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Damnatio Memoriae

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In Latin the phrase damnatio memoriae means “to condemn the memory.” It refers to the practice of erasing someone’s presence from history by removing images or references to them. Whether legally sanctioned or spontaneous, it was a powerful form of punishment. Damnatio memoriae could take many forms. In ancient Rome portraits and statues were often simply removed, as if they had never been there. Names and initials were occasionally chiseled off of statues and engravings, leaving blank spaces. Disfigured statues, with eyes, ears, and noses broken off or shattered, were meant to destroy not just the representation but the legacy of the dictators, despots, and tyrants they represented.

Removing traces of people, regimes, and ideologies did not end with the fall of the Roman Empire. Fort Ticonderoga’s collections contain a handful of 18th century objects that bear witness to this violent and conscious act of forgetting. The biggest example is hiding in plain sight, and seen by nearly every visitor to the fort.

Along the south battery wall are five French cannon made between 1702 and 1800. They include some of the most beautiful artillery pieces in the museum’s collection and represent the evolution of French gun making over the course of a century. One of these guns bears the marks of a long and troubled history, emblematic in many ways of Europe’s convulsions over the long 19th century.

Its name is le Conquerant, the conqueror, and it is a 10 foot long, bronze, 16 pounder. It was cast in 1780 in the French city of Douai, the heart of the French gun founding industry.  The nearby guns cast in 1702 reflect the exuberance of the baroque era with grotesque ornaments, animals, and scrolls. Le Conquerant represents a more restrained taste, part of the artillery reforms of General Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval in the late 1760s. Unlike the deeply cast designs of the earlier guns le Conquerant is more delicately engraved with the twin L cipher of King Louis XVI of France, surmounted by the royal crown. Near the muzzle is an engraved ribbon proudly bearing the name of the gun.

At some point during its life it suffered a damnatio memoriae directed against the French monarchy. The prominent royal crown was chiseled off, as were the flourishes at the edges of each of the scrolled L’s. Although possibly later, the defacement of the royal crown is most likely to have occurred during the French Revolution when royal and religious symbols and images were destroyed or defaced by Republicans. The removal of le Conquerant’s crown may have accompanied the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the literal loss of the crown.

Seen side-by-side with a similar gun also cast in 1780 just a few months earlier, the removal of the royal crown on “Le Conquerant” (right) is clear. Despite this, the deep lines of the engraving that outline the crown are still discernible underneath the chisel marks. (Collections of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum)

This was not the end of le Conquerant however. Although the details are unknown, the gun likely served during the long wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Despite the former monarchism of the gun’s decoration it continued to be a serviceable military tool. At some point it was even sighted and rifled. Other cannon in the Musée de l’Armée’s collection in Paris were rifled in the middle of the 19th century. This may have been in response to the rapid obsolescence of smoothbore cannon in the face of effective rifled weapons in the middle of the 19th century, as proved in the Crimean war, the American Civil War, and the Austro-Prussian War.

However updated, Le Conquerant, a 90 year-old veteran, did not stand a chance against the Prussian army that swept over France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The gun was trucked off to Germany where it remained for another 50 years. Now thoroughly and irrevocably obsolete it was nevertheless transferred back to France in 1919 after the treaty of Versailles ended the First World War. In 1921 it was placed in the Musée de L’Armée where it remained for just seven years before being purchased for Fort Ticonderoga. Perhaps the defaced insignia and the “modern” additions added in the 19th century caused the French to consider it a less-than-perfect specimen. Regardless, it now graces our walls, a mute reminder of the rise and fall of kings and empires, despite the efforts to erase them.

This 19th century plate depicting the mob tearing down the statue of George III in New York City shows what a violent act this was, but loaded with symbolism. (Collections of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum)

America is of course not immune to such violent acts of forgetting, and our revolution saw similar attempts to erase parts of our history. Perhaps the most famous incident was the mob that tore down the gilded lead statue of King George III in lower Manhattan. The statue was in George Washington’s words, “pulled down and mutilated” and much of it melted into musket balls for the Continental army. The assault was likely a spontaneous response to the news of the Declaration of Independence, which had been read to the army the day before. However patriotic, General Washington feared the lack of order such a “riot” would have on the discipline of the army.

Toppling the king was perhaps most overt act of this kind from the American Revolution, but many smaller incidents occurred during the eight years of war. On both sides the insignia and emblems of the enemy were defaced or obscured. Loyalist regiments recruiting from American deserters demanded that, “all Remnants or badges of the Rebel Service on the Cloaths of any of them [should be] Carefully taken off and conceal’d.” Preventing friendly fire was likely one motive, since many loyalists early in the war had no uniforms (see the Exhibitionist’s previous post “Seeing Red”). Another likely motive may have been to erase any attachment to their previous service in the Continental army, and to prevent them from returning.

In the Founding Fashion exhibit in the Mars Education Center there is a gorget attributed to William Knox, the brother of Henry Knox so well-known for hauling Ticonderoga’s artillery to Boston. A gorget was the last vestige of the suit of armor, formerly the piece that protected the juncture between the helmet and the breastplate, worn by officers in the 18th century as a mark of rank. This gorget bears the vivid depiction of an arm clad in armor, holding an unsheathed sword. Below this bellicose insignia is the Latin inscription Inimica Tyrannis, translated roughly to “hostile to tyrants.” Above this are the capital letters U and S, added no doubt after July of 1776.

Knox Gorget 1
Like a Revolutionary palimpsest, the royal coat of arms is faintly visible beneath the American insignia of William Knox’s gorget, on display through 2015. (Collections of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum)

This powerful symbol of American belligerence it is made all the more powerful by the faint remains of an earlier inscription underneath. Discernible in the right light are file marks on the surface of the metal that just barely reveal a British coat of arms. The lion, the unicorn, the garter, and arms have all been erased, or barely so, and re-engraved with the newer American insignia. A similar gorget with its original British engraving is displayed nearby, clearly showing what it originally looked like. Although it may simply be a matter of re-using materials on hand, the political sentiment contained in this one object speaks deeply to the creation of a new American identity.

Despite toppling the king literally and figuratively his memory has remained in America through the many Georgetowns, Kingstons, and other royal place names. The most notable victim of damnatio memoriae from the American Revolution is almost certainly Benedict Arnold. Reviled for his treason in 1780 Arnold’s name and image were consciously removed or omitted from documents, engravings, and monuments commemorating the Revolution. The famous boot monument at the Saratoga Battlefield may be the most prominent, refusing to identify its subject, a way of acknowledging his service, but denying him the memory. As late as the 1930s Benedict Arnold’s name on public monuments was appalling to many, testament to a man whose legacy remained controversial for generations.

History and memory are slippery things though. Removing someone from history often results in absences that provoke more questions. Blank spaces ensure that the memories of reviled figures are not forgotten. Just like the sea, which often turns up what is thought to have been lost, history uncovers what people, countries, and regimes have tried to erase.