Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty by Francesca Lidia Viano - review by Dominic Green

Dominic Green

The French Erection

Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty


Harvard University Press 577pp £27.95 order from our bookshop

Like so many immigrants arriving in the United States before me, I first saw the Statue of Liberty at dawn from the deck of a ship. I was in an outdoor Jacuzzi on the deck of the QE2 at the time. In the days since we cast off from the Old World, the only vertical objects in our field of vision had been the waves created by a force eight gale. Then Lady Liberty rose from the flat ocean, wreathed in weird green mist. I couldn’t help but shiver in historical apprehension.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s extravagant and gripping Sentinel tells the statue’s story. Two hundred tons in weight and ninety-three metres tall, made of iron and sheathed in copper, the statue is formally named Liberty Enlightening the World. It was created in Paris, the brainchild of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a painter and sculptor, and Edouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, the scion of a family of Norman merchants and bureaucrats. According to Bartholdi, the statue was dreamed up by Laboulaye in 1865. In that year he told Bartholdi and a group of friends that France’s sacrifices in the cause of the American Revolution merited ‘a monument … built in America as a memorial to their independence … a common work of both nations’. Twenty-one years later, in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in New York.

The account that Bartholdi gave of the statue’s conception at the time of Liberty’s inauguration, Viano writes, omitted a lot of ‘pertinent facts’ about Bartholdi and Laboulaye’s occult motivations and long-standing collaboration. Laboulaye, who had died in 1883, was not around to correct it, and would not have

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