Russian City Commissions Statue of Wrong Person in 'Wikipedia' Mix-up

A statue in Russia’s so-called northern capital is at the center of attention seven years after being unveiled, as it turns out it might be of the wrong man.

The monument dedicated to Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, who designed a number of St. Petersburg’s neo-classical buildings, currently sits alongside the statues of six other architects responsible for erecting a European royal city in Russia’s northern marshes. The only problem is that the figure in De Thomon’s place is not the French builder at all, but bears a striking resemblance to a late Scottish chemist, local newspaper Fontanka first noticed.

“I was the project’s main artist and I am responsible for everything,” Alexander Taratynov, the project’s chief sculptor, told the newspaper who brought up the discrepancy. The artist admitted he had used an engraving purporting to be De Thomon on Wikipedia, which other sites including the St. Petersburg tourism site coroberrated. The image actually depicted a Scottish scientist with a strikingly similar name—Thomas Thomson.

“Information for the work was of course taken from internet resources,” Taratynov told the newspaper. “However, as our diligent people who are interested in history have rightly noticed, there has obviously been a mistake.”
 

Unlike De Thomon, Thomson had no special ties to Russia or St. Petersburg, growing up in Crieff in Scotland, before studying in St. Andrews and Edinburgh. He then moved to teach at the University of Glasgow, according to institution’s biography of its former professor. An official portrait, seemingly based on the engraving, is displayed by the National Galleries of Scotland.

“We did not refer to historians,” Taratynov admitted. “We were confident that the internet would give us the corrext information. All the tourist sites have this maladroit photograph of Thomson, under the name of Thomas de Thomon.”

Why some online sources have conjoined the two men’s likeness is not exactly clear, though besides the similarity of their names, the two were contemporaries at one point between the 18th and 19th centuries. De Thomon was only 13 years older than Thomson, albeit the Scot outlived his near-namesake by almost 40 years. Russia's Museum of Architecture claimed responsibility for first spotting the discrepancy in a tweet, after one of its employees wrote a blogpost about the erroneously attributed engraving earlier this month.

Although the report named Wikipedia as a source that misled the sculptor, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia’s current entry for the French architect has dropped the erroneous image and underlines that the file only went up on the site in June 2011. Gazprom commissioned the monument in 2010, and work on it was already underway at the time.

Read More: 12-foot statue of Vladimir Putin goes missing in Russia, right before unveiling

The energy giant did not answer Newsweek ’s questions about whether they plan to amend the monument but did ask that Newsweek refers to the sculptor. Asked if the city would like the state-run company to remove the monument, the St. Petersburg administration did not respond.

“I, as the author, am ready to take away the figure and exchange it for another one,” Taratynov said. “Since nobody has seen Thomas de Thomon, then an invented, composite image could be created, which is also often done.”

08_17_Petersburg Statues and fountains are seen at the Peterhof Palace, a royal palace built by the Peter the Great in the year 1710 in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 13, 2018. A monument to one of the city's architects has turned out to be based on a misused image of an entirely different historical figure. Michael Dalder/Reuters

The sculptor has not yet received a request to amend his statue but told the Interfax news agency that there may be a way to salvage the statue, without a major reworking of the figure.

"There is nothing on my sculpture that says this is Thomas de Thomon," he said "We can present it as a composite image of architects of that time."

"I suggest we turn out attention to the countless means of information, open sources, internet resources, who are spreading erroneous images and information, and ask them why they do this. Often the artist becomes hostage of this."

After being made aware of the statue-related fracas in Russia, a spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said the college took the news in good spirits and said the discovery of the accidental tribute to a "remarkable individual" was nonetheless "welcome." 

"Whilst the creation of a statue of Professor Thomson was obviously not the intention of the sculptor the inadvertent error has given us much cause to smile about in Scotland," the spokesperson said. "Should the opportunity arise we would be delighted to offer further reflections and additional information on Professor Thomson to interested parties in St Petersburg."

This article has been updated to include comments from the University of Glasgow.

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