I climbed to be up close
and personal with Rizal

The hero’s figure gazes at the sunset, not the sunrise. Quite sad really

Ambeth R. Ocampo in safety harness at Rizal Monument: ‘Rizal is literally larger than life (Contributed by author)

The author at the foot of Rizal (Contributed by author)

Ticked off an item on my bucket list last June 8, 2021 when I scaled the Rizal Monument in Luneta.

When I heard that the monument was being spruced up for Independence Day 2021 and Rizal’s 160th birthday I requested the National Historical Commission Conservation team to allow me to examine the monument. Little did they know I was intent on inspecting it up close and personal. They thought it was idle talk until I turned up in shorts and non-skid sneakers.

To distract me Jim Kalaw showed me a piece of sophisticated equipment that could look two meters into the granite base, very much what an ultrasound does on a baby in a mother’s womb. I asked if it could lead us to the spot under the monument where Rizal’s remains lie. Most sightseers do not know that the monument is a tomb and Rizal’s urn must have been deposited in the back where a spout for a gas-fed “Eternal Flame” was set up but never activated.

That done, Rommel Aquino, head of the conservation team, said I would be more comfortable doing the ascent next year when they have funds to use a hydraulic lift to clean the monument more thoroughly. I foolishly looked at the makeshift scaffolding and decided it was a go.

So this overweight senior citizen, a former Historical Commission Chair, was attached to a safety harness and assisted up by Tim Apura, Antony Canlas and Juanito  Santos. Being high enough to jumpstart my acrophobia, I stopped at the bronze figure of Rizal and skipped proceeding up to the tip of the obelisk to touch the stars. No big loss because they are gilt bronze or silver and not, as previously believed, solid gold.

Swiss sculptor Richard Kissling’s signature, one of two, on the bronze base (Contributed by author)

Only when you are beside the figure that you realize Rizal is indeed literally larger than life. For scale, I took a photograph of my hand beside Rizal’s. I looked closely and saw that the Swiss sculptor, Richard Kissling, signed his name not once but twice for safety, first by Rizal’s foot and by the figures that make up the right side of the monument. As I inspected the bronze patina, some holes were pointed out to me, scars left by bullets and shrapnel fired at it during the 1945 Battle for Manila.

For scale: Author’s hand and Rizal’s hand (Contributed by author)

Standing beside him, I realized  Rizal has his back on the controversial Torre de Manila, his view of Manila Bay impeded by the Quirino Grandstand and the H2O Hotel. To the right of Rizal’s vista is the Manila Hotel, the Army Navy Club to his left, and dead center is the mother of all flagpoles in the country, the navel of the nation, kilometer zero from which all distances in the Republic are reckoned and indicated on yellow kilometer markers on our national roads.

When I was a boy, my father asked the question that changed my life—why does Rizal wear a heavy winter coat in the tropics?

When I was a boy, my father introduced me to the Father of the Country and asked the question that changed my life—why does Rizal wear a heavy winter coat in the tropics? That explains the title of my landmark book, Rizal Without the Overcoat, that is 31 years old this year. Rizal was quite stylish and the monument was based on his favorite studio photograph of 1890. Looking at his overcoat I am thankful suddenly for Uniqlo down jackets and lightweight heat tech thermal underwear. No more back pain or bursitis from heavy coats.

In the monument Rizal carries only one book of the three he published. You see the title only up close­—Noli me tangere. And it is from this novel that Elias declares: “I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my motherland. You who see it, welcome it, and do not forget those fallen during the night.” Following those words, the Rizal monument is oriented such that the figure gazes at the sunset, not the sunrise. Quite sad really.

Photograph of Rizal Monument in Richard Kissling’s Swiss studio from photograph sent to Manila by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo (Alfonso T. Ongpin Photofile, NHCP)

After taking the obligatory souvenir photos, I realized the descent was more difficult than the ascent. Ah, the things I have to do for posts in FB and IG.

While sitting by Rizal’s feet I recalled the nine years as Historical Commission chairperson when I came to Rizal Park for Independence Day on June 12 and Rizal Day on December 30. Rizal had left detailed instructions on what to do with his remains after his death:

He asked to be buried in the ground. We buried him under a monument. He preferred Paang Bundok, where the Manila North Cemetery is located. We interred him at Rizal Park. He wanted a simple tombstone with nothing more than his name, date of birth and date of death. We placed more text on the bronze plaque than he wanted. The only instruction followed was building a fence around his tomb. Worst of all, each year on December 30 the President of the Philippines comes to lay a wreath by the monument, marking anniversaries that Rizal explicitly said he did not want. Each time a wreath was laid to the sound of a 21-gun salute and a shower of rose petals, I imagined him turning inside the monument.

While on the monument I whispered my long overdue apologies, hoping that on his 160th birthday more Filipinos would get to know him by reading him. I let him know that we remember him and many others like him who died without seeing the dawn of freedom we now often take for granted.

The author assisting then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at wreath laying at Rizal Monument in 2010 (Contributed by author)

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

About author


He is the country’s leading historian who has made Philippine history easily relatable to the young generation, and through his book series, presented Rizal as an interesting, exceptional human being, beyond being a national hero. He writes a column for Philippine Daily Inquirer, is a professor at Ateneo de Manila University. His talks on Juan Luna and other aspects of Philippine history and culture have grown a following. Follow him in FB and Instagram (@ambethocampo)

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