Columns have been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Roman, and Persians all utilized them, and they have never disappeared over the ensuing centuries. While some support the weight of the structure above them, others—victory, monumental, and triumphal columns—stand alone as commemorative punctuation marks on our cityscapes. Their bases, shafts, and capitals can be plain or highly decorative, and I’ve found that the ones that add some pizzazz are truly works of art. These are my favorites.
#1 Astoria Column (Astoria, Oregon)
Explorers Lewis and Clark got here the hard way. I had it much easier by just pulling up in my car and parking. I was at the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in Astoria, Oregon, the oldest city in the state and the first permanent American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Atop Coxcomb Hill, Astoria Column beckoned me. Construction of this gorgeous column began in spring 1926 and was dedicated during the summer, even though its signature feature wasn’t completed until October. The 125’-tall column is embellished by a 525’-long mural that wraps around the column in a series of 14 bands that depict 26 key events in the development of the area. Starting from the bottom and winding its way up are such scenes as the pristine area enjoyed by the autochthons before White men arrived, first contact with the Chinook and Clatsop tribes, Lewis and Clark reaching the Pacific Ocean, Oregon statehood, and the arrival of the railroad in the city in the late 1800s. The cream-colored scenes, created by an Italian-born artist, employed the sgraffito technique (whereby layers of plaster tinted in colors are applied to a moistened surface)—the first-ever use of this technique on a monumental column. From 1942 to 1947, the column and the entire hill were closed to the public, as the Navy took over its use for a navigational air facility during World War II. Reopened after that and fully restored later on, it’s back to its former glory. For an extra treat, I climbed the 164 spiral stairs to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding area, the Columbia, Youngs Bay, and the very long Astoria Bridge into Washington, wondering what Lewis and Clark must have thought when they finally arrived at this beautiful spot.
#2 Marcus Aurelius Column (Rome, Italy)
One of the many joys of Rome is stumbling upon unexpected beauty. No matter how thorough your itinerary, you’re bound to be delighted by the unplanned and unexpected. Such was the case when I was walking down a street on my way back to my hotel when I stumbled upon Piazza Colonna, dominated by the Marcus Aurelius Column that towers over the square and one of the city’s hundreds of fountains. This Doric victory column features an incredibly detailed relief that spirals from bottom to top. Competed in about 193 to honor the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (and modeled after the even earlier Trajan’s Column (below)), the column stands on a 33’-high pedestal, rising up another nearly 100’ to a 5’-high capital. A platform at the top supports a bronze statue of St. Paul, added much later, in 1589, when the column was restored to heal the wounds of time, weather, lightning strikes, and earthquakes. The hollow column is adorned with more than 20 spirals of Carrara marble, each about four feet high. Each spiral is filled with countless human and animal figures, trees, boats, and weapons in high relief that depict the story of Marcus Aurelius’ victories across the Danube region in the 170s. In between the mostly battle scenes are occasional scenes depicting, for instance, the emperor addressing his warriors and troops crossing a pontoon bridge. During the Middle Ages, the column was so popular that an entry fee was charged, and the right to do the charging was auctioned annually. That’s not the case today; visitors can’t climb the nearly 200 steps to the top platform. But when I looked very closely, barely noticeable among all the spectacular sculptures in this lasting monument to Roman military victory and glory, I was able to see a handful of horizontal slits that allow light into the internal stairway.
#3 Apprentice Pillar (Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin Glen, Scotland)
I boarded a bus for a 45-minute trip from Edinburgh to Roslin Glen to see the wonderful Rosslyn Chapel. Completed by 1486, it’s famed for its sculptures, its critical appearance in The Da Vinci Code, and its association with legends of the Crusaders and the Holy Grail. I particularly enjoyed the built-in outdoor benches, but the Apprentice Pillar inside is the real star. This sandstone column, intricately carved using only simple tools like mallets and chisels, is ornately decorated with vines that twist around its shaft in a helix pattern, the top exploding in a riot of different plants, and the bottom resting on a base of eight dragons circling around it and chewing on cords. A widely accepted theory is that the column represents the Christian Tree of Life, but what about those dragons? Although they have some Christian tie-ins, here they are most likely a deferential nod to the founder of the chapel, who was very proud of his Norse ancestry and culture, where dragons often appear, suggesting that this Christian Tree of Life is really the Norse tree Yggdrasil. The legend surrounding the column is as fascinating as the column itself. The master mason in charge of the chapel’s stonework, having just completed the Mason Pillar, felt he could do better for the next one. So he traveled abroad for inspiration, his hubris allowing him to leave his unsupervised young apprentice behind, smug in the belief that the apprentice could never create anything near what he had in mind. When the bumptious master returned, he was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed a column—more beautiful than his own—by himself. In a fit of jealous dudgeon, the mason struck the apprentice on his head with a mallet, killing him. The master was tried for murder and hanged. But his fellow masons added an extra everlasting punishment: They created both an image of the apprentice’s head, completed with the forehead gash, and installed it amid all the master’s sculptures, as well as an image of the master himself, placing it in a spot where it would forever gaze jealously at the Apprentice Pillar.
#4 Column of St. Theodore (Venice, Italy)
St. Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s true gems, complete with two of the world’s most beautiful arcades, the wonderfully pink Doge’s Palace, and, of course, St. Mark’s Basilica, with one of the world’s best domes and one of its best depictions of St. Mark. If you arrive by boat, you first walk into the smaller Piazzetta San Marco, adjacent to the larger piazza. Here, a pair of stone columns greets you—the Column of St. Mark, topped with a statue of a winged lion, the saint’s symbol, and the Column of St. Theodore. Legend holds that both columns (along with a third that never made it) arrived as spoils of war in the East and were erected around 1127 by one Nicholas Barattieri. The granite and pink and gray marble Column of St. Theodore is surmounted by a statue of St. Theodore (San Teodore, but San Todaro in the Venetian vernacular), standing over a dead dragon that looks more like an alligator or a crocodile. Theodore was the republic’s patron saint until he was usurped by Mark. The government of the Venetian Republic had rewarded Barattieri for his efforts by granting him exclusive rights to set up a gambling table between the two columns at a time when games of chance were forbidden in the republic, but that right died when Barattieri did, and, later on, the same site became the location for stalls and a market, referenced in the base of the column, with well-worn figures of a fishmonger, blacksmith, butchers, and wine sellers. The space was also used for public executions—to this day, superstitious Venetians still avoid passing between the two columns.
#5 Trajan’s Column (Rome, Italy)
Standing at a particular spot on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, I did a 360: Roman ruins here, a church there, the massive Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, another Roman ruin, two more churches. There’s simply nowhere to go in Italy’s capital without looking around and being pulled in multiple directions to see something fascinating. At this juncture, there’s yet another irresistible sight: Trajan’s Column, rising next to a row of stone pine trees. As the predecessor for the Marcus Aurelius Column, Trajan Column is a Roman triumphal column that commemorates the emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars, which were fought right at the beginning of the 100s. Completed shortly after, around 113, the freestanding column bears a fantastic spiral bas relief depicting those wars. Including its large pedestal (which contains the ashes of the emperor), the column rises to a height of 115’. A 620’ marble frieze winds around the shaft 23 times. That frieze is both innovative (it was the first time such a continuous helical frieze was utilized) and spectacular—more than 2,600 figures (including Trojan himself, who appears 58 times) re-create Trajan’s two victorious military campaigns against the Dacians in 155 scenes, separated by shields, victory trophies, buildings, and landscape features. For the most part, these narrative bands, rather than depicting the actual battles, concentrate on imperial address, sacrifice, and the army setting out on its campaigns. This gentler depiction of war may have been deliberately designed to support Trajan’s image of a man of moderation and restraint rather than a violent warmonger. The accuracy of the details, from the weapons and forts to the costumes of the men and women, present an excellent glimpse into what things looked like nearly two millennia ago. Unlike the Column of Marcus Aurelius, with its high-relief figures that had to be viewed solely from the ground, the figures here are not cut as deeply—surrounding buildings offered viewing opportunities at higher elevations, so the figures did not have to be as pronounced. At the top, the original statue of Trajan disappeared during the Middle Ages and was replaced in 1588 by one of St. Peter, which remains to this day. The hollow interior includes a spiral staircase of 185 steps that provided access to the viewing platform at the top, illuminated along the way by daylight filtering in through 43 narrow slits. The new statue and the closure of the staircase to the public are not the biggest changes the column has seen—the reliefs were originally painted in color in what would have been a spectacular display that over the centuries was worn away by age and weather until the last traces disappeared in the 18th century.
- Windsor Mansion ruins (Port Gibson, Mississippi)
- St. Charles Church (Vienna, Austria)
- Flood Column (Ribe, Denmark)
- Illyrian Column (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
- Monument to the Great Fire of London (London, England)
Leave a Comment
Have you been here? Have I inspired you to go? Let me know!