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How Six Italian Brothers Shaped the Story of New York

Few people have shaped the streetscape of New York as prominently because the stone-carving Piccirilli brothers, six Italian immigrants who turned out one essential public sculpture after one other at their studio complex within the Bronx starting within the Eighteen Nineties.

From the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green to the Bronx Zoo, from the figures of George Washington on the Washington Arch in Greenwich Village to the recumbent lions on the flagship constructing of The New York Public Library, the Piccirillis left their mark throughout town.

“You think in regards to the variety of works that the Piccirilli brothers carved, they’re in all places,” said Thayer Tolles, curator of American paintings and sculpture on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s not only the firemen’s monument and the Frick, it’s the New York Stock Exchange, it’s the Brooklyn Museum. They’re in all places and also you don’t know.”

The brothers — Ferruccio, Attilio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello and Orazio — deftly juggled dual skilled identities. While their fundamental business was executing the visions of famous sculptors like Daniel Chester French, whose design for the figure of Abraham Lincoln the Piccirillis carved out of 28 blocks of Georgia marble weighing 150 tons for the Lincoln Memorial, in addition they sculpted their very own original works.

Attilio and Furio were academically trained in Rome, and Mr. French esteemed the 2 men so highly as artists that he acquired original works by each for the Met while serving as the top of the museum’s board of trustees sculpture committee within the early twentieth century.

“If you simply put aside the stone-carving aspect of their careers, each of them is incredibly achieved in their very own right as independent sculptors,” Ms. Tolles said of Attilio and Furio.

Nonetheless, the Piccirillis have been largely forgotten, lost within the shadow forged by renowned American sculptors like Mr. French himself.

Now, Eduardo Montes-Bradley, a 63-year-old filmmaker reared in Buenos Aires, wants to raise the brothers’ legacy, casting a latest highlight on their work in a documentary he has been working on for 2 years. The film, “The Italian Factor,” portrays these carvers not as stereotypical unskilled immigrant laborers in “funny paper hats,” as he puts it, but relatively as prodigiously talented artisans indispensable to public art in town and in America at large.

“When we talk in regards to the Piccirillis, we’d like to take our hats off,” Mr. Montes-Bradley said. “They were at the highest of their trade and their father traced his lineage in sculpture to the Renaissance, when Michelangelo found the stone for ‘David’ in Carrara,” the marble center near town of Massa, where the Piccirilli brothers grew up.

Traditional sculptors working in America in the course of the nineteenth and many of the twentieth centuries typically modeled their sculptures in clay after which forged them in plaster. Next, they relied on expert carvers, often Italian, to translate their visions into stone using the plaster castings as guides. These stone-working artisans not only had the skill to breed the sculptor’s images with hammer and chisel, they were trained in the usage of an important device, called a pointing machine, to perform the intricate task of rendering a sculptor’s design at a bigger, sometimes monumental, scale.

For the Lincoln Memorial, for instance, Mr. French sent a 7-foot plaster model of the president to the Piccirillis’ Bronx studio, where the brothers carved the colossal 19-foot statue that now broods over the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

On a recent morning, the evolution of stone-carving technology was on vivid display on the U.S. Custom House, a brief walk from where Attilio and Ferruccio Piccirilli arrived in America on the Battery in 1888. Standing in front of 4 monumental allegorical figures representing America, Europe, Asia and Africa, Mr. Montes-Bradley, on the town from his home in Virginia to shoot video of Piccirilli sculptures, explained how the brothers used a pointing machine to carve the Four Continents from models by Mr. French.

The machine was a precise measuring device, using a system of adjustable metal arms and pointers that might be placed on any point of a sculpted model, equivalent to the crown of the top, and used to locate the corresponding point on the surface of the marble copy.

Just as Mr. Montes-Bradley was explaining that the pointing machine had since been superseded by laser technology, he spotted two employees with a tool mounted on a tripod. He bounded over to the person in charge, Aaron Gonzales, and plied him with questions.

“We are laser scanning” the facades of the Custom House and its sculptures, Mr. Gonzales said, to create “virtual models” of the constructing that might be used for a future repair and alteration project. “This machine is capturing thousands and thousands of points a second,” he said, gesturing at his Faro laser scanner. “It’s incredible technology.”

Mr. Montes-Bradley grinned. “The laser could make it easier and faster,” he said, “but never higher. Because the soul of the artist is missing.”

That’s where the Piccirilli brothers are available in.

In the many years before the brothers and their father, Giuseppe, arrived in New York and opened their first studio in a repurposed horse stable on West thirty ninth Street in Manhattan, sculptors working in America typically shipped their plaster models to Italy to have them translated into marble by carvers there. The process could take a 12 months.

But there got here “a moment of revelation,” Mr. Montes-Bradley said, when Mr. French discovered the Piccirillis’ Manhattan studio. “When he walked into this room, he will need to have said, ‘My god, this looks like the good studios of Florence.’ It was eye-opening, and that’s after I wish to think the American Renaissance took off.”

Over the subsequent 35 years, Mr. French hired the Piccirillis to carve all but two of his stone sculptures, and the Piccirilli studio helped establish New York as a serious center of art production, in line with an essay by Mary Shelley and Bill Carroll within the Bronx County Historical Society Journal. The family’s studio operations were directed by Giuseppe, the patriarch, until his death in 1910, when Attilio assumed leadership.

“I feel French can be the primary to say that the Piccirillis were higher stone carvers than he was,” said Daniel Preston, a co-editor of Mr. French’s papers. He added that Mr. French even tried and failed twice to influence the officials answerable for the Lincoln Memorial so as to add the Piccirilli name to the monument.

(On Oct. 25, the preservation group Landmark West! will host a Zoom talk on the Piccirillis by the sculptor John Belardo.)

The brothers’ complex on East 142nd Street, within the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, comprised a pair of brick studio buildings, one adorned with a medallion and reliefs, flanking an older studio and rowhouse combination.

Standing inside “this busy hive,” W.M. Berger wrote in Scribner’s Magazine in 1919, it was easy “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 traditional ‘bottega’ where the old Italian masters of the Renaissance carved their masterpieces, than anything which our modern city can offer.”

Original works sculpted by the Piccirillis include “Indian Law” and “Indian Literature,” two allegorical figures on the cornice of the Brooklyn Museum, and the outside lunettes on the Frick Collection — in addition to some interior architectural decorations on the Frick, in line with information Mr. Montes-Bradley recently unearthed in documents obtained from the gathering’s archives.

In 1901, Attilio found latest prominence by winning the competition to create the sculptures for the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle.

“That’s an immigrant success story, but still he does ‘The Outcast’ because he doesn’t feel fully a part of all of it,” said Mr. Montes-Bradley, referring to a moving sculpture that was once displayed at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. “The Outcast,” sculpted by Attilio in marble, depicted a seated, beleaguered male nude along with his knees drawn to his chest, one hand gripping his shoulder and the opposite shielding his head as if from a blow. Mr. Montes-Bradley, whose paternal grandfather was an Italian native, believes that the work reflects its creator’s profound alienation at a time of rampant anti-Italian sentiment within the United States.

“That man was in pain,” he said of Attilio. “What he’s exteriorizing there may be that cash and success are usually not every part: ‘Though I’m successful, I don’t feel well. I feel I don’t belong.’”

When given artistic freedom, Attilio created sculptures that moved from the educational figurative sort of The Firemen’s Memorial at one hundredth Street and Riverside Drive (which bears his signature) toward a more modernist approach. “The Joy of Life,” installed above the doorway to 1 Rockefeller Plaza in 1937, is a polychrome bas-relief that seems a more in-depth cousin to a number of the works of Pablo Picasso than those of Mr. French.

Among the three original Piccirilli works on display on the Met is “Fragilina” (1923), an ethereal, idealized female nude in marble sculpted by Attilio with attenuated arms and simplified facial expression and hair. Ms. Tolles, the museum curator, said that the work showed the artist moving toward smoother surfaces and a greater stylization of forms, suggesting that he was “not as sure to American sculptural tradition, and perhaps more willing to experiment.”

Mr. Montes-Bradley, who made a pilgrimage to marvel at “Fragilina” not way back, had a more visceral response.

“She shows greater than she reveals, and he or she reveals greater than she shows,” he said of the statue.

Attilio Piccirilli died on the 142nd Street studio in 1945 and was buried along with his family at Woodlawn Cemetery within the Bronx. Today the only ornament marking the various graves within the fundamental family plot is a bronze sculpture by Attilio. Called “Mater Amorosa,” it’s a replica of two figures from the Maine Monument, a mother comforting a grieving child.

The Piccirillis’ mother was so deeply essential to them that after her death in Italy in 1921, they’d her body transported to New York. It is probably in the meanwhile of her burial within the Bronx that Attilio, the creator of the heart-rending sculpture “The Outcast,” first felt fully at home in America.

“It is while you bury one you’ve got loved in a rustic’s soil,” he said in a 1940 radio broadcast about American identity, “that you just realize you belong to that soil endlessly.”

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