Poor Richard in a Roman Toga

The Library Company of Philadelphia’s original building on 5th Street, by Frederick DeBourg Richards, 1859.

Benjamin Franklin lived in the here and now; he wasn’t so much the toga type. Early on, Franklin and friends formed what they called the “Leather Apron Society” and cultivated their image as well-read, regular fellows. It wasn’t beyond Franklin to slice up a rattlesnake (or an image of one, anyway) to make the point that the colonies should “Join or Die.” While in London, Franklin depicted Britannia herself as a quadriplegic to make another political point. In Paris, he shunned wigs and frills and put on his fur hat and a neck cloth only a little finer than burlap. Franklin generated more than his share of charisma and the French loved their rustic guest. They imagined him the charming, clever woodsman, the real thing when compared with their own plain-dressing philosophers. Little did they know, or care, that Franklin dressed down for his French fans.

Franklin couldn’t have appeared more human—more capable of conversation—than he did in Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble bust from 1779 (see it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). But this was no mere mortal. Houdon knew it and we know it. The French praised Franklin the inventor and revolutionary for having “seized lightning from the heavens and the scepter from tyrants.” They depicted him in classical robes protected by the Goddess Minerva as he directed the scimitar-swinging Mars to smite Avarice and Tyranny. (See the image by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.) No fur cap would do. Fragonard dressed Franklin for the part in a classic, classical toga—and it seemed about right.

George Washington had been dead for decades when, at the 100th anniversary of his birth, Americans witnessed the deification of the Father of His Country as an enthroned, bare-chested, 30-ton Zeus. When artists depicted Franklin as a God, he was very much alive and still walking the streets.

Franklin by Lazzarini, 1791 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

So it couldn’t have come as too much of a surprise when the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia (which Franklin had been instrumental in launching sixty years earlier) asked the aged Franklin if he’d mind terribly being depicted once again in a classical dress. This time, it would be a larger-than-life, full-length statue of white Carrara marble. In his right hand, extending from an arm supported by a symbolic stack of books. This Franklin would hold a scepter, inverted to represent his opposition to monarchy; this Franklin would preside over Independence Square when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital. Of course, the living, breathing Franklin agreed to play the part—and got to again tweak modest Quaker Philadelphia with its first piece of public art. Italian sculptor Francesco Lazzarini got right to work. But Franklin died in April 1790, nine months before the opening of the library and two years before the installation of the statue.

Over the years, the marble Franklin lost a few parts along the way. In the late 1870s, the Library Company moved from 5th Street to Juniper and Locust and hired Frank Furness to design a new building that replicated the spirit of the original. Furness designed a new niche for Lazzarini’s Franklin. A decade later, and directly across the street, the Episcopal Academy opened its doors. Episcopal’s student body grew and so did its building. As a former student once confessed, when his classmates could, they escaped with slingshots to the school’s fourth floor balcony, which looked directly across at Franklin. But the students weren’t there to admire Lazzarini’s work. They had one thing in mind: to make Poor Richard a little poorer.