“Somewhere in America… backbone of the continent, removed from succeeding, selfish, coveting civilisations and out of the path of greed, an acre or two of stone should bear witness, carrying likeness, a few precious words pressed together, an appraisal of our civilisation, telling of the things we tried to do, cut so high, near the stars, it wouldn’t pay to pull them down for lesser purposes.”
Thus mused Gutzon Borglum, the American sculptor who went on to deface the Lakota Sioux Indian sacred site of Mount Rushmore, with the iconic likenesses of four American presidents. For him, the gargantuan profiles represented the quintessence of American civilisation. Perched upon the lofty mountain peaks, far removed from the corruptive and corrosive influences of daily life, they were to remain, for evermore, an imperative, set in stone, for subsequent Americans to follow.
Borglum was interested in the fine line trod between people of the modern age between the sublime and barbarism. One of his early sculptural works was the ‘Mares of Diomedes’, the man-eating and uncontrollable horses belonging to the king of the Thracian Bistones, Diomedes. The demi-god Heracles left his favoured companion, Abderus, in charge of them while he fought Diomedes, and found out that the boy had been devoured by the ravenous steeds. In revenge, Heracles fed Diomedes to his own horses, then founded the city of Abdera next to the boy’s tomb, perhaps highlighting just how prone to devour itself humanity is, without the intervention of the divine. It is probably for this reason that in 1918, he was one of the drafters of the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence.
Yet Borglum, in pursuing his Moses’ like interests upon the holy mountains of the Sioux, was inspired by other characters of antiquity. In 1934, a cartoonist for the Washington Herald, Malone, portrayed him as a man-mountain, massive, elemental and monumental and quoted him as saying of the Mount Rushmore memorial: “Alexander the Great wanted to convert the Olympian mountains into sculpture. Michael Angelo wished to carve colossal figures on Carrara Mountains – America alone is achieving in a National Memorial, the dreams of these great men.”
Though he got most of the facts wrong, it appears that in seeking to create the Mount Rushmore Memorial, Borglum was inspired by a story about Alexander the Great which appears in the work of Roman architect Vitruvius, ‘De architectura’. According to Vitruvius, it was not, as Borglum maintained, Alexander’s desire to carve out the ‘Olympian mountains’. Instead, another mountain which would become holy centuries later for a completely different set of reasons, was marked for development and by someone just as ambitious as Borglum.
Enter Dinocrates the architect of Rhodes, who upon learning of Alexander’s victories, thought it expedient to seek his patronage. As Vitruvius relates: “relying on the powers of his skill and ingenuity, whilst Alexander was in the midst of his conquests, [he] set out from Macedonia to the army, desirous of gaining the commendation of his sovereign. That his introduction to the royal presence might be facilitated, he obtained letters from his countrymen and relations to men of the first rank and nobility about the king’s person; by whom being kindly received, he besought them to take the earliest opportunity of accomplishing his wish.”
For reasons unknown, the age old Greek system of μέσον failed Dinocrates. Try as he might, he could not obtain an audience with the mighty potentate through the usual channels. As a result, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Vitruvius takes up the story: “a man of tall stature, pleasing countenance, and altogether of dignified appearance. Trusting to the gifts with which nature had thus endowed him, he put off his ordinary clothing, and having anointed himself with oil, crowned his head with a wreath of poplar, slung a lion’s skin across his left shoulder, and carrying a large club in his right hand, he sallied forth to the royal tribunal, at a period when the king was dispensing justice. The novelty of his appearance excited the attention of the people; and Alexander soon discovering, with astonishment, the object of their curiosity, ordered the crowd to make way for him, and demanded to know who he was.”
In short, Dinocrates, oiled up or otherwise, was a hottie and a man of action, two things that were bound to capture the attention of Alexander. Borglum, on the other hand, though no painting, (ironic, considering that he had begun his career as a painter) oil or otherwise, was just as intrepid, stating: “a man should do everything…. Boxing fencing, horse-back riding…turn handsprings.”
Dinocrates, like Borglum, was there to convince Alexander that he could do everything. After observing completely dispassionately the way the oil glistened on his muscular torso, the Macedonian king asked Dinocrates who he was: “A Macedonian architect,” replied Dinocrates, “who suggests schemes and designs worthy your royal renown. I propose to form Mount Athos into the statue of a man [ie. of Alexander himself] holding a spacious city in his left hand, and in his right a huge cup, into which shall be collected all the streams of the mountain, which shall then be poured into the sea.” Not only would this be a Hellenic Rushmore, but an actual polis. Had it have been built then quite possibly we would be concerning ourselves with Russian penetration of the statues’ orifices, rather than Russian penetration of the monasteries that exist upon Mount Athos, the mountain holy to Orthodoxy, in the present day.
Alexander the Great quite liked the idea of being immortalised in such a gargantuan fashion in stone. However, his megalomania had a practical edge to it and he began to pepper the plucky Dimocrates with logistical questions, such as: “Was soil of the neighbourhood…of a quality capable of yielding sufficient produce for such a state?” Not one to be flummoxed by the mundane, Dinocrates, in the manner of a property developer extolling the health giving benefits of the local swamp, admitted that no, given that the city would be carved into a mountain, there was no soil, but fear not, supplies could be brought in by sea.
Impressed by his ingenuity and his desire to harness the domination of nature to the domination of the ruler of men, Alexander gently declined to enter into the real estate deal of a lifetime, not wanting posterity to think him a fierce warrior but a property dupe. Quoth he: “I admire the grand outline of your scheme, and am well pleased with it: but I am of opinion he would be much to blame who planted a colony on such a spot. For as an infant is nourished by the milk of its mother, depending thereon for its progress to maturity, so a city depends on the fertility of the country surrounding it for its riches, its strength in population, and not less for its defence against an enemy. Though your plan might be carried into execution, yet I think it impolitic.”
Nonetheless, it appears that to be deprived of the shimmering undulations of Dinocrates’ physique was more than Alexander could bear. “I … request your attendance on me, that I may otherwise avail myself of your ingenuity,” he commanded him, and Dinocrates went on to design the funerary monument to Alexander’s general Hephaestion in Babylon, which was built in imitation of a Babylonian temple, six stories tall and entirely gilded, as well as being involved in the reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis, at Ephesus, after its destruction by Herostratus by arson, the night that Alexander the Great was born. Most famously however, failing to convince Alexander to build a city in the clouds, Dinocrates is said to have gone on to act as director of the surveying and urban-planning work for the city of Alexandria, in Egypt, possibly Alexander’s greatest tangible legacy.
It may not be, as Badger Clark eulogized at Gutzon Borglum’s funeral in 1941, that: “he did not die, this artist, engineer and dreamer. He will live longer than the monument he created. Coming generations, five thousand years hence, will not ask who the characters on the mountain are, but who carved them?” However, following in the footsteps of Dinocrates, he was to explode the doubts of Alexander off a cliff face, setting in stone, a political manifesto of an entire people. Dinocrates, the sweat of sultry Alexandria streaming of his spare tyre in his declining years, would have nodded in appreciation, as the redoubtable Borglum, pounded at the rock with his jackhammer, compelling it to yield, in the guise of Abraham Lincoln’s beard hairs.