The Piccirilli Studio: Public Sculpture For the Nation

History

American public sculpture began to flourish in the late 19th century. The unveiling of the Farragut Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in New York City in 1881 signaled a new standard of artistry. The City Beautiful movement was taking hold in metropolitan areas throughout the country. The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, was filled with monumental and architectural sculpture. Talented artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Q.A. Ward and Daniel Chester French began to fill a growing national demand for beautiful public sculpture. In many instances the need was to commemorate the Civil War but just as often it was a matter of civic pride. This mood was especially prevalent in New York City where the Piccirillis were about to begin their prolific careers as sculptors and stone carvers. As Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, former curator of American Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, put it, “The arrival of the Piccirilli family in New York may well mark an epoch in the history of American art” (1).

images/1Giuseppe Piccirilli settled in New York City in 1887 with his wife, six sons, and a daughter. Giuseppe was a successful sculptor and stone carver in Massa Carrara, Tuscany. All six sons worked in their father’s studio and expressed keen interest and talent. Attilio, perhaps the most gifted, studied sculpture for five years at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. This is where Giuseppe had received his training and where, later, Attilio’s younger brothers would be sent to study. Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, Giuseppe and the older sons began working at Adler’s Monument and Granite Works on East 57th Street. After initial financial hardships, steady commissions from Samuel Adler enabled the Piccirillis to open their own studio on West 39th Street where they began to prosper. images.2In 1890, however, Mrs. Piccirilli became seriously ill, and the doctor urged the family to move to the "country". They purchased property on 142nd Street in the Bronx and built their residence and two large studios.The South Bronx was hardly rural then but it was there that the Piccirillis were to become “America’s first family of carver-sculptors” (2).

Just prior to establishing the Bronx studio, the Piccirillis met Daniel Chester French, who was emerging as a leading American sculptor. French was so impressed with their artistry that over the next thirty-five years all but two of his stone sculptures were carved by the brothers (3). Included in this immense volume of work was Abraham Lincoln (1922), the colossal central figure of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Piccirillis used 28 blocks of Georgia marble, weighing 150 tons, to carve the 19-foot statue from French’s seven-foot plaster model (4). Prior to the Piccirilli studio, sculptors like French sent plaster models to Italy to be carved in stone. This was no longer necessary and, in effect, the Piccirillis helped establish New York City as a center for the production of art.

assemblingimages.3  This is where we first got interested in the Piccirillis. A friend had shown us a brief entry in McNamara's Old Bronx which stated that the Lincoln Memorial was carved on 142nd Street in the South Bronx (5). Bill was fascinated but also puzzled because he grew up a few blocks from the studio in the 1940’s and 50’s and never heard a word about the Piccirillis. Also, sculpture had become a passion for him in recent years as a result of his own work in that medium at the Art Student’s League in New York City.

Our first step was to contact the Bronx County Historical Society which led us to a biography of Attilio (6). The book, written in 1944, discusses Attilio’s sculptures quite thoroughly, but, unfortunately, has very little information on the stone carving work. We visited 467 East 142nd Street and found the site occupied by a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall. We decided to dig deeper into the questions of what other art works were created at the studio and why so little was known of the Piccirillis. Our research is still in progress, but we’ve summarized some of our findings below. Piccirilli works can be found all over the country and beyond, but, for the most part, we’ve restricted our present discussion to sculptures in New York City. In addition to the Lincoln Memorial, the Piccirillis executed several other large scale projects for Daniel Chester French, including:


• the Four Continents (1907) at the entrance to the United States Custom House (now the Museum of the American Indian) in Bowling Green (7),
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• all thirty statues and the pediment by eleven sculptors (including Attilio), supervised by French, on the façade of the Brooklyn Museum (1909) (8)image.10

• the colossal Manhattan and Brooklyn (1916), originally located at the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, relocated to the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum in 1963 (9).
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Over the decades, French spent many, many hours at the studio and built a lasting affectionate friendship with the family. He was known to be artistically and professionally generous and referred the brothers to numerous other sculptors and commissions. Augustus Saint-Gaudens was helpful too. In a letter to The Architect of the Capitol, Furio refers to a letter of introduction written by “Mr. A. St. Gaudens” in 1891 (14).

The enormous success of the Piccirillis as stone carvers was due in part to the fact that the brothers were, themselves, talented sculptors. Probably the two best known original sculptures were done by Attilio: the Maine Monument (1913) (15), at the southwest entrance to Central Park, near Columbus Circle, and the Firemen's Memorial (1913) (16) at Riverside Drive and West 100th Street in New York City. The Maine Monument commemorates the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898, and the subsequent Spanish-American War. The 60-foot monument consists of ten marble figures at the base and a gilded bronze Columbia surrounded by three sea horses at the top of a 40-foot stone shaft.

The Maine Monument
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William Randolph Hearst was instrumental in raising funds for the Maine Monument (18). (Some say he was instrumental in starting the Spanish-American War.) Another mother and child sculpture appears at the Firemen's Memorial and a bronze version marks the Piccirilli family plot in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx (17). He used his newspaper, the New York Journal, to organize a popular subscription campaign which raised $100,000 from a vast number of New Yorkers including many schoolchildren. The Maine Monument met with opposition from rival newspapers, Pulitzer's World and Adolph Ochs's New York Times. Originally the monument was to be located in Times Square, but a bureaucraticimages.40 "oversight" in 1902 prevented this. A public "comfort station" was built exactly where the monument was to be located. Some historians believe the oversight was instigated by The New York Times to avoid the embarrassment of seeing a Hearst triumph in their backyard. Ultimately, the monument was unveiled in 1913 at Columbus Circle and enjoyed a widespread enthusiastic reception despite negative press from The Times.

Another mother and child sculpture appears at the Firemen's Memorial.

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image.44 A bronze version marks the Piccirilli family plot in Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx (17).

The brothers did two kinds of work at the studio; their own original sculptures and carvings (usually in marble) for other artists that didn't do their own carving. Traditional sculptors began a figure in clay typically working from a model. The finished clay was then used to make a plaster cast which then led to a bronze casting or a stone carving. The carving was often enlarged from the plaster cast.Throughout this discussion we try to make a clear distinction between original Piccirilli sculptures and carvings for other sculptors. Below we see Attilio working in clay from a model and the finished work.

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Riverside Church is twenty-two blocks north of the Firemen's Memorial. The brothers designed and/or carved over 600 separate sculptures for the church. Ferruccio's son Bruno worked extensively with his uncles on this project for three years.The church was opened in 1930.

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The brothers also executed numerous smaller sculptures, often to satisfy their own artistic interests. Dixie Willson interviewed the brothers at the studio for a magazine article in 1930 which refers to two prizewinning works (19).

"It was odd," I said to Maso, "that you all made up your minds to be sculptors." "there is no 'mind' to it," he said. "Our souls are all the same one." Presently Attilio comes in. "Furio! Getulio! Maso!" he calls as he pushes open the door. "We have won a prize. In the exhibition of the National Academy of Design, the gold medal is given to Furio." "This ragged man wins the prize!" Orazio shouts. And laughing, shouting, they all pummel the prizewinner. But I could think only of what `Attilio had said. "We have won a prize!" Not "Furio has won a prize;" not "Our brother has won" -- but "We have won!" It is Furio's black marble Seal which has won the prize. A sea lion just rising from the water. It seemed to me I had heard before of a National academy prize in connection with the name Piccirilli. "Didn't he win the same prize last year?" I asked. "That was Orazio with his Black Eagle," Maso explains. Then in the midst of laughter, Getulio rises, lifts his thick white cup. It is a signal for silence. In that rambling old kitched suddenly there is no sound but the brazen clacking of a clock on the wall, and from one of the studios the echo of the steady beat of a hammer. "Furio," says Getulio, "we - as brothers - are proud of you!" Nothing more. Just one moment of silent, solemn tribute - every cup lifted.

Furio's Seal is in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as is Attilio's Fragilina which is a beautiful white marble of an awkward adolescent girl emerging into graceful womanhood. Also in the American Wing are several important carvings by the brothers. Three are shown below.

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image.18Another important "personal" work by Attilio is in Woodlawn Cemetery and marks the grave of his nephew, Nathan, who was killed in World War II. This powerful and moving sculpture called The Outcast is actually a copy of the original which was located in the churchyard of St. Mark's In The Bowery. The original, however, disappeared twenty years ago. Church officials think it was destroyed in a fire.

image.24After the Statue of Liberty the marble lions that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, are probably the best known and best loved public sculptures in New York City. The Piccirillis carved the lions for sculptor Edward Clark Potter (20). They were installed in 1911. In many people's minds the lions have achieved the status of Mascots of New York City.

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If the lions have become an icon of learning, the pediment of the New York Stock Exchange has become an icon of capitalism. The pediment was sculpted by John Q. A. Ward and Paul Wayland Bartlett and carved by Getulio Piccirilli in 1904. The original marble figures had deteriorated so badly that by 1936 they were replaced by lead-coated copper replicas (21). image.50

The Washington Arch in Greenwich Village underwent a complete restoration in 2003-4. A new lighting system was installed in December, 2004. The Piccirillis carved the two George Washington figures and the bas relief panels behind them (22). Alexander Stirling Calder, father of the famous mobile sculptor, Alexander Calder, did Washington as President and Hermon Atkins MacNeil did Washington as Commander -in-Chief. The brothers also carved the four spandrels by Frederick MacMonnies and the eagle by Philip Martiny. The arch was designed by Stanford White in 1895, but the formal dedication with the completed sculptures was delayed until 1918 by, among other things, the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw in 1906.

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In 1919, shortly after the carving of French's Lincoln was completed, W. M. Berger visited the studio. Writing in Scribner's Magazine (23), he observed,

The family has been for nearly a generation famous in artistic circles, not alone for the great ability shown in executing the important work of other sculptors, but for the original work accomplished by the different members of the family; for each is an artist of exeptional ability...

He goes on to describe the studio:

Once within this busy hive, where the sculptors and their many assistants work early and late, you leave behind for awhile the life of the city and feel transported into an entirely foreign atmosphere; and it is not a great stretch of the imagination to feel that this place resembles, with its mountains of marble and granite, its antique busts and plaster reproductions of Greek and Roman art, more the ancient "bottega" where the old Italian masters of the Renaissance carved their masterpieces, than anything which our modern city can offer; for the mehods of work employed by the sculptors of today have changed but little from that time...

One reason for the relative obscurity of the Piccirillis is that when they carved for other sculptors, their names never appeared on the work, and they were seldom publicly acknowledged. In some cases the sculptor simply did not want the public to know they didn't do their own carving. (Ironically, if a sculpture is cast in bronze, the foundry's name is almost always stamped on the piece.) This anonymity also made the research difficult. When trying to determine whether or not they carved a particular piece it was necessary to examine the artist's papers where we sometimes found an answer. The Inventory of American Sculpture compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and the Archives of American Art have also been helpful in some cases. Unfortunately, we've never been able to locate the studio's business records, and to this day there are still some sculptures we're not certain about.

image.55The brothers' hospitality was legendary. Artists were always welcome to work at the studio on their own projects; Saint-Gaudens is said to have lived there for weeks at a time. Indeed, for decades, the studio was a popular informal gathering place for American sculptors.

 

Not only sculptors found their way to 487 E. 142nd Street. According to Josef Lombardo, Attilio's biographer, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the studio (24). John D. Rockefeller consulted there on a number of occasions on the subject of Attilio's glass reliefs for Rockefeller Center (25). Enrico Caruso was a friend of the brothers and frequently sang at the studio. Fiorello LaGuardia and Attilio were close friends for decades. Attilio sculpted the LaGuardia Grave Memorial in Woodlawn Cemetary after Mrs. LaGuardia's death, which followed her one-year-old daughter's death by three months. image.60

The following is an excerpt from Fiorello's preface to Attilio's biography (26):

Attilio Piccirilli reminds me of a well cultivated, perfect, sweet California orange. It is so typically American - only the seed came from Italy. I say he is purely American because he is part of the artistic life of our country. He hasn't deviated one bit in the sixty years he has been here. There would be indeed a long list of names if all American artists who have enjoyed the benefit of his friendship and help and sound artistic guidance were to be mentioned in this book. There are so many things in his life that enriched our city and country. I wish that they all could be told for the life of this unusual person is replete with interesting events in the growth and development of art in his country 

In 1936 Attilio completed what was then the largest glass sculpture in the world. It is installed over an entrance to a Rockefeller Center building on Fifth Avenue, opposite Saint Patrick's cathedral. Four years later, The Policemen's Memorial was unveiled. This was one of Attilio's last major works. His first major work in this country appears below. The McDonagh Memorial is located in New Orleans and was completed in 1899.

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image.65Attilio was a co-founder and President of the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, which opened in 1923 on the Lower East Side (27). The sculptor, Onorio Ruotolo, was the other co-founder and Director. Fees were kept low to attract working class students.Most classes were scheduled at night. The school closed in 1940, probably a victim of the Depression and the outbreak of World War II. But in those 17 years thousands studied art and attended Saturday lectures. Four "Leonardo" students won the prestigious Prix de Rome which enabled the winner to study sculpture in Rome for two years. Another student was a young man destined to become one of the 20th century's most famous abstract sculptors. His name was Isamu Noguchi (28). The school received testimonials from, among others, Thomas Edison, Theodore Dreiser, Al Smith, Arturo Toscanini, Calvin Coolidge, Sherwood Anderson, Luigi Pirandello, Herbert Lehman, Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanora Duse, and Charles Dana Gibson (29).

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A bronze bust of Leonardo, sculpted by Attilio, was installed above the entrance to the art school. When the school closed (it was then located on E.16th Street) we believe Attilio gave the bust to his friend, Angelo Patri, who was principal of PS 45 in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood of the Bronx. PS 45 is now MS 45, but the bust is still in the library. Nearby MS 45, in a small park on Arthur Avenue, is Attilio's marble bust of Christopher Columbus.

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From time to time, Attilio would invite talented, interested students to his studio to give them an idea of how a professional sculptor worked. In the course of our research we had the good fortune of meeting one of these students. In 1938 Jerry Capa was 13 years old when he was invited to the studio on a Saturday afternoon. He still remembers vividly how warmly he was received by Attilio and his brothers. "They treated me with great respect - engaged me in conversation - answered all of my questions - treated me as an equal" (30). He recalls, "The upstairs studios were immense, flooded with light from the skylights - and packed with plaster casts of work by Ward, Saint-Gaudens, French and others... there was a powerful elevator the size of a large room - which carried marble up and finished work down to the street level..." Jerry was invited the following Saturday and every Saturday thereafter until Attilio's death in 1945. Attilio always prepared a hot lunch and liked to critique Jerry's art work. Often he simply reminisced. Jerry remembers Attilio describing people "...who sat in my chair - Teddy Roosevelt, Caruso singing Neopolitan love sons with moist eyes - and so many others." Jerry also remembers that in those years, the regular Sunday visitor was Mayor LaGuardia. Fiorello and Attilio would then go to dinner, usually at Gracie Mansion. Fiorello's nickname for Attilio was Uncle Peach presumably due to the correct pronounciation of Piccirilli, which is close to Peach-ir-eel-i.

The art critic, John Russell, writing in The New York Times on December 8, 1935, said Augustus Saint-Gaudens had as much to do with shaping the American spirit as Walt Whitman. "For it was he, as much as Whitman, who distilled from the American Civil War a sense of grandeur in human affairs. In a literal sense, he gave form, shape, and resolution to feelings that without him would have been as confused as they were widespread" (31). But he adds that even though his art is well known, his authorship is not. We feel that the Piccirillis are in a similar position. Their role in creating so many of the treasures of the century deserves to be better known among Bronxites, among New Yorkers, among Americans.

Not long after we began to assemble the story of the Piccirilli Studio in 1999, we felt strongly that the story be brought to the public. Together with our wonderful colleague, Jerry Capa, and many other talented people, we’ve been working on this in a variety of ways. Our first step was to put the story, as we knew it in 1999, in writing which the Bronx County Historical Society published in their Spring 1999 Journal issue. This website article is based closely on the Journal article. Since then, newspapers (The New York Times, The Daily News, The Bronx Times, Bronx Beat) and television stations (NY1, News 12 – The Bronx, RAI-Italian Television) have done stories on the studio. The National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF) published a cover story in their quarterly journal. With the generous help of the superb photographer, John Orth, we accumulated a collection of about eighty slides, contemporary and archival, of Piccirilli works. All of the photos in the website come from the same collection of slides. Two talented students from Riverdale Country School, Derek Tarnow and Omri Shiv, were extremely helpful in putting the original website together; the efforts of Tim Alborn and Pamela Burger enabled a move to the Lehman Arts and Humanities website in Fall 2010. Most of the archival photographs are from the collection of the Art Commision of New York. We’ve given numerous slide lectures – the first was in 1999 at Lehman College (CUNY) at the invitation of Professor David Bady as part of The City and The Humanities Program. This lecture was videotaped by the Bronx County Historical Society. The slides were also used to mount two photographic exhibits – first at the Belmont Branch of the New York Public Library with the support of the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee and currently at the Mott Haven Branch nearby the site of the studio. Chief librarians Marisa Parish and Ken Giles provided hospitality and enthusiasm. The street where the studio was located was officially renamed “Piccirilli Place” in March, 2004. The Parks Department also helped us “spread the word” by allowing us to write portions of historic signs at Brook Park near the studio site and at the Maine Monument in Central Park at Columbus Circle. City Councilman Jose Serrano and his staff have been invaluable in making a reality of the Mott Haven Library exhibit and the street renaming. Other projects that we’re currently working on include a museum exhibition and a television documentary.

 

If you have questions or comments, we'd love to hear from you. The best way to contact us, Mary Shelley and Bill Carroll, is by e-mail. Our address is www.cousinpeach@optonline.net.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

1. Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, "American Sculpture." A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1965) p. 94.

2. Donald Martin Reynolds, "Monuments and Masterpieces." MacMillan (1988), p. 352

3. Michael Richman, "Daniel Chester French." (1976), p. 23.

4. Ibid, p. 171-186.

5. John McNamara, "McNamara's Old Bronx." (1989), p.23

6. Josef Vincent Lombardo, "Attilio Piccirilli." (1944).

7. Richman, "DCF," p. 103-110.

8. Inventory of American Sculpture, June 1998, National Museum of American Art/Smithsonian Institution, Record ID: IAS 77003068 et al.

9. Richman, "DCF," p. 143-150.

10. Ibid, p. 71-79.

11. Ibid, p. 112-120.

12. Ibid, p. 151-163.

13. Ibid, p. 153.

14. Architect of the Capitol, Curator's Office.

15. Michelle H. Bogart, "Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930." p. 185-217.

16. Reynolds, "Monuments and Masterpieces," p. 351-352.

17. Ibid, p. 351-352.

18. Bogart, "Public Sculpture," p. 196.

19. Dixie Willson, "The American Magazine," Feb. 1930. p. 70.

20. Inventory of American Sculpture, Record ID IAS 76007484.

21. Ibid, Record ID IAS 77006222.

22. Ibid, Record IDs IAS 76009122, 87870089, 75007058.

23. W. M. Berger, "Scribner's Magazine," Oct. 1919, p. 424.

24. Lombardo, "Attilio Piccirilli," p. 63.

25. Ibid, p. 252-262.

26. Ibid, p. xxi.

27. Ibid, p. 310-316.

28. Armstrong et al., "200 Years of American Sculpture," p. 296.

29. Lombardo, "Attilio Piccirilli," p. 311.

30. Letter from J. Capa to Bill Carroll, Aug. 12, 1997.

31. John Russell, "The New York Times," Dec. 8, 1985, p. 39.

 

 

 

Last modified: Oct 25, 2011

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