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October 16, 2013

‘Meliora Madam’ to return to her sisters

statue of woman

A sculpture that once stood on the University’s original campus will soon make its return to the University. Known as the “muses” or the “Meliora Madams,” a group of statues that stand in the area between Meliora Hall and Rush Rhees Library had their first home in niches on the exterior of the Sibley Library on the Prince Street Campus.

For the past 23 years, one of those statues, Commerce, was about 150 miles away—in the Toronto backyard of James Carley, a former English professor at Rochester.

Carley explains that Frank Dowd, vice president and associate provost, offered him one of the statues in 1977. The statues were to be destroyed, Carley says, and he wanted to save them from being crushed, so he agreed to take one. He admits that he thought it was something small that he’d be able to display in his hallway. Instead, he had to arrange for the larger-than-life sculpture of a woman holding three links of chain to be moved to Toronto when he started a position at York University.

“It was much loved,” Carley said of Commerce during its time at his home in Toronto’s Yorkville district, adding that people often admired the 138-year-old statue as they walked past his house on the way to the neighborhood art galleries.

Hiram Sibley, the founder of Sibley Hall—a library then being built on the Prince Street campus—originally commissioned eight statues in 1875 with the intent of “enhancing the beauty” of the building.

Hailing from Carrera, Italy, two statues were believed to have been damaged during the journey to Rochester—lost in the Hudson River or Erie Canal. Two more, seriously deteriorated from nearly 100 years of weathering, were reportedly lost when Sibley Hall was razed in 1968, according to documents from the University Archives. The works were meant to symbolize various branches of knowledge.

The remaining pieces represent Navigation, holding a chart; Geography, holding a large globe; Astronomy, holding a small globe; Science, with three books in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other; Commerce, holding three links of chain; and one unnamed statue, believed to be named Transportation, with her hand placed on a wheel. The remaining statues, most of them significantly deteriorated, were placed in storage when Sibley Hall was torn down.

In a campaign led by Arch Miller, former professor of fine arts and now professor emeritus of art and art history, the Class of 1954 sponsored the restoration of the remaining four statues—Astronomy, Geography, Navigation, and Industry—and their placement on the River Campus in 1980. As reported by the Campus Times, the project cost $18,000 to restore the remaining statues to their “original beauty.”

Miller thought that the sculptures would be an aesthetically pleasing addition to the campus. The sculptures “add a softness to the campus,” Miller said in the 1980 Campus Times story about the restoration. “And maybe a bit of romance.”

Carley recently moved into a high-rise apartment building where there was no space for such a large piece. That’s why he decided to give Commerce back to the University.

“I wanted her to go back,” Carley says. “I thought she should be with her sisters.”

The campus art committee is currently searching for an appropriate spot for the statue, which will be installed next year.

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