Inspiration from History
Sharon Gang, communications & marketing manager at the Capitol Visitor Center, investigates the meaning behind the Car of History Clock in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall.
This marble sculpture, created in 1819, is among the oldest works of art in the Capitol. It depicts Clio, the muse of History, holding a book in which she records events as they unfold.
That's the history reference.
Clio stands in a winged chariot, or car.
That's the car reference.
I thought if I dug deeper I'd find a more satisfactory explanation for the name of the clock and what it represents.
From materials I gathered in the AOC Curator's office I learned that it was the second Architect of the Capitol, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who first sketched the clock that he wanted to be placed over the north door of the Hall of the House of Representatives, opposite the Speaker's desk (view Latrobe's sketch). He drew a female figure seated in a chariot holding something in her left hand. He gave her winged chariot a clock for its outward wheel.
Latrobe secured the services of Italian artist Carlo Franzoni who made a model for the clock and ultimately carved the clock itself.
The design was changed to depict what we see today – a standing female figure clothed in heavy classical Greek or Roman garments. In her left arm, she holds a book while looking in the opposite direction. This is Clio's traditional book of remembrance in which she is recording the events of the nation. She is passing in a winged car over a globe, on which are inscribed three signs of the zodiac. The signs of the zodiac represent the passage of time as does the clock face on the wheel of the car.
The clock's works, installed in 1837, are by Simon Willard who some consider America's most well-known clockmaker.
Although the meeting place for the House of Representatives moved in 1857, the clock still faces an entrance to the House chamber. It is meticulously cared for by the AOC's Electronic Engineering Division whose staff wind it every week, and the AOC Curator who directs its preservation.
Digging deeper definitely helped me to appreciate and interpret the clock. And I'm not the only one who's been inspired by it. John Quincy Adams, who served eight terms in Congress after he had been President, was so moved by this beautiful clock that he wrote the following sonnet:
Historic muse! Who from thy winged car
Pursuest thy rapid and unwearied flight;
Recording all that passes in thy sight,
And all thou hearest of the wordy war,
The wit, the wisdom, the conflicting jar
Of ranting, raving parties, day and night
Beneath the sunbeams or the taper light
The frantic reason of this wandering star.
Oh! Muse historic – in thy march sublime
Still urging onward on the wheels of time,
Canst thou not whisper to the chosen band,
But for one day to calm their senseless rage,
And let thy volume bear one blessed page
Of deeds devoted to their native land.