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The Pointing Machine

American sculptors have looked to Italy for inspiration and material resources since the Republic’s early days. Nearly forty artists (men and women) took up residence in Rome and Florence, where they were in close contact with a highly idealized classic culture, raw materials, and the handy craftsmanship of local artisans. Some of the best statuary marble was available in the not-so-distant Apuan Alps around the villages of Massa and Carrara. Hiram Powers, the renowned sculptor from Woodstock, Vermont, had moved to Florence in 1837, where he remained for the rest of his life. For almost four decades, Powers welcomed at his home fellow American artists such as Daniel Chester French, Frederick MacMonnies, Paul Bartlett, and others who frequently benefited from Power's advice.

The marble ready to be copied from an original model.
An extremely large version of the Pointing Machine at the Piccirilli Studio

The pointing machine

American sculptors depended on local expertise to have their models made on clay or plaster translated into marble. This complex process required (and still does) patience and know-how. For those already in Italy, it was more convenient; for those living in America, they had to go through the added hurdle of crossing the Atlantic and remaining abroad for the period that it took to complete the work, which included finding the proper raw material first and the executing the actual “translation” from model to sculpted marble. Ultimately, unless the work was commissioned for an Italian or other European client, the sculpture was shipped to America before Fulton conceived of the steamboat, in sailing boats at the mercy of the wind that often took forever to complete the journey.

Although simple in its mechanical principles, the pointing machine still presented a significant difficulty for most sculptors. In a letter to Hellen Ball, wife to renowned sculptor Thomas Ball living in Florence, Daniel Chester French wrote:

Thank you & Mr. Ball for the drawing of his pointing machine. I am very stupid that I cannot understand it. I see that the two circles & the perpendiculars are proportional, but how are the measures applied? He showed me once in the studio, but I must confess I can’t remember how it goes. I see that the perpendicular. gives one proportional distance; what other points do you measure from?

French’s dilemma will be partially solved with the arrival in New York of the Piccirilli brothers from Massa-Carrara. The Italians brought the know-how for using the pointing machine and the contacts to import statuary marble directly from the queries in Carrara. In other words, with the arrival of the Italians to New York in the late 1880s, the need to set up residence in Rome or Florence was limited to the educational thrill of living in the bosom of Western civilization. Everything else an American sculptor could wish for could be found at the Piccirilli study, first in Manhattan, and later in the Bronx.

In order to better understand how the pointing machine works, I consulted Marco Ravenna at the Instituto del Marmo Tacca in Carrara. In the following short video which will eventually find its place on The Italian Factor, Ravenna explains the process.

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