Philadelphia, Bensylvania Wherever You Go In Our Town, There He Is: The Foremost Forefather, The Peerless Printer, The Scientist Supreme. Are 41 Franklins Too Many Bens?

Posted: October 10, 1999

London has Big Ben. Philadelphia has Big Bens.

From Old City to University City, almost everywhere you look there is a Benjamin Franklin memorialized in marble, burnished in bronze, allegorized in aluminum.

He is larger than life (think of Mr. Franklin, the scientific giant enthroned in the rotunda of the Franklin Institute). He is life-sized (gentle Ben, seated on a park bench just off Locust Walk at Penn). He is a civic god (clad in a toga and leaning against a pillar of books in the Library Company's niche). He is a manual laborer (in workman's mufti operating his printing press across from City Hall). Not only is he everywhere, he is everything.

By one reliable count, there are more statues honoring Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia than there are representations of any single other public figure in any single other American city. Forty-one Franklins in all - conceivably more Bens than Philadelphia has firsts.

This census comes courtesy of the Inventory of American Sculpture, a division of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. Consider that there are just 16 George Washingtons in Washington, D.C.; only 14 Abe Lincolns in Springfield, Ill.; a mere six Thomas Jeffersons in Richmond, Va.; and a solitary Sam Houston in the Texas town that bears his name.

Although most of the Philadelphia Bens were commissioned after his death, understand that even during his lifetime his image was everywhere, and not just in William Penn's city.

Franklin's biographer Carl Van Doren writes of the Ben tchotchkes that flooded Paris and the colonies when Himself was minister plenipotentiary to France during the 1780s: "There were paintings and busts, miniatures, medallions, statuettes, drawings and prints, endlessly reproduced, first on snuffboxes and rings and in time on watches, clocks vases, dishes, handkerchiefs and pocket-knives. Probably no man before Franklin ever had his likeness so widely current in so many forms."

And probably no man since, except Elvis.

Perhaps the most curious, and costly, Ben effigy adorned a Sevres porcelain chamber pot given by a jealous King Louis XVI to his mistress Diane de Polignac. She, like most of the ladies in court, was infatuated with Franklin, so if the chamber pot were used for its intended purpose, the king got his revenge.

This is a form of art criticism we can only dream of when regarding some of the Bens around town.

Now, most natives of Philadelphia view the embarrassment of Bens (and some of this statuary is embarrassing, in both senses of the word) as unremarkable, as natural a part of the landscape as the azaleas that border Rittenhouse Square.

Yet some of us who come from elsewhere are initially overwhelmed by Ben. We suffer from Benphobia. Philadelphia artist Flash Rosenberg dubbed this syndrome "the Bends."

It's taken 14 years, but like the stages of grief, I have found that the Bends are curable. They are part of the inevitable process that leads from denial to depression to acceptance.

Me, I used to shudder every time I walked past Reginald Beauchamp's Penny Bust, an unappetizing pile of piggy-bank fodder stacked into a tectonic-plate profile. Mercifully, it's now in storage, awaiting restoration. And just as mercifully, Franklin was spared from having to patiently remind Beauchamp, "I said, 'A penny saved is a penny earned.' I never said, '80,000 pennies an artwork makes.'"

Just as bad is Isamu Noguchi's Bolt of Lightning, the monumental squiggle dedicated to the kite-flyer that stands at the foot of the - you guessed it - Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Part of my problem with the Noguchi is that he conceived this when he was a student in 1933, and it took more than half a century to execute, via computer-assisted engineering. The result resembles a tribute built by a machine rather than a man.

But over the years I have evolved from wondering why Philadelphia was cursed with so many Bad Bens (take Joseph Brown's jumbo-limbed printer working his press catercorner from City Hall - take it, please) to appreciating how many Beneficial Bens actually do bless the city.

Think about it. Franklin the man contained multitudes, and it follows that one artwork cannot fully contain the guy who was variously printer, newspaperman, philosopher, scientist, ladies' man, wit, boulevardier, nudist and statesman.

Most of the sculpture Franklin inspired in his adoptive city tends to capture only one facet of his life. Thus we have Ben the printer at his press, BF the newspaperman proofing his Pennsylvania Gazette (in George Lundeen's sculpture of him on the bench near Locust Walk), BF the city father (enshrined in Alexander Milne Calder's bust on the keystone arch in the East Central Pavilion of City Hall), and Franklin the scientist (in the rotunda of the Institute founded in his honor).

The work that most successfully captures more than one aspect of his life is Francesco Lazzarini's Benjamin Franklin, a 1792 memorial now protected behind glass in the niche of the Library Company at 1314 Locust St. (Originally, the Lazzarini BF stood above the portal of the Library Company's building on Fifth Street between Chestnut and Walnut, now the site of the American Philosophical Society, one of umpteen institutions BF founded.)

Lazzarini's Franklin is both man and god, engaged and detached. He relaxes against a pillar of books, to signify both his learnedness and his printing trade, while his omniscient eyes scan the horizon for new worlds to explore. In terms of his garb, the visual metaphor is likewise mixed. He wears a cravat and dress pumps, befitting an 18th-century gentleman, but he's also clad in a toga as worn by Roman citizens, symbolic of his civic spirit.

One can look at Lazzarini's exaltation and wonder: What kind of guy wears pumps to a toga party and a cravat on top of everything? Only a fashion victim or a time-traveler; intellectually speaking, Franklin was the latter.)

Franklin was an intimate of many artists, including Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts founder Charles Willson Peale, and complained that he "had sat so much and so often to painters and statuaries that I am perfectly sick of it." Of all the men who lived before the age of photography, it is Washington and Franklin who are most familiar to us, because they are the most frequently depicted.

Franklin was, moreover, a penetrating art critic in that he correctly noted that "there are so many good likenesses of my face that if the best of them is copied it will probably be better than a new one." Of his robust body, Franklin quipped "it is only that of a lusty man," and any artist, he thought, could shape it.

If he were among us, would Franklin have a sculptural favorite? As someone who practiced nudism a few hours daily, he probably regrets there are no statues representing him in the altogether.

As a Founding Father, he championed the ideal over the real. But as a man, he might have mistrusted being cast larger than life, as the Lazzarini, the James Earle Fraser Franklin Institute monarch, and John J. Boyle's likewise kingly statue at Penn depict him. Kings do not befit the democracy Franklin helped to create.

In this new-world spirit, he would, I think, most enjoy Claes Oldenburg's and Coosje van Bruggen's 16-foot, white enamel Split Button (on Locust Walk at Penn), a gargantuan detail of all those statues that depict Ben's bulging belly straining the buttons on his vest. "Bust my buttons," you can practically hear him declare. It is a visual epigram that the master epigrammatist would appreciate.

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