One day, near the Millfield, an island in the middle of the River Tolka in the National Botanic Gardens, Denis McNally bumped into Socrates.
As groundskeeper, McNally, like some visitors, was curious as to how a statue of the Greek philosopher came to be in a quiet corner among the plants.
“I took an interest in him. People would say to you, ‘Oh where did he come from? What’s the connection?'” says McNally.
He searched for a sculptor’s signature. “I crawled all over him. I actually got a ladder, stood up on the plinth and looked around thinking I might see somebody’s initial,” he says. “There’s absolutely nothing.”
Though the sculptor left no stamp, it seems the 160-year-old marble statue of Socrates made its way to Glasnevin from across the Liffey, to there from London, and to there from Florence.
Records suggest that the statue of Socrates arrived in the gardens in 1959 from Iveagh House, now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on St. Stephen’s Green.
The Office of Public Works Press Office spokesperson says that, according to the annual report of the minister for agriculture (1959-60), “two marble figures representing Mercy and Socrates, which had previously been in Iveagh House, were erected in the [Botanic] Gardens and were much admired by visitors”.
The Mercy figure is the biblical character Judith, a life-size marble figure crafted by American sculptor William Wetmore Story. Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, also known as Lord Iveagh, bought her in 1865, and she now stands in the entrance hall of Farmleigh House, west of Phoenix Park.
But what of her companion, old Socrates? How did Guinness get a hold of him?
Matt Robinson, of the Glasnevin Heritage Society, was curious about the statue and decided to delve deeper.
He had stumbled upon a photograph of an identical-looking sculpture of Socrates, exhibited in Florence, Italy in 1861 and at the London Exhibition the following year. Robinson determined the work to be that of Milanese sculptor Pietro Magni (1817-77).
The similarities between this and the Socrates statue in the National Botanic Gardens are striking, though Robinson can’t be sure whether or not it’s a copy. There are small discrepancies, but they might be put down to a combination of lighting, camera angles, and wear and tear.
For instance, says Robinson, part of the robe on the Botanic’s Socrates has broken off and two of his toes are missing.
Magni, the possible sculptor behind the work, was something of a genius.
Best known for his sculpture The Reading Girl, he was born in Milan and studied at the fine-arts academy there, the Brera Academy, under Pompeo Marchesi. Later, he worked as a studio assistant to another sculptor, Abbondio Sangiorgio.
He was a supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement to create a united Italian republic out of the various entities that then occupied the Italian peninsula. He fought in 1848 in the insurrection of the Five Days of Milan, and in the following year served with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legendary Italian general, in Rome.
A proponent of naturalism, Magni’s works – such as David (1850) and Socrates (1856) – were “imbued with a physical and psychological realism and a high moral tone that captured the spirit of the Risorgimento [Italian unification]”, according to Sotheby’s.
In A Companion to Socrates, antiquities expert Kenneth Lapatin tracks the portrayal of Socrates from antiquity all the way up to the 19th century when, he notes, “sculptor Magni carved stately large-scale marble statues of the philosopher, to rave reviews”.
But if one Miss Anne Brewster – “the admirable news-teller … for fair Italy at large” – is to be believed, Magni’s habits “were peculiar, and somewhat stained with a facile vice of genius, the love of wine”, according to The Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition Illustrated (1876).
“It is even said,” the book notes, “that [Magni] rented a half-dozen obscure lodgings in Milan, where he was Professor, that he might be conveniently carried to bed from whatever haunt he lost consciousness in.”
As the book was being compiled, its authors learnt that Magni had only recently “ceased to live”, having died on 9 January 1877. “Whatever his frailties may have been”, they note, “Prof. Magni had the essential, incommunicable quality of genius”.
And for nearly 60 years one his most famous works, or a version of it at least, has stood quietly between a narrow footpath and the River Tolka.
A Poisonous Plant
The 1876 book noted that there was at least one duplicate of Magni’s Socrates statue.
It was commissioned and purchased for the National Congress building in Santiago in Chile, a building in use by the Chilean government until General Pinochet’s coup in 1973.
But considering Lord Iveagh’s avid art collecting, and the fact that numerous Magni works were exhibited in Dublin in 1865, it is possible the version in the gardens here is the original.
In 1872, an exhibition of fine arts formed part of the Dublin Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufactures held in Dublin’s Crystal Palace, now the site of the National Concert Hall.
Among several Magni pieces loaned to the exhibition by Edward Cecil Guinness, Sir Benjamin’s son, was the sculpture entitled Socrates, according to an Office of Public Works spokesperson.
Even if it is a duplicate, there is a connection between the old philosopher and his current botanical location.
After being put on trial for questioning the Athenian authorities of the day, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing hemlock. That poisonous plant grows in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.
“It’s supposed to be a horrendous death,” says groundskeeper McNally. “It causes paralysis throughout the whole body.”
At one stage, he recalls, a previous director of the gardens proposed planting clumps of hemlock around the base of the old Socrates statue. In the interest of taste, says McNally, they shied away from that idea.