Behind the Lincoln Memorial four bronze equestrian statues guard the Potomac River. Gilded with a total of 100 pounds of 24-karat gold, their completion in 1950 was a gift from the people of Italy to the United States
“They stand out,” said Matthew Virta, the Cultural Resources Program Manager for the George Washington Memorial Parkway. “You can see them shining in the sun.”
Two decades passed between the selection of the American sculptors and the dedication of the statues on Sept. 26, 1951. Without Italy’s gift, it’s uncertain what their fate would have been.
The Commission of Fine Arts developed the idea for unique works to complete the Arlington Memorial Bridge Plaza in 1929. Through a contest, they selected Leo Friedlander and James Earle Fraser as the sculptors in 1931.
The works were originally intended to be made from granite, but the plan was scrapped because of high costs during the Great Depression. Bronze became the decided substitute but the process was delayed again with the onset of World War II. Both artists finally completed full-size plaster models in 1938.
The models sat in storage until 1949 when Alberto Tarchiani, the Italian Ambassador to the United States, decided that Italy would take on the responsibility of casting and gilding the statues as “a gesture of good will.” The models were then crated and transported on two ships that left the port of New York between the end of 1949 and beginning of 1951.
One was sent to Naples, another to Rome, a third to Milan, and the final one to Florence. It took 14 months to complete the application of a “fire-gilt” finish on each of the statues. Virta said that because the statues were intended for outdoors, it was recommended that they be gilded in gold because bronze develops a patina.
“The fact that they were gilded keeps them bold,” he said.
After being returned to America, the statues have sat in their permanent home on the Arlington Memorial Bridge Plaza since June 19, 1951
Maintained by the National Park Service, the statues are cleaned every several years, but have weathered extensively. A recent architectural study completed for the Park Service by John G. Waites Associates proposed a plan to re-gild the statues, but right now it isn’t in the budget.
“Unfortunately some of the estimates were quite high and the park competes for funding,” Virta said.
Each of the four statues represents a theme of war and peace. The statues of Valor and Sacrifice sculpted by Friedlander mark the entrance to the Arlington Memorial Bridge.
The statues of Music and Harvest, and Aspiration and Literature, both sculpted by Fraser, sit at the entrance to Rock Creek Park.
For more information, check out the original Program of Ceremonies for the dedication of The Equestrian Statues from 1951 or visit the National Park Service’s history website for more information on the statuary.