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Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

It’s possible that I made a few economic missteps over the years (although, judging by the news, I am not the only one) and, as a consequence, I won’t be spending this August traveling the world. However, even if I am literally trapped in angry sweltering New York, my mind is free to roam the rugged Carpathians and take in the robust forested splendor of Romania. This land was long known as Transylvania (the “crossing forest”) and the modern world has not changed the wooded character of the land. I started to do some research online and in my virtual travels I was stunned to come upon this colossal stone head carved in the living rock of Dacia. This is a carving of Decebalus a king who ruled from 87 AD – 106 AD. Decebalus was a client king of Rome, one of the many annoying and interesting minor sovereigns whom the empire propped up around its borders to act as buffers. Much of Roman history concerns their perennial struggles with these vexatious vassals and the history of Decebalus is no different. Indeed he ended up being the last king of Dacia. His cleverness and pride went too far and Rome crushed him like a bug and absorbed Dacia.

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This statue however is presumably meant to evoke Decebalus’ pride and independence (not his defeat and suicide). The head is 40 meters tall (120 feet)—it may be the largest monumental head in Europe. It was crafted by a team of 12 sculptors over 10 years at the behest of an eccentric Romanian businessman, Constantin Drăgan (1917-2008). The statue was completed in 2004 and stares balefully out over the Danube. I love Decebalus’ stony features—which seem little different from an actual rock. I am also predictably impressed at the way the natural rock looks like a crown. Dragan had some curious nationalistic misconceptions about Dacia’s place in history, and it seems this great head was meant to explain/popularize some of the millionaire’s ideas.  As often happens with art, the actual work is more ambiguous and interesting…hinting at both greatness and ruin.

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Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

As everyone knows, the Statue of Liberty (which is actually properly titled “Liberty Enlightening the World”) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture which stands in the harbor of my beloved home city, New York, New York. This is the 130th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York from France. The 93 meter tall statue was a lavish gift from the French people, who obviously know how to give astonishing amazing beautiful presents!  I won’t get into the elaborate political, engineering, and fundraising history behind the statue’s conception, fabrication, and construction: suffice to say, it has a very complicated story (as one would expect in a monumental joint artistic venture between two of Earth’s greatest nations).

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I will note that the statue has greatly overshadowed its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—which seems inconceivable today when most art is an afterthought to the virulent self-aggrandizement of art world personalities.  If something similar were attempted now we would probably end up with a 90 meter tall statue of Jeff Koons…or of some part of his anatomy (though I shudder to write that down, lest I give him any ideas).

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

Bartholdi was an Alsatian and a freemason.  He studied architecture and then served in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (a conflict when the excesses of the Second Empire came back to haunt France—and a war which provided dark foreshadowing for the great industrial wars of the twentieth century).  Bartholdi conceived of the statue as a tribute to democracy and freedom just after the American Civil War—when France was under the dictatorial regime of Napoleon III.  Because of the authoritarianism and inequality of the time, the idea was shelved until after the Prussians drove this second Napoleon into exile and ushered in the third republic.

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal...

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal…

The Statue of Liberty is so universally iconic that it is hard to look at as a work of art—which is a shame because it is very lovely.  The fluid Roman robes belie the practical architecture beneath.  Atop the statue is a glowing crown of radiant beams—the neoclassical symbol for divinity. The enigmatic face is simultaneously stern and compassionate (though it is said that Bartholdi based it on his mother which might explain these juxtaposed emotions—and the very human tenderness with which the artist wrought the giant metal face).

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It is frustratingly difficult to find pictures of other Bartholdi sculptures.  I see here that he created a work titled “Genius in the Grasp of Misery” which sounds incredibly relevant and germane as I scrabble piteously for rent, but sadly I can’t find any photos of it.  He designed a fountain “The Little Vintner of Colmar” which features a handsome youth drinking a never-ending stream of wine.  The statue is as delightful as its description and was a gift from the city of Colmar to the city of Princeton New Jersey…What was going on in the nineteenth century that cities were all giving art to each other? It seems like an amazing trend which has passed.

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

Speaking of which, it occurs to me, that I have never thanked the French people for their far-sighted generosity.  Allow me to do so now!  Everyone here loves the statue and we deeply love our beautiful exasperating intelligent friends across the Atlantic (even if it sometimes seems like we are at odds).  Vive la France et merci pour le cadeau magnifique!

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber...Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France--it's even on a miniature island.

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber…Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France–it’s even on a miniature island.

The glass squid, Cranchia scabra

The glass squid, Cranchia scabra

The Cranchiidae are a family of squid commonly known as “glass squid” which live in oceans around the world. The squid are of no interest to commercial fisheries (yet) and a great deal about this family remains completely unknown. Most of the 60 known species of cranchiidae are small and inconspicuous–indeed the majority are transparent and thus nearly invisible. However the largest known mollusk, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), is part of the family, (so it might be wise not to antagonize them on the playground).

Glass Squid (Taonius belone) off Hawaii. Photograph by R. Young.

Glass Squid (Taonius belone) off Hawaii. Photograph by R. Young.

Glass squid are notable for having stubby swollen-looking bodies and short arms except for one long pair of hunting tentacles. The majority of glass squid have bioluminescent organs which they use to hunt, to communicate and to disguise the faint shadows cast by their transparent bodies (predators of the deep can see even the faintest shadows cast by the dim light from the surface). The cranchiid squids themselves sport a variety of interesting and complex eyes which range from giant circular eyes to stalked eyes to telescoping eyes.   This little gallery shows how delicate, diverse, and beautiful (and how utterly alien) these squid can be.

Banded Piglet Squid (Helicocranchia pfefferi) photo by keyofv

Banded Piglet Squid (Helicocranchia pfefferi) photo by keyofv

Bathothauma lyromma (note eyes on stalks!)

Bathothauma lyromma (note eyes on stalks!)

A drawing of the piglet squid (Helicocranchia pfefferi)

A drawing of the piglet squid (Helicocranchia pfefferi)

Sandalops melancholicus by Chun Carl

Sandalops melancholicus by Chun Carl

Teuthowenia megalops

Teuthowenia megalops

Cranchia scabra

Cranchia scabra

Juvenile cranchiid squid are part of the plankton and live near the surface where they hunt microscopic prey while trying to avoid thousands of sorts of predators. As they mature, they change shape and descend to deeper waters—indeed some species become practically benthic and can be found more than 2 kilometeres under the ocean. Glass squid move up and down the water column by means of a fluid filled chamber which contains an ammonia solution (which maybe explains why they are not on the human menu yet).

Belonella belone

Belonella belone

The Mountains of Antarctica as seen from the Southern Ocean

The great Southern Ocean which swirls in a clockwise circle around Antarctica is home to many of the Earth’s largest animals.  Blue whales come here to gorge on vast schools of krill. Among the icebergs and the towering waves, southern elephant seals (the largest member of the order Carnivora) fight duels to build their harems, and highly intelligent killer whales hunt together in pods.  There are populations of sperm whales living in the Southern ocean as well and these leviathans dive to the cold floor of the world hunting for the world’s largest mollusk, a huge cephalopod which can only be found in the Southern Ocean.  In fact this bizarre creature, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is also the world’s largest invertebrate.  Also known as the Antarctic squid or the giant cranch squid, the colossal squid lives in the abyssal depths.  Unlike other squid, the colossal squid does not have tentacles–its powerful arms are studded with sharp hooks (much like the long-extinct belemnites).  Some of these hooks swivel while others have three barbs in the manner of a fish spear.

The Colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)

The measurements of the colossal squid are staggering.  Its eye alone (the largest of any known creature) measures 27 centimetres (11 in).  A fully grown adult squid is estimated to be 12–15 metres (39–49ft) long.  Although giant squid have longer tentacles, the colossal squid a long stout mantles and are thus much more massive. Their upper weight limits are unknown but are well over 500 kg (+1000 lbs).

The colossal squid is believed to be an ambush predator, which lurks in the depths waiting for chaetognatha, other squid, and benthic fish (such as the Patagonian toothfish) to pounce upon.  It is hypothesized that they have a slow metabolism and do no need great reserves of food (unlike the energetic endothermic sperm whales which prey on them).  The colossal squid are believed to be sexually dimorphic—the females become much larger than the males.

A rare specimen of colossal squid

There is a reason that so much of this article is couched in ambivalent language such as “estimated”, “believed” and “probably”:  colossal squid live in an environment where humankind can barely venture.  The colossal squid are fast enough and clever enough to usually evade our nets, lines, and traps (although fishermen trying to catch Patagonian toothfish hooked a 450 kg (990 lb) specimen which was about 39 feet (13 m) long).  Additionally our submarines and submersible robots are too slow and noticeable too stalk the squid in the abyssal depths.  Other ocean creatures do not suffer from the same problem.  Juvenile colossal squid are eaten by beaked whales, elephant seals, sharks, toothfish, and even albatrosses, however the adult squid are so large that only massive sleeper sharks and giant sperm whales can threaten them.  Sperm whales are often covered with scars from their battles with the giants but the whales easily have the upper hand.  Sperm whale stomachs have been found filled with hooks and beaks (which coincidentally were much larger than those found on the largest squid specimens recovered by humans to date).

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