The history of Italian sculptors is a glorious one. Whenever we think of the extraordinary contributions by Italians we think of the works of Michelangelo, Donatello and Bernini, but the history of Italian sculptors extended well beyond the Renaissance.
Towering over Greenwich Village in New York City, the Washington Square Arch shines in the sun. Further north, the two mighty marble lions, aptly named Patience and Fortitude, perched in front of the New York Public Library gaze silently and stoically, as though acting as the enormous guardians of the City. Travelers from around the world easily recognize these New York landmarks; however, very few people realize that these works of art have something in common. They were carved by the Piccirilli brothers, whose techniques proved to be a revolutionary boon to the American artistic landscape during the early 20th century.
Born in 1844, family patriarch Giuseppe Piccirilli raised his family in the province of Massa and Carrara, home of the elegant Carrara marble in Tuscany, Italy. The father and six sons were all trained carvers and sculptors. Sons, Attilio and Furio, were the most prominent as independent sculptors and both trained at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, but make no mistake, the other four brothers, Ferruccio, Masaniello, Orazio and Getulio, were also remarkably talented.
When Giuseppe died in 1910, Attilio took over the family business, which continued to grow and develop a reputation within the industry. The family lived in a brownstone on 142nd Street in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx and set up a workshop next to their home that would eventually occupy an entire city block.
At that time, most prominent sculptors would create their original work in clay. From that clay model a plaster model would be cast. The model would then be sent to the Piccirilli Brothers who would carve it from stone, typically marble, although limestone and granite were also used. The brothers became the carvers of choice for a large number of American architects and sculptors of the time. Daniel Chester French, who designed the statue for the Lincoln Memorial and Paul Wayland Bartlett, regularly hired the Piccirillis to create their pieces. But it was the brothers’ kindness and humility that drew frequent guests to their studio for dinner gatherings and other occasions, including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, President Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller and Italian opera tenor Enrico Caruso, who would sing while the brothers worked.
What the Piccirillis had in modesty was equaled by their artistic magic as they created their own original sculptures. The firm had its ups and downs until 1901, when Attilio Piccirilli beat out 40 other entrants in the competition for the sculpture portion of the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle. The commission that gave national exposure to both him and the family’s workshop. A short time later he had the architect for the monument, H. Van Buren Magonigle, design a large new studio adjacent to the older buildings in their complex on East 142nd Street.
From this cluster, which grew to four buildings, came some of the most distinguished architectural sculpture in New York. The works included the pediment group at the New York Stock Exchange (1904); the ”Four Continents” in front of the United States Customs House at Bowling Green (1907); the lions and cornice sculpture at the New York Public Library (1911) and the controversial ”Civic Virtue,” placed in City Hall Park in 1922, but later removed to Queens Boulevard at Union Turnpike.
When the sculptor Daniel Chester French was approached to do more than $100,000 worth of facade sculpture for the Brooklyn Museum, an enormous sum of money at the time, he said he was uninterested unless he could use the Piccirillis. The commission included 30 giant statues at the cornice line, for which they were paid $1,500 each. But the Piccirillis’ most famous work is their 1922 carving of the Lincoln Memorial’s 19-foot-high figure of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC. The monumental work is one of the most well-known statues in the world and was fashioned from 24 blocks of Georgia marble
Fiorello LaGuardia was a personal friend of the brothers and his nickname for Attilio was ”Uncle Peach.” in 1944, he wrote the foreword to Attilio’s biography, ”Attilio Piccirilli, Life of an American Sculptor,” by Josef V. Lombardo.
”To see him on the street, in the home, in the subway, you would never recognize him as one of the outstanding sculptors of our time…and he is the most modest man that ever lived. I have never heard him knock a fellow artist. I taught him how to laugh 35 years ago. We have been laughing ever since,” wrote the much beloved New York City Mayor.
In addition to the incomparable work by Attilio, his brother Furio also became known for his original pieces. His most critically acclaimed work is called “Seal.” The polished marble sculpture shows a seal balancing on the side of a rock and captured the 1929 Speyer Prize from the National Academy of Design. His brother Orazio had won the previous year with his sculpture “Black Eagle.” It was purchased by the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, but was displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Today, devotees of the Piccirillis can personally see samples of their work around the city and at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Original sculptures such as Furio’s Seal and a bust by Attilio titled “Study of a Head” are featured in the American Wing. Three carvings that were designed by other sculptors, but carved by the Piccirillis are also on display: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ “The Children of Prescott Hall Butler,” as well as French’s ”Memory,” which captures the vanity of a woman gazing in a mirror. The third work called “The Angel of Death and the Sculptor,” from the Milmore Memorial, portrays death in the form of a beautiful woman that gently takes the sculptor’s hand. The collection’s centerpiece is Attilio’s “Fragilina,” four foot tall marble sculpture of a woman whose beauty is captured in abstract simplicity.
By the third decade of the 20th century, figural sculpture was becoming less important in most U.S. cities and consequently, the brothers found commissions harder and harder to come by. The studio shut down in the mid-1940s, as the brothers passed away one by one. Some years after the youngest Piccirilli died in 1956, the studio was eventually torn down. The family’s name slid into obscurity, but thanks to the efforts of a number of art historians and publicity in New York City newspapers, the achievements of the Piccirilli brothers were finally acknowledged and a plaque was installed at Brook Park in the Bronx in 2001. As long as their colossal works stand, the legacy of the Piccirilli brothers will be remembered for generations to come.