Sunday 13 November 2016

Liberty Headgear Ancient and Modern

Happy 13th (Ides) of November, or Feroniae, the 'freedom festival' when Romans celebrated the central Italian goddess Feronia during the Plebeian Games. 

Feronia was identified by Roman antiquarian Varro with the goddess of Liberty, Libertas. Her statuesque American avatar, with spoked diadem, has often been depicted this week weeping over the presidential election.

LIBERTAS holding Cap of Liberty 
Livy says Feronia/Liberty was a favourite goddess of freed slaves. Slaves could take refuge in her temple and were manumitted there, their new status ceremonially marked by the donning of a conical felt cap, the pileus

After the French Revolution, the pileus became a symbol of freedom much used not only by Republicans but by Abolitionists. John Flaxman’s Abolitionist design for a monument entitled ‘Liberty’ shows her bestowing the cap of liberty on a kneeling African slave as the priests of Feronia did on freed slaves in antiquity.

Liberty, albeit whiter than white, wears her red pileus proudly in ‘The Apotheosis of Washington’, painted in the dome of the slave-built US Capitol by Greek-Italian Constanino Brumidi in 1865, the year slavery was abolished. But there have always been racists at the top of the US government, as emphasised by the genesis of the statue commissioned earlier to crown the Capitol's dome externally.

Design 2 for Liberty with Freedman's cap
The original design by Thomas Walter envisioned a 16-foot tall Liberty holding a Liberty Cap. The second design, by Thomas Crawford, had Liberty actually wearing the Liberty Cap, encircled with stars (see fig. right) But this emancipation symbol was prohibited in 1854 by the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi slave-owner and future President of the Confederacy. He knew it was a potent 'code' for Abolitionists: his view was that ‘its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and should not be enslaved.’

The Conceptually Confused Head-gear of  the Capitol Liberty 
On Davis’ own suggestion, Liberty’s pileus was replaced by the design he finally approved in 1858, having personally dreamed up her ‘bold arrangement of feathers, suggested by our Indian tribes.’ 

Native Americans were themselves historically enslaved by both Spaniards and US citizens on a scale which has only just begun to be appreciated (California was still passing laws to facilitate 'Indian' enslavement as late as 1860). I can only speculate with embarrassment what they today make of either Trump's election or the peculiar head-dress worn by the statue atop the venue where Congress convenes.  
Manumission of slaves, Musée Royal de Mariemont, photo by Ad Meskens

1 comment:

  1. Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, was adapted from the personification of Liberty as a woman. She also wears the cap, which the French refer to as a bonnet phrygien (Phrygian cap).
    --Lillian Doherty