Corruption Highlights in History

Corruption is as old as times when people first entrusted each other with tasks of any significance. Be it the ruler's duty to defend the interests of the people, the civil servant's task to implement the will of the king or the trustee's obligation to take good care of assets, nearly always the risk of corruption accompanied such situations. Historical texts, artwork and films contain numerous illustrations of both corruption and efforts to counter it. Here we will post selected highlights of these problems in various times and places.

Warning about consequences of bad government in the Library of Congress (the US, end of 19th century)

Corrupt Legislation. Elihu Vedder (1836 - 1923). On 1 November 1897, the new premises of the Library of Congress opened in Washington. The new building impressed the public with its architecture, sculptures and murals. One of the most acclaimed mural series was five panels depicting consequences of good and bad government. Shown here, is the panel called Corrupt Legislation. “Left of center is Corrupt Legislation, a figure sitting lasciviously upon an ornamental throne with arms of coin-filled cornucopia turned inward to herself. Against a background of idle factories, a plaintive figure with an empty distaff and spindle, representing unemployed workers (during depression of the 1890s, unemployment reached 20 percent), is waved away in favor of the bribe given on a sliding weight scale, which is a parody of the equal scales of justice. Prosperous industry churns out smoke behind the figure of Corrupting Wealth, who presides over bags of money, a strongbox, an overturned voting urn, and holds the book of law to interpret for his own interests. Behind the throne is an autumnal vine, which suggests decay.” The other panels are named Government (at the centre), Anarchy, Good Administration, and Peace and Prosperity. Sources: The United States Capitol Historical Society Wikipedia Source of the image: Library of Congress.


Violations of building rules (warning signs of corruption) in the 19th century's Riga

Since 1814 stringent bulding restrictions were in force covering a wide area around Riga's fortified city centre. Nevertheless one can still see two-storey wooden houses in Turgeneva street. At the time of their construction, this was a violation of the rules because only single-storey buildings were allowed here. Source: Koka Rīga (Wooden Riga). Neputns, 2001. Photo: Valts Kalniņš


Shipwreck as price for political patronage (19th century)

The Raft of the Medusa. Theodore Géricault (1791 – 1824). "For his [Paris] Salon picture in 1819, Géricault chose a dramatic episode — the wreck of the frigate Meduse, which had set off with a French fleet on an expedition to Senegal, and had been lost in July 1816. The French admiralty was accused of having put an incompetent officer in charge of the expedition; he was the Comte de Chaumareix, a former emigre who had not commanded a vessel for twenty-five years. The picture was an enormous success, more on account of the scandal than because of an interest in the arts; but Géricault only received a gold medal, and his picture was not bought by the government. [..]

The most horrifying part of the shipwreck had been the drama of 149 wretches abandoned on a raft with only some casks of wine to live on, and the ensuing drunkenness and abominations. When the frigate Argus found the raft, after many days, she was only able to rescue fifteen survivors, of whom five died after being brought ashore. After some hesitation, Géricault chose this last episode — the sighting of the Argus by the survivors on the raft." Source: Web Gallery of Arts


Social advertisement with the help of a good example (17th century)

Curius Dentatus Preferring Turnips to Gold. Govert Teunisz Flinck (1615 - 1660). Flinck received the lion's share of commissions to decorate Amsterdam's new town hall. In 1656 he completed Curius Dentatus Preferring Turnips to Gold for the burgomasters' council chamber in the building. Dentatus (d. 270 BC) was a three-time consul and a plebeian hero of the Roman Republic, noted for ending the Samnite War. Dentatus is supposed to have been incorruptible and frugal; the story was that when the Samnites (a group of tribes in the Apennines) sent ambassadors with expensive gifts in an attempt to influence him in their favor, they found him sitting by the hearth roasting turnips. He refused the gifts, saying that he preferred ruling the possessors of gold over possessing it himself. The painting was done to remind the burgomasters of virtues city officials should possess. Sources: Web Gallery of Arts Wikipedia


Controversies around corruption in Riga in 16th and 17th centuries and their depiction in the relief of Ecke (1618)

In 1583 the Burgomaster of Riga Nikolaus Ecke "became a burgrave, i.e. representative of the Polish king with a great deal of power. Through the use of his high status and rights of the Burgomaster, he accumulated great wealth with little distinction between the city treasury and his own pocket.” To reduce the public anger, he devoted a part of his money for charity and established the so-called Ecke Convent or shelter for the widows of the deceased craftsmen of the Small Guild. "Ecke ordered to place an epitaph on the façade of the Widows’ shelter building [22 Skārņu street]. It showed a motif from the New Testament about Christ and the sinner; this motif is commonly linked with the words of Christ: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."" This was supposed to make the opponents of Ecke have second thoughts about whether they were right in condemning the burgrave. However, the message of the relief is controversial. On the left side, there is a departing figure with a purse, the unpunished embezzler. It did fail to save Ecke from anger." He was buried in the Dome church. The gravestone had a relief with his full figure. One night the relief was secretly removed and the figure – head, hands and legs - smashed. Source: Cielava, S., "Cilnis Vecrīgas laicīgajā arhitektūrā", 1985. Image: Smig


Anti-corruption social advertisement in Flanders of the 15th century

The Judgment of Cambyses. Gerard David (c. 1460 – 1523). In 1487 and 1488, the municipal authorities of Bruges requested Gerard David to paint a series of panels for the deputy burgomaster's room in the town hall. This major commission took the form of a large diptych that was first mentioned in the city archives as a Last Judgement, but which in fact depicts The Judgement of Cambyses. The subject is taken from Herodotus: the judge Sisamnes, who had been guilty of prevarication, was arrested and punished by Cambyses, the King of Persia. For his crimes, Sisamnes was condemned to be flayed alive. David represents this scene with a cold and exemplary cruelty. Like the paintings Dieric Bouts made for the town hall in Louvain, David's panels were intended as a stern warning to judges against the temptation of corruption. Source: Web Gallery of Arts



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