Busy babies at the Library of Congress

Baby hunter (by Carol Hightow.....) Baby hunter (by Carol M. Highsmith)

It’s summer, I’m on vacation (though still will be posting some new pieces during the week), and Washington is filled with tourists, so here’s a little offbeat piece for the city’s visitors.

Washington D.C. is not exactly known as a laugh-riot city, and  certainly not through its very serious marble sculpture. But it turns out the Library of Congress — of all places — offers something of a respite from that reputation.

On a recent trip to the library, I was amused by the sculpted baby boys — known as putti  in Italian Renaissance art, plural for putto — on the grand staircase banisters of the Great Hall in the Thomas Jefferson Building. Each one is in marble to represent a different adult occupation or interest in the late 1800s, when the building was designed. There’s a baby gardener and a baby entomologist and a baby hunter and a baby scholar and a baby mechanic and a baby electrician and a baby astronomer and, well, you get the idea.

The mechanic baby is holding a cogwheel and pincers. The baby hunter has a gun and is holding a rabbit by the ears. The gardener holds a spade and a rake. The entomologist has a butterfly net and a jar over his shoulder to hold specimens. The baby farmer holds wheat and a sickle. The baby scholar, with a mortarboard on his head, is reading a book.

Why were they sculpted that way? That’s the really amusing part.

It is said, according to one of the tour guides, that the sculptor, Philip Martiny, was asked to sculpt putti in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance (as the building itself is designed).  Martiny said he didn’t want to sculpt little Italian babies in an American building in the nation’s capital, but felt it was only right to create strong American babies who were busy and industrious. And so he did.

From left, baby gardener, baby entomologist, baby college student (by Carol M. Highsmith)


Close-up of baby gardner
Close-up of baby gardener (by Carol M. Highsmith)

Baby hunter (holding rabbit with gun behind baby) and baby mechanic (holding cogwheel) (by Carol M. Highsmith)

Click here for some Library of Congress activities for students.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · June 29, 2013

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