Monuments have both commemorative and political functions. Through them, national elites define what and who is to be remembered of the past – as well as what and who is not. As such, monuments shape and spread dominant worldviews and reinforce political power. However, individuals interpret monuments in ways that can be different or even contrary to the intentions of the elites.
This is the paradox of monuments: meant to be stable over time in their physical forms, their meanings are dynamic, reflecting changes in culture and views on the past. One example is in the monuments to the leaders and military of the Confederate States of America, an unrecognised republic formed by the secession of seven slave-holding states existing from 1861 to 1865. During the Black Lives Matter protests following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, various Confederate monuments in the US were removed or plans for removal were announced, as they were considered to celebrate slavery and racism.
In Estonia, controversies over monuments and memorials have been so intense that the phrase “War of Monuments” has been used to refer to a series of conflicts over the interpretations of monuments starting from the early 2000s. Since the regaining of independence in 1991 and up to now, Estonian elites have taken various initiatives to redesign Soviet monuments, while establishing built forms promoting the new society’s rule of play. These practices have often divided the population on political, social, and ethnic grounds.
I spent about two years in Estonia exploring how controversies around monuments originate and develop. During this time, I was visiting researcher at the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu, one of the most important centres of semiotics in the world. Semiotics has proved effective in exploring controversies around monuments: any intervention on monuments can be variously interpreted by different communities. Semiotics helps to consider the multiplicity of the interpretations of monuments.
I was discussing my semiotic ideas on controversial monuments with professor Kalevi Kull, when he came up with one of his brilliant ideas: why don’t you look at monuments to semioticians? So here we are.
There are several statues across the world of scholars that have contributed to semiotics before it was recognised as a formal discipline, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, and John Locke. Semioticians are less represented in monuments, but there are some interesting exceptions.
Monument to Juri Lotman in Tartu, Estonia
Opened in 2007, it celebrates the founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School and long-serving professor at the University of Tartu. It consists of twisted steel pipes based on the self-portrait of Lotman, from which water passes into a long basin. Located in front of the main library of the university, the basin of the monument represents for many students a good sitting point for reading or resting.
The monument is designed by the architect Andres Lunge and the sculptor Mati Karmin, author of many sculptures around Estonia and Tartu. Karmin is also the designer of the Kissing Students, another fountain-statue featuring two kissing young people under an umbrella located in Tartu’s main square. The pipes of the monument are designed presenting an interesting optical effect: the portrayal of Lotman is recognisable only from specific angles.
Optical effects are not new to monuments. The fountain of Neptune, an iconic monument next to the main square of Bologna, was erected in the mid-sixteenth century to celebrate the election of Pope Pius IV. The left hand of Neptune is displayed as if to calm the sea, a gesture that represents the Pope’s power in governing people and land. But the artist that created the statue played a joke: when standing behind the statue from a particular angle, the hand of Neptune appears as an erect phallus placed in front of the main church of Bologna. We will never know if this is a coincidence or a deliberate act of the artist to take revenge for the many requests of the Pope on the monument’s design.
Peirce Geodetic Monument in Indianapolis, USA
It is a marker made of granite honouring the American mathematician, philosopher, logician, and semiotician. On its top, there are inscriptions of the latitude, longitude, and altitude. It was erected in 1987 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. National Geodetic Survey. A commemorative plaque is included on the side of the marker.
In 1914, Peirce died destitute in Milford, Pennsylvania. His wife Juliette kept the urn with his ashes, which were eventually interred in 1934. A very small tombstone was erected to mark the grave. The Charles S. Peirce Society appointed a special committee, chaired by Rosa Mayorga, to design a new monument for Peirce on the site of the decrepit tombstone. The new monument was completed in 2019 and better commemorates one of the greatest American philosophers.
Ferdinand de Saussure has no monument yet
Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the two major founders of semiotics (together with Peirce), does not have a proper monument yet. The same cannot be said of his direct ancestor, the geologist and Alpine explorer Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. A statue of H.B. de Saussure is located in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, a town to the north side of Mont Blanc. The genus of plants Saussurea is named after him. At the first station for the skyway Monte Bianco cable car there is the Alpine Botanical Garden Saussurea. He was also on the Swiss 20-franc banknote from 1979 to 1995.
Monument to Mikhail Bakhtin in Saransk, Russia
A statue to the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theories have inspired semiotics, was established in 2015 in Saransk, the capital city of the Republic of Mordovia, Russia. Bakhtin lived here in 1936-7 and from 1945 to 1969.
The statue by the sculptor Nikolay Filatov follows traditional aesthetic standards, with the figure of the philosopher on a pedestal at the centre of a forecourt area surrounded by a flower bed. Bakhtin is represented while smoking and holding a book. At his feet, there is a pile of manuscripts. His face looks very concerned, probably showing the difficult conditions that he experienced for much of his life.
Statue of Roland Barthes in Cherbourg-Octeville, France
The French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician was born in 1914 in Cherbourg in Normandie, France. Hundreds of years later the city honoured him with a bronze bust, with a detailed face and an abstract crouching, unshaped body. The statue is one of five at the Esplanade de la Laïcité, together with an allegory of man called Metamorphosis and three other portraits of personalities linked to Cherbourg by their celebrity.
Sculpture of Algirdas J. Greimas, Šiauliai, Lithuania
On the occasion of Greimas’ centenary in 2017, two sculptures were unveiled at Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, and at Šiauliai University. Greimas is one of the greatest representatives of modern semiotics, known for the semiotic square, a tool used to graphically represent the logical articulation of a semantic category. He was born in Tula, Russia, to Lithuanian parents. He lived more than 25 years in Paris, where he was professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Here he organised weekly meetings to present and discuss his theory of signification: so was born the Paris School of Semiotics. Greimas is also author of an article laying the foundations for plastic and figurative semiotics, two levels for the semiotic analysis of images. In the sculptures, Greimas himself became plastic and figurative art.
The bust was unveiled on the occasion of Greimas’ centenary, during which several memorial events were organised in his honour in Lithuania and all over the world. A collectible silver coin and postage stamp were issued, exhibitions were organised, and several commemorative posters were installed in Vilnius.
Greimas was also co-founder of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. On the occasion of Greimas’ centenary, this association organised the 13th World Congress of Semiotics at Kaunas University of Technology. On this occasion, a group of scholars made a pilgrimage to his grave in Petrašiūnai Cemetery.
The many honours of Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco also does not have a proper monument yet. As one of the most prominent Italian novelists, he received many awards during his professional life: he received several literary prizes, numerous honours from all over the world, and over 40 honorary doctoral degrees from top universities. An asteroid was named after him in 1991. In 2016, the year of his death, the city of Milan placed his name on a list including the most illustrious citizens at the city’s monumental cemetery. As Eco was an emeritus professor at the University of Bologna, where he taught for much of his life, the city of Bologna named after him the Sala Borsa, a covered square inside the former seat of the city’s government, today hosting the main public library of the city.
Uexküll in Capri, Italy
Jakob Johann von Uexküll was a Baltic German biologist who coined the notion of Umwelt, the “biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal”1 Sebeok, Thomas A. (1976). “Foreword”. Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs. Lisse, Netherlands: Peter de Ridder Press. . This notion was later used by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok and the philosopher Martin Heidegger. He is a pioneer of biosemiotics, a branch of semiotics that explores biological and physical processes as sign systems.
Uexküll spent his last years on the island of Capri, Italy, where he died in 1944. He is buried next to his wife in a cemetery in Capri that contains over 200 graves from a total of 21 different nations. There is not yet a monument honouring him, but his grave includes a peculiar inscription and symbols such as Alpha and Omega.
Commemorating semioticians, celebrating semiotics
There seems to be no common feature among the monuments to semioticians described above. They are of various sizes, made of different materials, have different shapes and colours. From the classical public statue of Bakhtin to the suggestive fountain of Lotman, they assume many different forms.
A few common traits can still be found. It is clear that statues of semioticians represent them for what they are, including their questionable habits and personal emotions. The statue of Bakhtin portrays him very concerned while smoking, and Greimas’ sculpture in Šiauliai is also smoking. There are not many public statues in the world representing the act of smoking, as this would be celebrating a bad habit the institutions that establish the monument are supposed to fight against.
Symbolic monuments seem to be particularly suited to celebrate semioticians. For example, the Geodetic Monument marks a key survey point of the Earth, symbolically dedicating it to Peirce. Lotman’s fountain plays with optical illusions displaying the portrait of the semiotician from a specific angle; but the users who do not know the trick are free to see other symbols and figures in the sculpture, without this resulting in the monument losing its function, i.e. to commemorate Lotman. In playing with different levels of symbolic representations and interpretations, monuments to semioticians inevitably become monuments to semiotics as such.
Federico Bellentani earned his PhD from Cardiff University. His research analyses the effects of monuments on social memory and urban identity, using Estonia as a case study. He lived in Tartu to conduct his fieldwork. In 2021, he published his first book on Estonian monuments. Today, he is Vice President of the International Association of Semiotics of Space and Head of Marketing and Communications at Injenia, a Google Cloud partner in Bologna, Italy.