This morning, after I learned that the iconic bronze goat in the southwest corner of Rittenhouse Square might soon be replaced with a recast replica, I walked over to the park to take his picture. Some little urchin was doing brisk laps around the sculpture, and as I closed in to angle my shot, his guardian shot me a suspicious glance.
“I’m going to take a picture of the goat,” I said.
She returned to her phone conversation. The goat just stood there, quietly tolerating his fate, as he has for more than 100 years.
Billy, as the goat is known, was created by the artist Albert Laessle in 1914 and installed in 1919, according to the Association for Public Art. He has an identical twin by the same name in Camden. Margot Berg, the city’s public art director, said that a private donor has offered to pay for the sculpture, whose metal is thinning, to be recast so that the original can be preserved indoors. The plan is to make a mold of the Camden version, which is in much better shape, and put the new sculpture where the Rittenhouse Billy stands today. The original will then be placed inside the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library across the street.
Later this week, the Art Commission will review the plans for the replica and decide whether to let the project go forward.
“It looks like the soul of the animal is in the sculpture,” says Nancy Heinzen, author of The Perfect Square, a history of Rittenhouse, in a Museum Without Walls audio clip.
I spent some time this morning imagining the soul of a goat frozen inside a bronze statue that’s served as a meeting place for generations of Philadelphians.
Does he suffer? Certainly, the decades of exposure and abuse have caught up with him. If he were a real goat, by now he’d be rubbed raw of hair and left with festering sores over most of his body. Does he enjoy the laughter and attention of children? One would hope so. This morning his torso was covered in pink chalk.
Another consideration is that it’s not in the nature of goatkind to stay still. Anyone who has ever observed the animals on a farm or in any other setting will have noticed that goats are liable to stand for a few moments on top of the shed, and then suddenly relocate to another perch. They frolic, gently or wildly. They snack on inorganic odds and ends found lying about the yard. They will often bleat, and sometimes they deliver human-sounding screams. Billy is stuck in place, starved, unable to vocalize.
I hope he finds some measure of solace in the library, where it’s the children who are shushed.
If you have something to say about Billy’s replacement, you can do so at the Art Commission meeting on Wednesday morning, at 9:30.
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