Tobacco Leaf Capital

Artist/Maker: Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, executed by Francisco Iardella (1793-1831) [1]

Created: 1816

Origin/Purchase: Washington, D.C.?

Materials: sandstone

Dimensions: 45.7 x 53.3 x 53.3 (18 x 21 x 21 in.)

Provenance: Benjamin Henry Latrobe; by gift to Thomas Jefferson; by purchase to James T. Barclay; by purchase to Uriah P. Levy; by descent to Jefferson M. Levy; by purchase to Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923.

Accession Number: 1923-4

Historical Notes: Jefferson's involvement with Latrobe did not end when he left Washington. Shortly after Jefferson returned to Monticello, Latrobe sent him a model of the capital from an architectural order that he had created especially for the interior of the Capitol. It was composed of ears of corn, in tribute to the indigenous American plant. Jefferson praised Latrobe's "handsome and peculiarly American capital," and made a sundial to sit on top of it.[2] Although Latrobe's son saw the corn capital on a visit to Monticello in 1832, neither it nor the sundial are extant.[3] 

A second capital designed by Latrobe and sent to Monticello, based on the foliage and flowers of the tobacco plant, does survive. Latrobe created the tobacco-leaf order during the Capitol's second building campaign, after its destruction by the British in 1814. In an 1816 letter to Jefferson, he sketched and described his creation:

"I have therefore composed a capital of leaves and flowers of the tobacco plant which has an intermediate effect of approaching a Corinthian order and retaining the simplicity of the Clepsydra or Temple of the Winds. [Francisco] Iardella a sculptor who has just arrived, has made an admirable model for execution in which he has well preserved the botanical character of the plant, although it has been necessary to enlarge the proportion of the flowers to the leaves, and to arrange them in clusters of three."[4] Latrobe to Jefferson, Washington, November 5, 1816. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Library of Congress.

In 1817 he sent this capital to Jefferson and recommended that it be painted like those in the Capitol, "the leaves of the upper tier, be colored in the lower part a faint brown (umber)..."[5]  The capital is among the few original objects from Monticello that have remained with the property through its history.

Footnotes

1. This article is based on Susan R. Stein,  The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello  (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993), 159-160.

2. The correspondence and miscellaneous papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ed. John C. Van Horne and Lee W. Formwalt (Maryland Historical Society by Yale University Press, 1984), 3:4808. For details about the sundial see Silvio Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 415-416.

3. John E. Semmes, John H.B. Latrobe and his times, 1803-1891, (Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Co., 1917), 250-251; John H.B. Latrobe, The Capitol and Washington at the Beginning of the Present Century (1881; reprint, Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1972), 19.

4. Latrobe to Jefferson, Washington, November 5, 1816. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Library of Congress. Recipient copy available online.

5. Latrobe to Jefferson, Washington, October 28, 1817, Latrobe Papers, 3:824n4.

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