Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Having listed the Monument as one of the highlights of Stuart London, I felt it also deserved a post of its own. (I admit that after climbing 311 steps to its viewing gallery, I also wanted a chance to use the photos.)

Rather like the Cenotaph, the Monument impresses by its simplicity: it's a slender doric column topped by a bowl of flames. (Impressive as this golden ornament looks, it was in fact an economy measure: Wren originally planned a statue of Charles II, but that proved too expensive).

However, at street level there is a great deal of detail. As a 1750 description of the Monument states,
on three sides of the Pedestal are Inscriptions ... on the other there are proper Stereoglyphick figures carved in Relieve ... the whole of it is a curious piece of Workmanship and cost upwards of 13700 Pounds in Building.
The 'stereoglyphick figures' are indeed rather extraordinary, the work of Caius Gabriel Cibber. Wearing a mixture of contemporary and classical fashions, they pose against billowing flames to the left and the scaffolding of construction works to the right. King Charles II is depicted offering relief to the City, represented allegorically by a languishing woman. In the centre, Plenty and Peace sit on a cloud.

The inscriptions on the other three sides of the base record the Great Fire of 1666, the rebuilding of the city, and the Lord Mayors of London during the building of the column. Having failed to have the King's statue at its top, the Monument does a good job of sucking up to him in the inscription instead:
Charles the Second, son of Charles the Martyr, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, defender of the faith, a most gracious prince, commiserating the deplorable state of things, whilst the ruins were yet smoking provided for the comfort of his citizens, and the ornament of his city...
The wording is not by Wren but by Dr Gale, master of St Paul's School. The account of the fire was added to in 1681, ending with the words 'But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.' This amendment came after the supposed discovery of a Roman Catholic plot by Titus Oates, and was made on the orders of the Court of Common Council and the Court of Aldermen who governed the City. The slanderous words were deleted in 1830, again by order of the Court of Common Council.

The tallest freestanding column in the world is more than an elegant memorial, then. It has functioned as an exercise in politics, flattering the King and slandering Catholics as political expediency required. At the same time, it has filled two practical roles: as a tourist attraction which remains popular today, and as a laboratory - although it actually failed in this last purpose as the experiments attempted inside by Wren and his friend Hooke were spoiled by traffic vibrations.


Chris Partridge said...

Stereoglyphic - what a fabulous word. I will casually drop it into conversations at every opportunity from now on.

CarolineLD said...

Isn't it great - and possibly even better with the gratuitous 'k' on the end.