Rodin sculpture liberated on Bastille Day

At the Rodin, Michael DiBerardinis , deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, shakes hands with ZaKiyah Haynes, 14, as he greets students from the Earth's Keepers Urban Farm at the Kingsessing Recreation Center.
At the Rodin, Michael DiBerardinis , deputy mayor for environmental and community resources, shakes hands with ZaKiyah Haynes, 14, as he greets students from the Earth's Keepers Urban Farm at the Kingsessing Recreation Center. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 15, 2011

They were ordinary merchants in the French port of Calais when the English army laid siege in the 14th century, but they became national heroes when they offered themselves as human sacrifices to save their city. In the end, King Edward III was so moved by the gesture that he released the captives and spared the town.

The Burghers of Calais, as immortalized in Auguste Rodin's heart-rending eponymous sculpture, were liberated a second time Thursday - fittingly, Bastille Day - when Philadelphia officials formally dedicated their new home in the refurbished Rodin Museum gardens. Fifty-six years after being locked up in a cramped gallery inside the jewel-box museum, the group of bronze figures is back outside, in an intimate garden nook, where it was meant to be.

Their return to their rightful spot on the east side of the galleries is the first of several renovation projects to freshen up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in preparation for next summer's debut of its newest resident, the Barnes Foundation. Altogether, the city is spending $20.9 million on landscape and road improvements between Logan Square and 23d Street, much of the funding donated by foundations.

Philadelphia has long had a crush on all things French, and the $5.3 million refurbishment of the Rodin Museum reinforces the amour.

The museum was designed in the late 1920s by a transplanted Frenchman, Paul Philippe Cret, and landscaped by another, Jacques Gréber, to house a collection of works by France's greatest sculptor. (The actual collector, Jules Mastbaum, was a Philadelphia movie theater operator.) The sculpture gallery, which may be the city's most flawlessly elegant building, sits midway along the Parkway, which is, of course, modeled on Paris' Champs-Élysées boulevard.

The Rodin Museum is also located next to the Barnes' new building, which is rapidly nearing completion. Its architects are not French, but its gardens are being designed by Olin, the same Philadelphia firm that renovated the landscape at the Rodin.

The goal, said Olin's Susan K. Weiler, is to restore the cohesiveness of the Parkway, which was laid out by Gréber. He envisioned the boulevard as a single landscape punctuated by a series of classical structures. Over time, as plantings grew wild and the Parkway was altered to accommodate the car, some of that unity was lost.

The landscape surrounding the Rodin grew so thick with hedges and underbrush that the pavilion was almost hidden behind a scrim of green. Olin's landscape architects devoted much of their efforts to clearing away the growth to reveal forgotten views of the diminutive museum and its free-standing stone gate, a replica of the one at Rodin's 18th-century country estate.

They also updated Gréber's formal French garden, which frames Cret's museum, removing the fusty pillows of boxwood that dominated the planted borders. The beds now tumble with lavender, yarrow, and thyme. Dwarf pear trees are pinned against a trellis in the French espalier style - that is, impaled.

While Gréber designed the Rodin gardens in the spare, formal French manner, he eased up on the landscaping beyond the museum perimeter, which is more natural and English in style. Recognizing the tendency of Philadelphians to make their own paths through the Parkway, Olin formalized several dirt pathways - known as lines of desire - with concrete paving.

Meanwhile, a team of specialists, overseen by CVM Construction, has banished seven decades of grime and decay from the historic limestone structures. They glow.

The Burghers of Calais and The Thinker were also given a state-of-the-art beauty treatment to gird them for long days in the elements. Plans call for four more sculptures to be brought outside and placed in the niches of the building and Meudon gate. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which runs the Rodin, plans to close the gallery in September for a three-month interior renovation.

Outside, CVM managed to save two original magnolia trees that bracket the entrance into the formal garden. The London plane trees along the Parkway are also expected to survive another half-century, Weiler said.

To take the place of Burghers inside the gallery, the Art Museum unearthed a marble version of The Kiss that had been banished to the storage vaults. It's actually a replica of a Rodin original commissioned at the time the Rodin Museum was being built, and executed by Gréber's brother, Henri.

Burghers, which Rodin intended as a meditation on suffering and sacrifice, may have the best spot, however. The selfless merchants make their never-ending circles against the backdrop of the rising Barnes.

No visitor will be able to resist the snapshot.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or @ingasaffron on Twitter.

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