The year was 1960. Things were changing in Evanston. Money was good. The downtown area was undergoing all kinds of renovation. And Evanston Public Library was doing something it had needed to do for years: Get more space. Mind you, the new space was being made at the expense of the old. The beautiful 1908 library building which had housed the EPL collection for years was slated to meet with its doom. But deconstruction is always a bit more complicated than construction, so it wasn’t just a case of knocking the place over with a wrecking ball. The process was a bit slower. Maybe that’s why they were able to find this statue under the steps before it was crushed.
It must have been quite the discovery. A delicate marble sculpture no larger than three feet tall or so, it featured a young girl asleep in the midst of creating a wreath. At her feet, amongst the flowers, lurks a serpent, but before it’s able to bite her a pet dog is there to wake her up and alert her to her to the danger slithering below.
The crazy thing was that for all that it was beautiful, there were no records on hand about the piece. No one knew where it had come from. No one was able to identify it. And so the library held onto it for years.
Fast forward a couple decades. The library again was renovated and this time turned into the large, lovely institution we are so familiar with today. And it wasn’t long thereafter when an Italian art historian found a reference to this statue on the Evanston Public Library website. She contacted Assistant Director Paul Gottschalk and the mystery began to unravel.
Here is what we now know: The official name of the piece is “Innocence Guarded by Faithfulness” dating from around 1868 and it is by the Italian neoclassical sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni (Italian, 1809-1873). All well and good, but how did it get under the library’s steps? On that account, the piece remains a mystery. It’s origins, however, are less mysterious than you might think.
As it turns out, Benzoni was living in a time when Americans were quite keen to own a bit of Italian art of their very own. To meet with this demand he, and other artists like him, would replicate his most popular pieces. In fact, the two pieces the most replicated turned out to be “The Gratitude” and “The Innocence Guarded by the Faithfulness” (which is another name for the one here at EPL).
And so, alas, it is not the only one of its kind. It is, however, by Benzoni himself and if you are curious you can see the original statue named “Innocence Protected by Fidelity” (clearly no one can agree on the translation of the name), you can do so at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City here. That piece dates back to 1852, a full 16 years before the one housed here at EPL.
Curious to see it for yourself? Though it’s not the most obvious display, you may see the statue at any time on the third floor of the main building in the Evanstoniana Room. Ask a librarian to let you in to see it. Whether a copy or an original, there’s no denying that it’s still a lovely little piece.