The University Record, September 17, 1997

The Historical Record

This marble sculpture of Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, by Randolph Rogers, was commissioned by the University in 1858. It is on display in the Museum of Art's rotunda. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library


By Patricia S. Whitesell

Did you know that the sculpture of Nydia, on display in the rotunda of the Museum of Art, has a fascinating history dating back to the 1850s?

Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, was the creation of Randolph Rogers, an American sculptor. Rogers was born in Waterloo, New York, spent his childhood in Ann Arbor, and then studied at the Academy of Florence. Rogers opened a studio in Rome in 1851, and the outstanding success in 1855 of his sculpture of Nydia paved the way for him to become one of the leading American classical sculptors of the 19th century. Rogers is considered to be the most prominent artist ever associated with Ann Arbor.

The sculpture of Nydia was commissioned for the University in 1858 by a group formed for this purpose called the Rogers Art Association. Prof. Henry Frieze, who served as acting president in 1869-71, championed the fund-raising campaign for the sculpture, raising funds from the proceeds of public concerts performed by his amateur musical club. The other inaugural members of the club were Franz Brunnow, professor of astronomy and director of the Observatory; his wife, Rebecca Tappan Brunnow, daughter of President Henry P. Tappan; and Mrs. Andrew D. White, wife of the history professor who later became a U.S. senator and first president of Cornell University.

This acquisition for the museum was so treasured that a special annex in which to showcase Nydia was added to University Hall. Nydia was one of the first marble sculptures in the state. In all, Rogers created more than 50 sculptures of Nydia, along with his many other works, such as his famous bronze doors for the U.S. Capitol that depict the life of Columbus.

The inspiration for Nydia came from a character in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii. The blind Nydia, with a fallen capital at her feet, is leaning toward the sound of the erupting volcano, Vesuvius, trying to assess the danger and determine the direction of the sea, to which she intends to flee for safety. The popular appeal of the sculpture was due in large part to the poetic tension of Nydia's plight, and by the ironic advantage of being blind in the utter darkness created by the curtain of volcanic ash.

This monthly column highlights interesting aspects of University history. Send suggestions for future topics to Historical_Record@umich.edu.