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Making a Pilgrimage to Statue of Liberty's Roots

May 04, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

COLMAR, France — The lady's birthday party begins here along the Wine Route of Alsace-Lorraine.

Lift your glass to wish her a happy 100th, wherever you may be. And then let this town of half-timbered houses start you off on the Statue of Liberty pilgrimage trail, whether you travel it in person or in spirit.

Many travelers will be starting their pilgrimages this centennial year by coming to Colmar, birthplace of sculptor Auguste Bartholdi who created the Statue of Liberty. They include a substantial number of Americans who have not been kept at home by the concerns about terrorism that are curtailing tourism from the United States to Europe.

The story that Colmar is sharing with the world adds timely meaning to the centennial experience.

It is an experience of deep and personal meaning to every immigrant and descendant of an immigrant family whose life in a new world began beneath the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty's right arm. My wife, Elfriede, was 12 years old when she emigrated with her family from Germany and saw the torch; my grandparents emigrated from Poland and Scandinavia. Elfriede and I came to Colmar this spring to begin our own Statue of Liberty pilgrimage trail.

Home a Museum

The 18th-Century town house in Colmar that was the home of the well-to-do Bartholdi family for three generations is a museum showing more than the story of the creation of the Statue of Liberty and Bartholdi's many other sculptures. It tells how he worked for 20 years to help send the statue to New York Harbor as a gift to the United States from the people of France.

Bartholdi called his greatest work of a long and successful career "Liberty Enlightening the World."

Laurent Causel, French journalist, author and poet, has written a study of Bartholdi and his "Lady Liberty" for the statue's restoration and centennial birthday year. The English translation, which we obtained from the tourist information office here, describes Bartholdi as a messenger of peace.

Colmar, now a town of 70,000, is scarcely an hour's drive north of Basel, Switzerland, along the Alsace-Lorraine wine route below the Vosges Mountains of France and just across the Rhine River from the Black Forest of West Germany. For a thousand years it has been a meeting place of the cultures that have combined to create the European civilization.

Prehistoric Settlements

The geographic location that influenced Bartholdi also brought prehistoric settlements to the Colmar area in the Neolithic Age. The mosaics and sculptures of Roman villas graced the hillsides.

In 1226 the burghers of Colmar did business beneath the imperial eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. Dominican sisters founded the architectural masterpiece of a convent that today is the Unterlinden Museum of the Arts, housing the world-famous 16th-Century Issenheim altarpiece by Gruenewald as well as works from Schongauer to Picasso.

The 13th-Century Dominican church has stained-glass windows created by Schongauer, whose works were studied by Duerer. Little Venice is a canal street with a view of Old Colmar. The restored Tanners District re-creates a craft of the medieval ages.

Everywhere around town, visitors can find classic sculptures by Bartholdi, from "The Tanner" and "The Little Wine Grower" to heroic figures of resistance against invading armies through the ages.

Bartholdi fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 at the bridge east of Colmar, and when Alsace was taken over by the Prussians the torch of liberty that flamed his genius glowed for a lifetime that lasted until 1904.

He was still a small boy when his father died and his mother moved with her children to Paris, where his uncle was an influential banker, but the family home in Colmar was always maintained and often visited.

Encouraged at Early Age

Bartholdi was encouraged at an early age to study sculpture, and at 18 he created a statue of the nun who founded Unterlinden Museum. A study trip to Egypt motivated his artistry with colossal statues, and in 1865 the timing was right for him when Edouard de Laboulaye, a professor of the College of France, started a movement to fund a grand monument that would be a gift from France to the centenary of the American Independence in 1876.

The funding of the statue was to demand more than artistic genius, but its creation had the ingredients of a fairy tale. He met a lovely girl named Jeanne, who worked for a milliner and was delivering a hat to his friend's wedding party. Their eyes met, she returned with him to the Paris flat near his studio. A few days later, he told his friend, "I've got the model for my Liberty."

They remained together, deeply in love, but he concealed her from his widowed mother who wanted her son to have an upper-class marriage. He took Jeanne with him on one of his Statue of Liberty promotional trips to the United States.

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