The tour of the Library of Congress begins with the view of the Capitol Dome, crowned by the figure symbolizing Armed Wisdom, or Defensive Strength.
The lady with the strange headdress is an Athena figure, C. Ford Peatross explains. Athena -- Minerva to the Romans, whose republic inspired America's founders -- was the goddess of wisdom, but she was much more: goddess of defensive war, and therefore guardian of civilization; patroness of fine arts and applied arts.
"What else is there?" asks Peatross. He is curator for architecture, design and engineering collections at the Library of Congress, sandy-haired and sparkling, clearly an admirer of Minerva.
If the goddess' virtues are implied in the statue atop the Capitol dome, they are unfolded in detail within the library's Jefferson Building, where Minerva makes her home.
At the top of a staircase leading to the Visitors' Gallery, a mosaic pictures her with her armor and helmet laid down. The sun of prosperity dispels clouds of disaster and discouragement. Minerva holds a scroll honoring the branches of learning: law, statistics, sociology, botany, biography, mechanics, philosophy, zoology and so on.
"If you guys do your job," summarizes Peatross, waving at Congress and meaning that our representatives must keep the nation strong and at peace, then "we can do our job," meaning that the Library of Congress will foster the flourishing of civilization.
The library is celebrating its bicentennial. Yesterday's birthday party highlighted its status as the world's greatest library, with nearly 120 million books, papers, musical scores, film prints, maps, drawings and other items in more than 500 languages.
The library's history began April 24, 1800, when President John Adams, contemplating the government's move from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington, D.C., signed a bill appropriating $5,000 for the purchase of reference books Congress would need as it deliberated over its legislation.
That library had grown from 750 volumes to about 3,000, kept in a committee room, by 1814, when British forces occupied Washington and burned the Capitol, books and all.
Thomas Jefferson then sold his personal library -- 6,487 volumes -- to make it the core of the new Library of Congress collection.
Despite another fire or two along the way, the library continued to grow, the influx of material swelling to a flood after Congress directed that two copies of every copyrighted work be deposited in its library. The collection had outgrown its housing in the Capitol; it needed a building of its own.
Given the ways of Congress, it took a quarter-century from proposal in 1872 until completion in 1897. Yet to Peatross, the amazing thing is the scale of the undertaking: "This nation, not 100 years old, decided to build the greatest library in the world -- and built it."
He compares it to the national commitment in the 1960s to build a space program capable of putting a man on the moon.
Equally amazing, the Jefferson Building, as it is now known, was the product of a committee.
Architects and designers came and went. Fifty artists contributed to the murals, mosaics, paintings, sculptures and decoration. Yet the product, he says, is "one of the key monuments of the American Renaissance."
Shrine to virtues
Others have called it America's most beautiful public building. Yet it might also be America's least appreciated monument. It is quaint, a shrine to virtues now often treated with ironic mockery: progress, civilization, enlightenment. And its story is told by means of allegory and symbolism, unfamiliar styles in our time.
Within 40 years of the building's completion, Peatross says, President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought the decoration scheme impossibly Victorian. Gradually, the colors faded and the paint peeled.
But after a renovation completed for the building's centennial in 1997, its message remains legible -- unlike the stories told in other public buildings built 10 or 15 years later.
Daniel J. Boorstin, a former Librarian of Congress, has noted that once public taste turned away from allegory to representations of specific figures and episodes of local histories, later visitors to state houses and courthouses find themselves "not awed but puzzled."
The Jefferson Building's optimism might be unfashionable in a cynical age, but it is not obscure. Inside the dome, looking down on the vast, splendid Reading Room, is a painted female figure, an allegory of "Human Understanding." She raises a veil from her eyes as knowledge illumines the darkness of ignorance and superstition.
The entire building instructs humans how to progress from creatures of instinct and conflict to informed citizens living in harmony and prosperity. A five-panel series of lunette murals, for example, illustrates government.
In the center sits a female figure holding a scepter signifying the Golden Rule. She displays a plaque with Lincoln's words: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people."