Who needs to endure inflation, long flights and throngs of tourists to travel to Greece and Italy when all the best classical sites are re-created here in the United States?
Sure, some of them may be made of hardened foam, fiberglass and two-by-fours, but you can just squint and imagine the treacherous chariot races — or at least the Vespa scooters zipping by and the pesky pickpockets with sticky fingers.
You could simply go to Las Vegas to see a way-too-clean Venice at the Venetian, or try to surpass Caligula’s debauchery at Caesar’s Palace. But here are some superior stateside replicas of ancient masterpieces.
Michelangelo in Sioux Falls
When Michelangelo sculpted his David, he originally intended for it to go on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral. But Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli and other artists recognized the 17-foot nude as a masterpiece and placed it in the Piazza della Signoria for all to see. A few years before, this piazza had been the site of the Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the friar Girolamo Savonarola convinced sinners such as Botticelli to repent by burning their art, makeup, musical instruments, dice and anything else fun.
Sioux Falls, SD, had a similar issue when philanthropist Thomas Fawick, a modern-day Medici, donated a bronze copy of David in 1971 to place in Fawick Park. Many residents blushed at the sight of this gorgeous, godlike nude. Motorists crossing the Big Sioux River were greeted by David’s nakedness as their first view of downtown Sioux Falls. Gardeners planted shrubbery to cover the biblical genitalia, but the statue was too tall. Instead, they simply turned the statue around so David is now mooning everyone who enters the city.
This remedy did not satisfy a Baptist minister, a modern Savonarola who condemned Michelangelo’s masterpiece as “not art but sin.” He wrote a fire-and-brimstone letter to the editor of the local newspaper warning that Sioux Falls would be no better than Sodom and Gomorrah: “In the years to come, we can expect to see on the streets of Sioux Falls people going naked. . … Don’t be surprised if God doesn’t bring a flood or a tornado, or strike the statue with lightning.”
So far, Sioux Falls hasn’t seen any naked gatherings amid plagues of locusts and floods.
Rome and Troy in the Dells
Other towns have raised their Davids — including St. Augustine, Fla., and a gaudy gold one in Louisville, Ky. — but how many fully re-create the classical world? Just as the mythical Aeneas fled the Trojan War to found the Eternal City, so you can drive your SUV down the Roman road of I-94 to discover the Colosseum. Slumber at Hotel Rome while visions of slaughter dance in your head. Dreamers at Wisconsin Dells replicated this blood-soaked ancient amphitheater, but rather than stone and marble hauled by thousands of slaves, they used convenient hardened foam. If only the emperors had had spray foam Rome could compete with the Dells. Alas, Wisconsin has no gladiator battles — yet!
Drive down the Dells strip to continue back in time at the Atlantis and Mt. Olympus resorts. Beware Greeks bearing gifts as you behold a mammoth 60-foot wooden Trojan Horse with a go-kart track leading through its stomach. In a twist on Odysseus’ story, you can zoom through the belly of the beast to capture Helen of Troy for yourself, defeat King Priam and still make Troy eat your exhaust.
The Leaning Tower of Niles
Flying into O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I spotted the Leaning Tower of Pisa and worried that the pilot had taken a detour. The beauty of this half-sized tower in suburban Niles is that no other tourists will spoil your mandatory photo holding up the falling building. What’s more, when the owner opens the 1934 tower to visitors, you could re-create Galileo’s experiment of dropping a couple of cannonballs from the top and probably not pelt some unsuspecting tourist from Toledo.
The Niles tower may not reach the 177 feet of the Pisan original, but 94 feet is nothing to scoff at. The angle of the lean is the same as the original, but the Illinois copy likely has no need for lead weights or a giant belt to keep it from tumbling. While the Campo dei Miracoli, or “Field of Miracles,” in Pisa has a baptistery, church and cemetery, the Niles tower has fountains, a strip mall and no throngs of tourists laughing at medieval architectural techniques. The Leaning Tower of Niles even doubles as a water tower. Imagine the tsunami if it does tumble!
Athena in Nashville
Finding a Greek goddess in the Bible Belt may seem incongruous, but Nashville once considered itself “The Athens of the South.” As part of Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition in 1897, Nashville erected a replica of the Parthenon temple housing Athena — a glimmering 42-foot statue of the goddess of war and the tallest indoor sculpture in the US The gold and ivory original was built around 438 BC and lasted for a thousand years until it disappeared.
Sure, its original statues were gaudily painted — a detail missing in Nashville — but this is what the temple likely looked like. Better yet, just go back to Mt. Olympus at Wisconsin Dells. Two angry, thunderbolt-casting statues of Zeus protect his Parthenon from the phalanx of minivans of tourists with full bellies from Mr. Pancake. After all, the stomach-churning Zeus roller coaster plunges right into the temple, just as Prometheus and his devilish deities would have wanted it.
The Venice of Venice Beach
Most tourists in Los Angeles stop to see the wild bohemian life of Venice Beach. Step out of the cannabis cloud and walk inland to discover how the Venice neighborhood got its name. Future real estate developer Abbott Kinney took a grand tour of Italy in the 1860s and set out to replicate the City of Canals in California. On July 4, 1905, Kinney’s dreamland of an American Venice opened with three miles of canals and imported Venetian gondolas rowing under colorful little bridges.
Within decades, the stinky, stagnant waters of this moist neighborhood lost their appeal. By the late 1920s, some of the canals were covered for streets or simply filled in. Fortunately by the ’90s, “Venice of America” was reborn and is now one of the stylish sections of town, but still lacks gondoliers crooning “O Sole Mio.”
Eric Dregni is the author of “Never Trust a Thin Cook,” “Weird Minnesota” and “The Impossible Road Trip.”