After India's independence, the many statues erected during the Raj were collected and rehomed in Coronation Park on the outskirts of New Delhi Photo: Carol Mitchell
“You cant erase history!” cry those who would leave statues of slave traders in their place. Venerating the likes of Edward Colston strikes me as a curious way of learning about slavery. But in a sense, the Colston defenders are right; pulling down statues is a terrible way of erasing history. No amount of physical obliteration can expunge memory. Not even Moses, with the written endorsement of God himself, could make us forget about the Golden Calf.
Not that people have learned from Mosess example. In Roman times, emperors sought to erase the memory of their predecessors by ordering the destruction of their images, a process sometimes referred to as damnatio memoriae. The Severan Tondo is the only surviving painted likeness of a Roman imperial family, and shows the Emperor Severus with his two sons, Geta and Caracalla. But Getas face was crudely scratched out after Caracalla murdered him and decreed that all traces of his existence be destroyed. The act only served to highlight Caracallas guilt.
Often, because such monuments were expensive to make and erect, the efficient Romans would remove only the offending likeness, and recycle the remainder. In the so-called Cancelleria Reliefs, made late in the first century AD to commemorate the Flavian dynasty, the head of the assassinated emperor Domitian was recarved to resemble his successor, Nerva. It seems not to have bothered Nerva that his face looks comically small for his body, nor that the chisel marks from chipping away Domitians features were clearly visible. Nervas reign was brief.
Of course, for art lovers the list of important works destroyed in an iconoclastic fury is long and often tragic. But sometimes a piece survives and is enhanced by its brush with destruction. The statue of Edward Colston is now a richer object for its dunking in Bristol Harbour. We can place Hubert Le Sueurs equestrian statue of Charles I in the same category. After Charless execution in 1649 the statue was ordered to be melted down, but an enterprising metalsmith buried it in his garden. He sold trinkets he claimed had been made from the molten statue to celebratory Roundheads and mournful Cavaliers alike. But when Charles II regained the throne, he dug it up and sold it back to the authorities. Its resurrection at Charing Cross symbolised the crowns return.
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