Architectural Ornament in Human Forms
CHAPTER I – HUMAN FORMS
The following photos were taken of ornament on San Francisco buildings, mainly in the downtown but also in other areas of the city. They enliven the surfaces and architectural features they adorn. Addresses for the images are given to encourage you to explore other buildings nearby and in other parts of the city and let us know what you discover.
Shown above is a frieze on the pediment over the entrance to the former Banca d’Italia, later called the Bank of America, which was founded in San Francisco. Hera/Juno, the matriarchal goddess and wife of Zeus, holds the hands of Aphrodite/Venus and Hermes/Mercury, who is clad only in the winged shoes and hat that made him superhuman. These symbols indicated his ability, as Zeus’s messenger, to travel around the “axis mundi”, the cosmic pole around which all life revolves. The Romans merged Hermes with the ancient Italic god Mercurius, whose name came from “mercari”, which was linked to the act of carrying on a business. He also protected travelers, many of whom were traders, and thus became the god of both legal and illegal riches and profit. As the god of commerce, Mercury was most often depicted on buildings in the 19th century downtowns of American cities that were devoted to business and finance. A train and a ship, symbols of progress that contributed to San Francisco’s prosperity, occupy the sections at either end of the frieze.
The Roman god of healing, Aesculapius, was introduced in Rome during a plague in 293 B.C. and became increasingly popular thereafter. His symbol was the caduceus, shown below, which features twin snakes representing the opposing forces of health and illness. Healing was achieved through a balance of these and other opposites. The caduceus also adorned a staff carried by Mercury, supposedly because commercial affairs also required balancing opposites.
Below is a squinty-eyed version of Hermes which appears on a bank building at 300 Montgomery St.