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The Leonardo: Art for the People

Updated: 3 days ago

The Leonardo da Vinci Art School of New York on the Lower East Side was founded by Attilio Piccirilli and Onto Ruotolo in 1923, and it closed due to the lack of support for Italian institutions during World War II. Not much has been written to this date on the “Leonardo”; I have relied mainly on the advice and information provided to me for this particular research by Joseph Sciora. However, I would like to share an article by David McCormick and another by Joseph d’Oronzio, which he has generously shared with me recently. Both are published following this brief introduction as Notes for a Documentary Film.

Our Story, Italian-American History and Culture. Spring, 2013

by McCormick, David

The Leonardo da Vinci Art School

The Leonardo da Vinci Art School of New York on the Lower East Side opened its doors in 1923. It provided affordable and often free art instruction to the city’s poorest residents during the day and the evening. It offered instruction in painting, murals, sculpture, pottery and ceramics and was the only school teaching the art of fresco painting. The school accepted students “without prejudice of race or religion,” eventually becoming tuition-free, thanks to financing from the Friends of Italian Arts Association.

The Leonardo da Vinci Art School

Ruotolo’s social conscience inspired much of his art that portrayed the suffering of the city’s poor and the horrors of World War I. The school’s co-founder, Attilio Piccirilli, and his five brothers had carved the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, along with many other patriotic memorials in the U.S. For a decade, the Leonardo, as it came to be called, was an incubator for artists. Eventually, its high enrollment required it to move to a five-story building, but when America entered World War II, contributions evaporated, and by 1942, its doors closed forever.

The school was gone, but its legacy lived on. Its students formed a network of artists throughout the country. Some worked and taught for federal programs that helped end the Depression. Others became faculty members at such schools as Columbia, North Carolina, and Wyoming. Their lives and works fulfilled Ruotolo’s mission to “diffuse the Light of Art among workers' children.”

"Art is Labor, All Labor is Art” Leonardo da Vinci

Painting a figure by Richmond Barthé, fellow artist on the WPA Federal Art Project
Lillian Shaw at The Leonardo | Photo by Sol Horn

Recollections of a Proud Son

By D’Oronzio, Joseph

The Italian Factor: Attilio Piccirilii
Music Class at The Leonardo

"The Leonardo also offered music instruction relatively early, as illustrated in the attached photo. The young girl at the piano, my aunt Rita, was born in 1925; the instructor is Signora Ferrante, whose husband also taught there and elsewhere. The photo's backdrop features a mural depicting manual labor (on the left) and intellectual-scientific laborers (on the right). In the center of the mural, the figure somewhat resembles Onorio Ruotolo, but even if it may not be his likeness, the spirit of the mural certainly carries the Professor's life's focus. Finally, somewhat obscured in shadows, Piccirilli's bust of Leonardo da Vinci made and donated to the school and placed in the entry. I believe it may still be found in the library of MS 45 in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx where I grew up.” Joseph Carmelo d'Oronzio

Note about the Mural Behind the Piano: Conrad A. Albrizio: titled "The New Deal": dedicated to President Roosevelt: placed in the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School auditorium 149 East 34th Street New York, New York. See NYT article further down this note.

Attilio Piccirilli was a family friend. He was a co-founder, along with Onorio Ruotolo, of the

Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art flourished in New York City from 1923 to 1940.

My mother, Antonietta Di Donato Tenneriello, was the de facto COO of the “Leonardo” (underestimated on that day as the “Girl Friday”) -- that person in a small organization that runs the whole show from behind a small desk. My twenty-something mom worked there from the early 1930s through its reorganization until her marriage in 1935. Then, she turned the job over to her younger sister, my Aunt Claudia. It was a family affair.

From that vantage point, Tina was the bi-lingual liaison between the “Leonardo,” the expanding

immigrant art community, the faculty, the students, the directorate, and the larger community of

interest. She also was a connector, informally linking the generations that comprised the small

universe of artists and their students, helping to nourish a more extensive, predominantly Italian community.

Of course, this connected to the family: the Piccirilli and Ruotolo circle on the one side and my

grandparents’ -- Paolino D’Oronzio, Carmelo, and Pia DiDonato Tenneriello -- “village” on the other.

Contemporaries, they shared similar memories, nostalgia, and a discreet resistance to assimilation and, in the cases of Onorio and Pia, to naturalization. The Italian language, cuisine, and culture were their preferred compagnia.

All this was before my time. I had just a child’s contact with these casual but fabled gatherings

and only heard of them from a family of admirers in my teen years. But one personal event captures the texture of an Italian factor in this sub-culture of the Bronx.

In the aftermath of the “Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944” (during my sixth birthday party), an

enormous oak came crashing down too close to the house of my wartime family of women –

Nonna Pia, Mom and her sisters. In that storm, the roots of this ancient tree gave way to the

inundation of rain. It leaned slowly at first, menacingly overshadowing the frame house -- the last

private house next to the last tree on a block of apartment buildings on 179th Street and Arthur

Avenue in the Bronx. Then, with a ground-rumbling moan, the tree lost its balance. The roots

that anchored it to its fraction of soil pulled away, lifting the sidewalk, fences, and driveway eight feet into the air. In its last decent, the tree mercifully twisted away from the house and came to a rolling rest on the roof of a metal, two-buggy garage, creasing the roof and bending girders. Heavy still with leaves, branches bounced in every direction like an aftershock, splattering down wood, bark, and acorns all at once. What a mess!

The one old Hudson, trapped in the garage, needed to be rescued. The driveway, the yard, the

chicken coop and the Victory Garden were under the debris. The side fence still leaned dangerously into the next ally; the front wall pushed halfway across the sidewalk. This was a clean-up project for “the boys,” my four uncles, who would gladly scramble over the fallen giant, preparing its trunk for removal. But those guys were away in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. Pia spoke with Attilio the next day to share this news, helpless for a solution and looking for his

commiseration. Since Carmelo’s death the previous year, she increasingly looked to him for advice.

The phone was hardly back on the hook when a New York City sanitation crew appeared with buck saws and long axes. After a few days of exciting work, all that remained was the 15-foot trunk of the fallen giant. Piccirilli had called his paesano and friend of decades, Fiorello, to pass on the troubles at 614 East 179th in the Bronx. And, when the boys trickled back a year or so later, they looked at the mound of weeds climbing the corpse: “What in hell happened to the tree?”


The New York Times, January 23, 1935.

The Italian Factor
The Leonardo Da Vinci Art School

Fresco by Italian, Expressing Faith in Roosevelt, Depicts Him in Overalls.

A fresco by Conrad Albrizio titled "The New Deal" will be unveiled tomorrow afternoon at the opening of the first exhibition by the artist-founders of the Friends of Italian Arts Association in the auditorium of the Leonardo da Vinci Art School,149 East Thirty-fourth Street.

The fresco will be on permanent exhibition, "expressing, as it were, the faith which the artists have in President Roosevelt's program of reconstruction," according to an announcement. President Roosevelt is portrayed in overalls as a laborer and is the central figure in the painting. He is shown with his right hand resting protectingly on the shoulder of a worker, who seems bewildered, as though awakening to a new life.

A group in the lower right portrays men of science at work. Professor Raymond Moley is seated at a table, absorbed in study. General Hugh Johnson is shown at the controls of an electric plant. Above are seen architects, engineers, and others engaged in various branches of industry. Higher, near the center, are machines in action, smokestacks, and tools.

In a group in the lower left are builders. The figure of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes emerges among plasterers. Above, to the left, are farmers sowing and reaping.

The exhibition will be open month. In conjunction with the exhibition the Leonardo da Vinci Art School, which has been reorganized, will reopen.

Updated November 30, 2023

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