I have something in common with Mark Twain.
For those who may not be up to speed on 19th century literature, Mark Twain, also known as Samuel Clemens, was the author of such classics as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and many more. And no, being a great writer of fiction is not what I have in common with Mr. Clemens. Although, were I to make such a claim, it would indeed be a great fiction.
What I do have in common with the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is an affinity for a particular piece of sculpture in Lucerne, Switzerland. He described it as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” That passage was from one of his lesser known books, A Tramp Abroad, written in 1880. He continues:
The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.
Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.
The surroundings may have changed a bit since then, the cacophony of the city is only steps away from the nook and vines no longer descend the cliff, but the setting and the power of the sculpture remains.
I initially encountered this work of art the first time I went to Europe, 100 years after Mark Twain, in 1980. I am not a particular fan of sculpture. Normally I will see a piece, maybe think “that’s nice” or admire the craftsmanship, and move without giving it another thought. But on rare occasions I’ll see something that evokes a more emotional response. The Lion is probably the first sculpture to affect me that way, and it immediately became my favorite. I took a picture of it that day which ended framed on my shelf; it became the standard for any other sculpture that might vie for the title of “favorite”. So far, none have supplanted it.
The sculpture itself was created to honor a sacrifice of the Swiss guard. It was hewn in 1820-21 to commemorate the death of the mercenary soldiers protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. 600 of 1100 guards were killed in the assault, and as many as 200 more died or were massacred in prison.
Recently I had the chance to see the sculpture again. In my 1980 trip, I had spent a couple of months doing the youth hostel routine, traveling around western Europe. At the time, I decided that the region around the Alps was my favorite, and someday I would return. That resolution took 35 years to fulfill, but finally I returned, and finally I could revisit my favorite sculpture.
The impact as I rounded the corner and saw the Lion again was immediate. Memories flooded back. First I saw the cliff face, a vertical sheet of gray sandstone. Then the Lion grabbed by view and held it, the poor fellow laying there stricken, his face the very definition of woe. Then the rest of the clearing filled in, the reflection pool in the foreground, the paths around the pool, the trees fringing the clearing. Yes, there were other tourists there, but they were almost incidental. The general ambience and the presence of the Lion and his anguish dominated.
I don’t know if Mark Twain considered this sculpture as his favorite. I don’t know of any other he even commented on. Yes, it’s a sad piece. But for me, the scope and power of it transcend any other sculpture I ever seen. I suspect, 100 years earlier, that Mark Twain may have felt the same way.