Updated: Oct 16
The creative legacy of the Priccirilli brothers extends far beyond the bustling streets of New York City. Their artistic contributions can be traced to diverse locales, from Massa on the Mediterranean coast of Tuscany to the cosmopolitan hubs of London and California. In this article, we'll embark on a journey to explore two significant locations: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Pennsylvania's State Capitol
Sculptures at the Pennsylvania State Capitol: A Legacy in Marble
In the heart of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the western entrance of the State Capitol showcases a pair of striking multi-figure sculptures, a testament to the artistry of George Grey Barnard and the Piccirilli brothers. Brought to life between 1902 and 1911, these masterpieces have their own intricate history intertwined with artistic vision and public controversy.
Barnard's Journey with the State Capitol Sculptures
In 1902, Joseph Miller Huston, the architect behind the Capitol, entrusted Barnard with creating exterior sculptures for the building. Initially, a grand plan was conceived, envisioning eight sculpture groups stationed around the building’s entrances, with an additional vast bronze piece illuminating the skyline of the primary access. However, due to financial constraints, the grand vision was trimmed down. By December 1902, the agreement was for two large groups beside the main entrance.
Barnard relocated to France to craft his masterpieces, converting a barn in Moret-sur-Loing into a home studio. He employed around fifteen assistants, including a plaster caster who meticulously turned Barnard's clay into plaster models. Despite encountering financial difficulties and being embroiled in a scandal involving the Capitol’s architect, Barnard persevered, even selling old Gothic and Romanesque sculpture remnants to keep his dream alive.
In 1908, five of Barnard’s sculptures, designed for the Pennsylvania Capitol, graced an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Critics praised his work, comparing him to legends like Auguste Rodin and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
From Paris to New York: The Sculptures Take Shape in the Bronx
Barnard's designs were carved into white Carrara marble by the Piccirilli Brothers in New York City between 1909 and 1910. The completed pieces were then returned to Paris, where they were the centerpiece of the 1910 Salon de Champ de Mars at the Grand Palais.
A Controversy over Nudity
However, Barnard's sculptures didn’t just gain fame for their artistry. His decision to predominantly feature nude figures became a focal point of controversy. Most of the 30 figures were nude, leading to criticism, particularly from Pennsylvania legislators and religious leaders. In defense, Barnard passionately articulated the artistic rationale behind his choice, stating that only the nude form could convey the profound emotions he sought to express.
In response to the backlash, temporary plaster modifications were made to the sculptures. Ultimately, the Getulio Piccirilli carved marble coverings for the male figures, ensuring that the sculptures adhered to the aesthetic and moral sentiments of the time.
The Twin Masterpieces
The south sculpture group, named "The Burden of Life: The Broken Law," showcases life's challenges like grief and despair, contrasted with hope's glimmer. Supervising this group is a remarkable bas relief of Adam and Eve. In contrast, the northern group, "Love and Labor: The Unbroken Law," radiates positivity, depicting familial love, education, and the promises of future generations. A prosperous farmer and his wife, crafted in a magnificent bas-relief, overlook this ensemble.
On October 4, 1911, these remarkable sculptures were officially unveiled and have become a beloved part of the Pennsylvania State Capitol's rich history.
Legacy Beyond the Capitol
Barnard's brilliance extended beyond the Capitol grounds. A marble rendition of "The Prodigal Son" was showcased at the Armory Show in 1913 and now adorns the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Another version of this masterpiece can be found at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
In conclusion, George Grey Barnard’s sculptures at the Pennsylvania State Capitol stand as enduring symbols of artistic genius, melding intricate craftsmanship with profound emotion, capturing both the challenges and triumphs of life.
The Reredos at St. Paul’s Cathedral
During the Victorian era, London underwent an unmatched surge in urban development, culminating in an unparalleled building boom. This growth necessitated the construction of government establishments, churches, and homes, leading to an exceptional demand for artist-craftsmen. Large workshops equipped with the skills to tackle contemporary architectural styles thrived throughout the city.
Within this vibrant backdrop, brothers Furio and Attilio Piccirilli established their presence, setting up a home studio in the historic Old Chelsea. From August 9, 1886, over the next eighteen months, they meticulously crafted no less than twelve bas-relief panels for the altar and reredos of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Their work was completed in time to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, was presented to the congregation and celebrated by an elaborate Te Deum service in the morning of the last Sunday of January 1888, followed by a grand performance of Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul” in the evening.
According to reports published by the press throughout Great Britain, the reredos cost 24,000 pounds, of which 10,000 pounds was contributed out of the general fund of the Cathedral and the reminder subscribed by the public. “It is a beautiful structure, the top of which is 67 feet above the floor. In the center is represented the crucifixion, carved in high relief, with the figures of St. John the Virgin Mary and a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross. Beneath the arms of the cross are ranged four angels.” The unsigned notice published in the Devizes and Wilts Advertiser on February 2, 1888, continues, "The central panel is surrounded by twisted pillars of grey Brescia marble, wreathed with gilt bronze. These pillars support a classical roof of entablature. On the richly-colored frieze of Rosso-antico marble is the inscription “Sie Deus dilexit mundum,” in gilt bronze letters. Over the crown of the entablature is a niches are the Virgin and Child, which group is again surmounted by the figure of the risen Christ. On the right and left of the central panel are open semi-circular colonnades, the points at the extremes being nearest to the west. Under these colonnades is elaborately carved work in colored marble, with doors to give access to the apse behind. Over these doors, which are to be pierced brass, are angels supporting shields bearing saltirewise the sword of St. Paul and the key of St. Peter, and they are flanked by sculptured festoons of fruit and flowers separated by marble panels. The general idea of the sculptured subjects is to express the Incarnation and life of Our Lord, beginning with two figures at the extremities of the colonnade, the Angel Gabriel and St. Mary, which represent “The Annunciation.” On the north side of the panel is the “The Nativity;” the center panel, “The Crucifixion,” with “The Entombment” underneath it; and the group on the south side, “The Resurrection,” whilst the panels of the pedestals are filled with angels. White marble steps approach the communion table in front, and the pavement is of colored marble. The reredos is executed in white Parian marble, with bands and panels of Rosso-antico, Verde fi Prato, and Brescia marbles. It is intended to place wrought iron screens at the sides of the sanctuary, using some fire iron gates of Sir Christopher Wren’s design now in the crypt."
There are countless notices printed in newspapers and magazines. However, the names of Furio and Attilio Piccirilli, sculptors or carvers of the magnificent reredos, are not mentioned except on the records of the Archives of St’ Paul’s Cathedral, where Ms. Sarah Radford, current Archivist with the Collections Department was able to inform us.
Critical opinion was divided. Some were limited to describing the scene, the ambiance, the mass, the unveiling, and the object d’art being presented to the congregation. Others lauded the panels as some of the most remarkable additions to St. Paul’s during the nineteenth century. One review even heralded the bas-reliefs as “the most significant work of its kind erected in England since the early sixteenth century.” However, there were also discord airing disagreements amongst the clergy regarding the “catholic” nature of the work. There are too many saints, angels, and virgins for the Anglican taste. Were the Piccirilli brothers to blame, indeed not, the designs were handled to them by the new-gothic architects Bodley and Garner. But I suspect that being Italians did not help the sculptors in a time when a large Italian company in London was seen as problematic. Thirty years later, the commission in charge of creating the Lincoln Memorial will also object to the mention of the Piccirilli as the carvers who executed Daniel Chester French’s design of the seated Lincoln and delivered it to Washington D.C. The name of the Piccirilli has often been obscure, and the deference started in London way before they disembarked in New York in the Spring of 1888.
The Dalkeith Advertiser. Thursday, February 2, 1888. "London Letter: The ugly sheet of canvas which had so long made a desert scene of the east end of St. Paul’s Cathedral has been taken down, leaving exposed a very fine piece of ecclesiastical art. The new reredos, nevertheless, gives no pleasure to those of the evangelical party who see in its panels and niches of angels, saints, and Saint Maries; its groups of marble sculpture, the florid friezes, and gilded bronzes; its crossed swords, keys, fruit and flowers, and encouragement of tendencies which they deplore. The general public will not probably be troubled by doctrinal qualms of consciousness but will admire the costly piece of ornamentation as a fitting feature of Christopher Wren’s great edifice. St. Paul’s, however, is always a trifle “high,” and as the building is often used as a huge sacred concert hall, the erection of a work like this does not seem so incongruous as it would in a church simply used for purposes of worship. The huge space under the dome naturally suggests the use of the area as a kind of ecclesiastical Rialto, where big church festivals may be celebrated. What is wanted really is more, rather than less, ornamentation, and the addition of every fresh covering for the blank walls must have the good effect of making the dreary portions of the interior so conspicuously bare that for the very shame, they will have sooner or later to be finished. The completion of the new reredos was celebrated by an elaborate Te-Deum service in the morning and by a grand orchestral performance of Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul” in the evening."
The bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1941
Tragedy struck in 1941 when the German Luftwaffe's bombardment of London saw two bombs devastate the cathedral's dome.
While much of the chancel lay in ruins, the Piccirilli reredos and altar miraculously survived. Yet, during subsequent reconstructions, it was deemed that the Piccirilli panels were excessively catholic for Anglican preferences. Consequently, they were sold or, astonishingly, left on the sidewalk for anyone to claim.
Of the original works, only two panels evaded both the Luftwaffe's destruction and the subsequent preference for Anglican simplicity: "The Virgin and Child," initially positioned at the reredos' pinnacle, now resides in the north transept, while "Christ on the Cross," which once took central place on the reredos, found a new home in the Cathedral Triforium.
Decades later, some other panels reemerged and were auctioned off at a renowned New York auction house. In an exciting turn of events, between the completion of their iconic work and Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the Piccirilli brothers embarked from Liverpool, crossing the vast ocean. This journey marked the beginning of a fresh chapter, with the rest of the Piccirilli family soon following in their wake.