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September 26, 2017

9/6/2017 3:28:00 PM
Mystery of the Statue Beneath the Stairs
By Besty Bird

The year was 1960, and the beautiful 1908 library building that had housed the Evanston Public Library collection for years was slated to meet
its demise. 

But deconstruction is always a bit more complicated than construction, so it wasn’t just a case of knocking the place over with a wrecking ball.

Back then the process was a bit slower. Maybe that’s why they were able to find a statue under the steps before it was crushed.

 It must have been quite the discovery.  A delicate marble sculpture no larger than three feet tall or so, it features a young girl asleep in the midst of creating a wreath.  At her feet, amongst the flowers, lurks a serpent and a pet dog there to wake the girl up and alert her to the danger slithering below.

The crazy thing was that, for all that it was beautiful, there were no records on hand about the piece. No one knew where it had come from. No one was able to identify it. And so the Library held onto it for years.

Fast forward a couple decades. The Library again was renovated, and this time turned into the large, lovely institution we are so familiar with today. And it wasn’t long after when an Italian art historian found a reference to this statue on the Evanston Public Library website. She contacted then Assistant Director Paul Gottschalk, and the mystery began to unravel.

Here is what we now know: The official name of the piece is “Innocence Guarded by Faithfulness” dating from around 1868 and it is by the Italian neoclassical sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni (Italian, 1809-1873). As it turns out, Benzoni was living in a time when Americans were quite keen to have a bit of Italian art of their very own. To meet with this demand he, and other artists like him, would replicate his most popular pieces. In fact, the two pieces the most replicated turned out to be “The Gratitude” and “The Innocence Guarded by the Faithfulness” (which is another name for the one here at EPL).

And so, alas, it is not the only one of its kind. It is, however, by Benzoni himself, and, if you are curious you can see the original statue named “Innocence Protected by Fidelity” (clearly no one can agree on the translation of the name), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That piece dates back to 1852, a full 16 years before the one housed here at EPL.

Curious to see Evanston’s version? Though it’s not the most obvious display, you may see the statue at any time on the third floor of the main building in the Evanstoniana Room. Ask a librarian to let you in to view it. Whether a copy or an original, there’s no denying that it’s still a lovely little piece.

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