany, abandoned his studies to pursue scholarship of the classics. He was a prolific poet and writer of letters, essays, and histories, and is credited with the invention of the Petrarchan sonnet. This bust was likely donated to the Athenæum in the 19th century, although the donor and exact date are unknown.
William Shakespeare* (1564 – 1616)
Though he had “small Latin and less Greek,” William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language, or, as Ben Jonson put it, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Shakespeare’s deep exploration of the human condition still astonishes us today, and his works continue to be produced and adapted for contemporary audiences, who find their own struggles represented in timeless classics such as Hamlet, King Lear, and Julius Caesar. William Shakespeare was born and educated in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He was soon an established playwright in London, and later owned stock in the Globe Theatre, where many of his works were first performed.
John Milton* (1608 – 1674)
Born in London, Milton was educated at St. Paul’s School, and later attended Christ’s College in Cambridge. In 1638, he traveled to Italy, where he met the astronomer Galileo Galilei. The visit greatly impacted Milton – he became a freethinker, challenging conventional ideas of religion and politics. Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
Franklin was an author, printer, politician, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. He served as a member of the Philadelphia City Council in 1748, and as a justice of the peace the following year. He later traveled to England to negotiate long-standing trade disputes, and to France as an American congressional emissary. He was also the founder of the first membership library in America, the Library Company of Philadelphia. Although Franklin owned slaves as a young man and carried advertisements for the sale of slaves in his newspaper, he came to condemn the practice and identified as an abolitionist in his later years. Two months before his death, he petitioned Congress on behalf of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to abolish slavery, end the slave trade, and “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People.” This bust was likely donated to the Athenæum in the 19th century, although the donor and exact date are unknown.
George Washington* (1732 – 1799)
Washington is widely regarded as the most important political figure in American history. He commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, presided over the constitutional convention that led to the Constitution of the United States, and served as the nation’s first President, where he established many of the norms and practices that have been observed in the republic for centuries. In 1781, he defeated British forces at Yorktown, which secured American independence. Perhaps most notable among his many accomplishments, Washington declined absolute power when it was available to him. In 1783, Washington resigned his military commission, declined monarchical power, and retreated to his Mount Vernon plantation, echoing the actions of the famed Roman General Cincinnatus.
While Washington contributed much to the formation of the country, he was also deeply entrenched in the practice of slavery. Washington owned slaves for 56 years, and their labor made him one of the wealthiest men in the young republic. In private he expressed his desire for the gradual emancipation of slavery through legislative authority, but he never spoke publicly about abolition, and he never gave up the practice of slave ownership in his lifetime.
Walter Scott* (1771 – 1832)
Scott was born in Edinburgh, and after graduating from Edinburgh University at age 17, he became a lawyer. Scott started writing several years later, and by the 1820s was arguably the most famous writer in Scotland, as well as one of its leading intellectuals. He developed the historical novel genre, and many of his works, including Ivanhoe and Waverly, remain classics of the Romantic period.
Henry Clay (1777 – 1852)
The American statesman Clay was born in Virginia the year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He served a variety of important roles in the new republic, including representing the state of Kentucky in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, and serving as the U.S. Secretary of State. Clay was considered one of the most skilled orators of his generation and was renowned as a compromise broker, but his legacy remains tarnished. While he publicly condemned slavery, calling it “this great evil… the darkest spot in the map of our country,” his own slaves were not freed until his death. The busts of Clay and his contemporary in the Senate, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, were given to the Athenæum in 1853 shortly after their deaths.
William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842)
Channing was born in Newport, RI to an accomplished family. Like his father and grandfather, he attended Harvard College. After graduating, he spent a year tutoring in Richmond, Virginia, where he witnessed the inhumane treatment of enslaved people. This experience drew him to religion and the campaign for human rights, and he returned to study theology at Harvard. Channing was ordained in 1803, dedicated himself to the educational and spiritual development of children, and became the voice of the American Unitarianism movement. Toward the end of his life, Channing became more involved in the abolitionist movement. The Athenæum’s bust was donated to the library in 1867 by member Albert Gorton Greene. Greene greatly admired Channing; after Channing’s death in 1842, he wrote “Ode on the Death of William Ellery Channing,” which was published in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852)
The American statesman Webster was born in New Hampshire, graduated from Dartmouth College, and went on to study law. He was elected to represent New Hampshire in Congress in 1812 and, after moving to Massachusetts, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1827. He went on to serve as the United States Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore. A major political figure in the first half of the 19th century, Webster was greatly admired for his oration skills, but his views on slavery and the Compromise of 1850 remain controversial. The busts of Webster and his contemporary in the Senate, Henry Clay of Kentucky, were given to the Athenæum in 1853 shortly after their deaths.
Lord Byron* (1788 – 1824)
Born in London, Byron was both a leading Romantic poet and a member of the House of Lords. He is best known for his ability to write in many styles and genres, particularly satire and verse narrative. Despite his literary accomplishments, Byron’s life was plagued with scandal, and in 1816 disgrace and debt led him to leave England. He traveled extensively across Europe and lived in Italy for seven years before fighting as a revolutionary in the Greek War of Independence. Byron’s major works include Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
John Keats (1795 – 1821)
Born in London, Keats was the oldest of four children and lost his parents at an early age. In 1816 he became a licensed apothecary, but later decided to pursue poetry. Keats, perhaps best known for his “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, was heavily inspired by mythical and Classical themes. In 1819, Keats contracted tuberculosis, and died in Rome two years later at the age of twenty-five. His works had only been in publication for four years before his death. This bust was likely donated to the Athenæum in the 19th century, although the donor and exact date are unknown.
William Hickling Prescott (1796 – 1859)
Prescott was born in Salem, MA, and attended Harvard University, where he excelled in the study of history. He is best known for his three-volume work History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and subsequent two-volume History of the Conquest of Peru (1847). In 1844, Prescott commissioned a bust of himself from the neoclassical sculptor Richard Saltonstall Greenough (1819 – 1904). This bust earned Greenough notable recognition, and his career took off. Prescott, a member of the Boston Athenæum, immediately donated the bust to that institution. The Providence Athenæum’s copy is likely a plaster replica of the original and was donated to the library in 1865 by Mrs. Moses B. Lockwood.