Busy Year Ahead for Sarmiento

February 22, 2011

By Penny Cherubino

This will be a busy year around the statue of Domingo Sarmiento on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The bi-centennial of his birth was last week. More visitors have been stopping to view and photograph the statue– including vans full of tourists from “Don Quijote Tours.” When you find a wreath of flowers placed in front of this statue, you know a dignitary or ship from Argentina is in Boston.

How did a statue of the President of Argentina come to be located on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall? And, why do Argentinian business travelers take time to visit this monument– even when they only have one day in Boston?

A 60-Year Mystery

In 1913, the government of Argentina offered the city of Boston a statue of President Sarmiento. Mayor John F. Fitzgerald accepted the gift. Sixty years later, the Boston Globe reported that Major Kevin White, “… was informed by Carlos Manuel Muniz, the Argentine ambassador to the United States, that the statue was finally being shipped.”

Why Boston?

Sarmiento is considered the father of education in Argentina. In 1847, he traveled around the United States. In a book review, Bernard Weisberger called him a  “Latin-American Adams or Jefferson” for his many accomplishments. In Boston, Sarmiento studied Horace Mann’s free school system and found the model for the educational structure he put in place in his own country.

Controversial Design

The 1,760-pound, 15-foot sculpture that was delivered in 1973 has had its detractors over the years. We know that it was cast that year, and is signed by Ivette Compagnion. Nothing is known about the artist. In a 1993 Boston Globe article, Robert Taylor wrote, “The sculptor is unclear– either one Ivette Compagnion or a bunch of collaborators at the Argentine School of Fine Arts.”

If it is a student work, experts like Sarah Hutt and Rika Smith McNally see a possible inspiration for it in Auguste Rodin’s monument to Balzac. What’s more, one of Rodin’s last works was a statue of Sarmiento for Buenos Aires.

Hutt, a consultant to the Friends of the Public Garden, oversees the routine care of the statue. She’s currently working on proposed lighting for the sculpture. She’ll arrange for an annual checkup and cleaning to prevent the need for major work in the future.

McNally, an art conservator, performed a complete evaluation and restoration of the monument in 2010. The surface had darkened considerably and somewhere along the way green tones had been added.

A thorough cleaning uncovered the name of the foundry and a bit of the original color. McNally conducted a Google search, discovered that the foundry was still in business, and emailed a request for details on the correct finish.

The son of the original maker responded. “They did not have records of the chemicals they had used, but his father remembered it and remembered the color,” McNally said. Supplied with that information and photos of other pieces they had finished during the same era, she was able to restore the authentic brown-toned patina.

Preservation is Ongoing

Last year, the plaque in front of this statue was stolen along with other memorials on the Mall. It has been replaced, and the Mall Committee is continuing to raise funds to cover that cost. The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and a local business have both made donations.

This spring, the Garden Club of the Back Bay will refresh the landscaping around the monument’s base and redesign the plantings so that the plaque is easier to see. This gift to Boston is being well cared for by today’s generation of stewards.

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