Updated: Nov 6
On June 15, 1940, Attilio Piccirilli spoke with Marshall E. Dimock, Second Assistant Secretary of Labor, on “I’m An American”, the NBC radio broadcast. Piccirilli tells Dimock he forgot he was born abroad. He said he felt like a foreigner in his birth country because he thinks and speaks like an American. However, the story behind Attilio’s presence in that program is a bit more complex.
"I’m An American” was a sixty-episode radio series that showcased America as a bastion of inclusivity. This initiative served as a powerful counterpoint to the narratives presented in European newsreels and was an integral component of a larger, synchronized campaign. The series featured interviews with distinguished immigrants, predominantly from white-European backgrounds. Notable guests included Attilio Piccirilli, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Mann. Listening to Attilio's segment offered profound insights into the essence of one of the finest American sculptors. I endeavor to encapsulate his legacy in "The Italian Factor," a documentary in production.
Previously, on May 15, 1936, The New York Times reported the unveiling of Attilio Piccirilli's impressive creations at the Rockefeller Center. These encompassed two lively limestone cartouches named "Joy of Life" and "Commerce and Industry." Additionally, there were two groundbreaking sculptural murals made of expansive Pyrex blocks, illuminated from behind: "Youth Leading Industry" and "Advance Forever Eternal Youth." The design of the latter unfortunately echoed the neo-Roman aesthetics prevalent in Fascist Italy and mirrored the momentum of Socialist Realism, which gained traction worldwide, crossing ideological boundaries. What drew attention and critique to this piece was not its aesthetic but the inscription "Advance Forever Youth (Sempre Avanti Eterna Giovinezza)" – a slogan embraced by Mussolini for the Fascist Youth.
While the Rockefellers esteemed Piccirilli, having commissioned nearly five hundred sculptures from the Piccirilli Studio for The Riverside Baptist Church, the international political landscape made them cautious. As Germany pushed its boundaries in Europe and Italy entrenched its dominion in North Africa, the Rockefellers saw the statement "Advance Forever Youth" as potentially controversial. As a result, the magnificent backlit Pyrex mural which was once said to have been inspired in Jacobo Della Quercia, was dismantled and eventually destroyed.
Rewinding to the mid-1920s, a wave of rumors tarnished the reputation of the Italian community in the U.S. – with accusations ranging from alleged Mafia affiliations to purported support for Europe's Fascist regime. This pattern of distrust was not new. The 1891 mass lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans stands as a grim testament. This horrific incident inspired Attilio to craft The Outcast, a renowned sculpture.
The challenges faced by the Piccirilli brothers in America weren't as rosy as Attilio portrayed in his “I’m An American” episode. Less than ten years prior, Attilio's Fireman’s Memorial in Riverside and his USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle were defaced. In response, Attilio articulated his views in a poignant letter to The New York Times.
The Missing Sculptures
Our community's ongoing struggle is the challenge of independently assessing art and history, exacerbated today by the arbitrary removal of public artworks. "Advance Forever Youth" lay untouched for over 25 years. The Missing Sculptures are believed to have been destroyed in 1968.
The Leonardo da Vinci Art School
Attilio Piccirilli's guest appearance on NBC's "I'm An American” may have also likely been an attempt to advocate for The Leonardo da Vinci Art School, which he had co-founded with his friend and fellow sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. Through this public forum, Piccirilli may have been aiming to gain support and attention for the institution, particularly as it faced declining contributions and a rise in anti-Italian sentiment.
The Leonardo, affectionally known in the artistic community, closed on April 28, less than six months after the U.S. Congress declared war on Italy. The Leonardo da Vinci Art School was a passion project for both Piccirilli and Ruotolo, as well as the broader art community, and it was located at 130 East 16th Street. Considering the heightened anti-Italian sentiment during the winter of 1942, it's plausible that the school's closure was connected to this adverse atmosphere.
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Updated on October 6, 2023