“The Triumph of Alexander” Restored
High along the walls of the third floor of the Asa G. Candler Library,
the conquering troops of Alexander the Great once brandished sword
and shield. Directly over the circulation desk, the vanquished Babylonian
King Darius welcomed the victorious Alexander to his city, while harpists,
children, chanting magi, sheep, camels, and lions clamored beneath
the library’s mullioned mezzanine windows.
Installed when the library was built in 1926, this plaster frieze
depicting “The Triumph of Alexander” ornamented the walls of Candler
for decades. The twenty-six panels of the frieze faded from the University’s
collective memory after they disappeared from the Candler walls during
renovations in the mid-1950s. Recently, however, a photograph of the
building’s lobby discovered in the University archives reminded library
staff members of the frieze’s existence.
“I figured it had gotten either plastered over [during the renovations]
or damaged prior to that, and nobody really worried about it,” says
University archivist Virginia Cain—or so she believed until she mentioned
the frieze to Woodruff Library director of budget and planning Charles
“Charles is an intrepid explorer,” says Cain, “and he’d been up in
the attic of Candler. He remembered some odd crates way out under
the eaves, but he never knew what they were.”
On a hunch that the crates might contain, Forrest, Cain, and two
other colleagues climbed into the Candler attic with flashlights and
a crowbar on chilly February day last year. In a cramped corner, they
pried the crates open to reveal fifteen of the panels. On a later
mission to photograph and document their findings, the crew uncovered
the eleven remaining panels. Forty years before, someone had painstakingly
removed the pieces from the mezzanine wall, packed them in wood and
cardboard, and stored them away.
The panels were moved to a more hospitable environment in Woodruff
Library to await restoration. The frieze had suffered from fluctuating
temperatures, high humidity, and water damage from a leaky roof, and
much of the plaster had been stained or broken. A dusting of red clay
powder from the library’s roof tiles coated several of the panels.
By the spring, the frieze was on display in the Woodruff Library’s
Schatten Gallery. One by one, the panels were removed from the exhibit,
shipped out to the studio of restorer Connie Hansen for repair, and
returned. Meanwhile, Schatten Gallery director Valerie Watkins began
looking in the frieze’s history.
Watkins found a small seal on the base of one of the panels, which
revealed that Emory’s reproduction of the work was produced by P.P.
Caproni and Brother, a plaster cast company that sold architectural
art out of its Boston showroom. The original frieze was created by
the Danish neoclassical sculptor Bartholomew Thorwaldsen in 1811.
Thorwaldsen was commissioned to create the bas-relief frieze in a
harmonious, free-flowing, classical style for the Palace of the Quirinale
in Rome to honor a visit from Napoleon. He chose the theme of Alexander’s
triumph in Babylon as a symbolic parallel to Napoleon’s victories.
Cain surmises that Edward Tilton, the library’s architect, sought
out this particular frieze because of its classical qualities.
“They were creating a classical, elegant, temple to learning in Candler
Library,” she says. “In the early days, Emory people were somewhat
self-conscious about building this whole new university out of the
mud, and they wanted something that was intellectually appealing.”
In an April 1926 Emory Alumnus article about the library, Professor
of English James Hinton ‘06C described the frieze as a triumphal reproduction
“girdling the hall.” Hinton also saw a new intellectual standard set
in the library’s design. In this building, Emory has unquestionably
one of the best appointed library buildings in the South,” he wrote,
“a building indeed that is a challenge to Emory men.”
Plans for renovations to Candler—the only building on the Quadrangle
not recently restored—include the reinstallation of the frieze. While
it won’t be mounted in its original location, chances are it will
be nearby, on the walls of the reading room.
“It’s a fascinating link to Emory’s past,” says Cain. “It was almost
a part of ‘vanishing Emory,’ but it never really vanished. It was
just very well hidden.”
Allison O. Adams