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The Piccirilli Brothers at the Panama–Pacific Exposition

Attilio and Furio Piccirilli Created Extraordinary Work in San Diego
Attilio and Furio work at the California Building.

The California Quadrangle is a historic complex of buildings and structures in Balboa Park, San Diego, that showcases the rich cultural and architectural heritage of the Golden State. It was built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16, which celebrated the opening of the Canal and promoted San Diego as the first U.S. port of call on the Pacific coast.

The Quadrangle was designed by renowned architect Bertram Goodhue, who blended various elements of Spanish Colonial, Gothic, Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo styles to create a stunning and unique ensemble that evokes the grandeur and diversity of California.

Attilio and Furio Piccirilli Created Extraordinary Work in San Diego

The California Building and Tower are the most iconic and recognizable features of the Quadrangle, housing the Museum of Us, dedicated to exploring cultures and connections across time and space. The building features a magnificent blue-and-gold dome and a multi-tiered frontispiece adorned with sculptures by the Piccirilli, a family of Italian sculptors who also worked on famous monuments such as the seated Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. The Piccirilli are the primary subject of my upcoming documentary film The Italian Factor.

Four of the six Piccirilli brothers are credited with doing work for the California Quadrangle. Attilio (1866-1945), and Furio (1868-1949) modeled the historical figures and busts on the frontispiece of the California Building. Furio also produced the spandrel figures above the West Gate; a female representing the Pacific Ocean and a male representing the Atlantic Ocean were joined by the opening of the Panama Canal. Orazio (1872-1954) and Masaniello (1870-1951) executed the ornamental work and Churrigueresque frames on the building.

It’s not often the case where we can find individual names attached to the work of the Piccirilli. The brothers acted as a corporation, and their personalities were seemingly diluted behind the family name. That, and the fact that façade of the California Building are found in the West coast, are two of the most remarkable aspects of this particular findings. Another, needless to say, is the intrinsic beauty in display. That blend of Spanish Colonial, Gothic, Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo is often referred to as Latin American Baroque, and I didn’t expect to find such an example working on the Piccirilli brothers from Massa-Carrara. Their talents have long been associated with neoclassicism, American Renaissance, and certain modernist undertones, as in Attilio’s female figures and Furio’s Seal. However, there’s a lot more there, and as Forrest Gump would have said, the Piccirilli are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

The information for this entry in my blog came was based on Early Sculpture and Sculptors in San Diego by Bruce Kamerling, Curator of Collections San Diego Historical Society. Published by The Journal of San Diego History. San Diego Historical Society Quarterly. July 1989, Volume 35, Number 3.


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