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Six Brothers

Six brothers deserve recognition for their iconic work

By Kathy O’Flinn

The Lincoln Memorial is, of course, one of the most iconic monuments in our nation’s capital. Visitors flock year-round to see the statue that is credited to sculptor Daniel Chester French.

French is known as one of America’s foremost 20th century sculptors. Last fall, I had the pleasure of visiting Chesterwood, French’s summer home and studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with some friends. It is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Our first stop was the Norman Rockwell Museum, just down the road from Chesterwood, because the curator had promised to give our group a preliminary talk on the museum’s exhibition celebrating the Lincoln Memorial Centennial.

From the NYPL
Attilio Piccirilli

It was soon to be an enlightening morning because she stated that Daniel Chester French designed the statue of Lincoln. My question was, “Didn’t he carve it, too? He was the named sculptor. Her reply was that most sculptors just do the design. There was no mention as to who actually carved the stone. Later at Chesterwood there too was no mention of any carvers. French was given full credit. This prompted some questions on my part.

In reality it was the Piccirilli brothers who carved and assembled the Lincoln Memorial’s 19-foot seated figure of Abraham Lincoln out of 28 blocks of Georgia marble from French’s 7-foot-high plaster model. I wondered: Who were they and why weren’t they given credit?

In 1888, master carver Guiseppe Piccirilli immigrated from Tuscany, near the renowned marble quarries of Carrara, to the United States. His family and his six sons: Attilio, Ferrucio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello and Orazio moved to New York. All the brothers had been trained as carvers and Attilio, who eventually designed future sculptures, was awarded several prizes. The Piccirillis built a studio complex, the largest in this country, on 142nd Street in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx where all their works were completed into some of the nation’s recognizable icons.

With the arrival of the Piccirillis it became unnecessary for American sculptors to go to Italy to have their sculptures turned into marble. It became unnecessary for a sculptor to learn the craft of stone cutting.

Meeting the Piccirillis shortly after they arrived, French employed the brothers on all but two of his marble commissions. While the Lincoln Memorial was their most celebrated carving, it was among dozens of French’s designs they executed.

It has been said that the Lincoln Memorial Commission rejected French’s suggestion to have “Piccirilli” inscribed on the pedestal of the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, it was unusual for the Piccirilli name to be inscribed anywhere. The brothers often toiled in anonymity, facing anti-immigrant sentiment even as they worked to realize some of the United States’ most patriotic sculptures.

While the American public was not aware of the carvers, the Piccirilli brothers were well known to the architects and builders of their time for their achievements in the field. The practice was to build a smaller clay or plaster model and the carver would create a much larger piece as the sculptor wished.

In many cases the sculptor apparently had no intention of informing the public they didn’t actually carve the sculpture; however, ironically, if a sculpture is cast in bronze, the foundry’s name is almost always stamped on the piece.

Sculptors were touchy on this point, but as no one expects an architect to build every house he designs, or a composer to play every instrument in the orchestra, why would sculptors take credit for a carving?

In recent years a Piccirilli plaque has been added to the Lincoln Memorial. Some people are attempting to bring back to public awareness the extraordinary talents of the Piccirilli brothers and their importance to public art and architecture, especially in New York City, where hundreds of their impressive works can be seen. Some famous works include sculpture for the state capitols in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the façade of the California Building in San Diego and sculpture and sculptural decoration of the Parliament House in Winnipeg, Canada.

In 2006 Jerry and Eleanor Koffler published a book and guide, “Freeing the Angel from the Stone,” in which hundreds of Piccirilli monuments and architectural sculpture can be seen, including their own work and work they carved for other sculptors.

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