A reunion of sorts in the National Museum
Many years ago, before my name was removed from the US Embassy guest list, I would attend July 4 celebrations in the elegant Chancery ballroom and then walk out into the garden facing the bay for my annual date with a forgotten monument of bronze and marble, ignored by everyone else crowding over the buffet. Although the monument was not lit up, I would go around it once or twice before standing at a distance to enjoy it and marvel that it survived although Manila was left in ruins by World War II. I would run my hand tenderly on the marble base to feel the pockmarks, holes, gashes and cracks inflicted on it by bullets and shrapnel during the Battle for Manila in 1945, and again wonder how it survived.
July 4 used to be my annual date with the monument to Arthur Walsh Fergusson (1859-1908).
At the time, I never asked how or why this impressive bronze monument on a marble plinth crossed Roxas Boulevard from its original location in a small plaza fronting Ermita Church, what was then known as Plaza Fergusson, into the high-security US Embassy grounds. The Fergusson monument was replaced by an atrocious bronze representation of the Virgin of Ermita by the late Eduardo Castrillo, and the name of the plaza was changed to Plaza del Nuestra Señora de Guia—until it was renamed Plaza Guerrero to honor the Filipino poet Fernando Ma. Guerrero.
Known in Ermita as “El Maestro,” Guerrero is acknowledged in our textbooks as the “Prince of Philippine Lyric Poetry.” No one has bothered to ask: If Guerrero is the “Prince,” who is the “King”?
Fergusson, on the other hand, is a forgotten Spanish-speaking colonial bureaucrat who served as secretary of the First Philippine Commission and later as secretary to a succession of governors-general from 1901 until he was killed by disease in 1908. An independent country has no need for memorials to obscure colonial bureaucrats, and as for the Virgin of Ermita her bronze statue still stands where Fergusson’s used to be, but the plaza is known today as Plaza Guerrero until it is renamed yet again following the whims of another generation.
The Fergusson monument has been loaned by the US Embassy to the National Museum of the Philippines, and it now stands in the main hall of the National Gallery of Art—on the side, between Juan Luna’s iconic “Spoliarium” and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s equally violent “Assassination of Governor Bustamante,” previously known under the more controversial title “La iglesia contra el estado” (Church vs. State). The Fergusson monument is accessible to the public and adequately lighted, so I need to get invited to the July 4 reception to see it.
What most people do not know is that the Fergusson monument erected in 1913 is the grandest monument ever made to an American in the Philippines, because it is the first and last such to be made in the 34 years that the Philippines was run by the US insular government. We remember Taft and Harrison because of the Manila streets that bear their names, but no monuments were built to commemorate them.
The Fergusson monument was made by the eminent Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure (1862-1947), who is known for his neoclassic public monuments in Madrid and elsewhere that make even a clerk like Fergusson into a heroic figure. It is a reunion of sorts to have this Benlliure work in the National Museum because the Spanish sculptor met a number of Filipino artists who were affiliated with the Spanish Academy in Rome like: Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and Miguel Zaragoza.
Both Benlliure and Luna were awarded medals during the 1884 Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid for works they made in Rome: a gold for Luna’s “Spoliarium” and a gold for Benlliure’s “Monaguillo.” After 1884 both artists left Italy for good: Luna moved to Paris and Benlliure to Madrid, but they maintained contact. Benlliure, a favorite at court, could have clinched for Luna the commission to paint “The Battle of Lepanto” for the Spanish Senate. He also worked for a royal pardon when Luna was imprisoned in Manila in 1896 for complicity in the Philippine revolution against Spain.
Aside from the Fergusson monument, one other work by Benlliure is a bust of the young Luna in the UST Museum. Old friends reunited by art in the Philippines.
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