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The Tragedy of Novelli

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

James Novelli was born in Sulmona, ancient village east of Rome best know as the birthplace of Ovid, and also home to Edmondo Quattrocchi, the Italian-American sculptor who collaborated with Frederick MacMonnies using a pointing maching of his own device. Novelli’s legacy had almost faded by the time Josephine Murphy, Novelli’s ad-hoc biographer and archivist, began her research and preserve his work. Josephine is now collaborating with me on “The Italian Factor”, a film about the many contributions of Italian artisans in times of the American Renascence and beyond.

According to Josephine, James (b. Salvatore) arrived in New York when he was five years old. The family almost immediately settled on a five-story high tenement on Mulberry St., just across Columbus park, a neighbourhood notorious for its appalling living conditions, crime, poverty, and diseases.

James attended the recently inaugurated school in the area were many of the children went barefoot. During recess, the girls would dance in the street at the tune of the barrel organ.

Today, that section on Mulberry St. below Canal is part of Chinatown and, at first glance, seems hard to find evidence of what was once the heart of Little Italy. Nevertheless, if one is to look carefuly, the evidence will reveal itself when least expected.

New York’s Little Italy Described In 1898

"Mulberry St., here at its southern end, is narrow, dark, and dirty. Six-story tenements, whose unwashed windows scarcely disclose any evidence of the lamp-light within, rise in a solid wall on either hand. Their first floors are occupied by shops of various kinds—all dark now, but blurs of red and yellow light at each corner, and once or twice in the middle, of every block, show that the saloons are still open. Along the curbstone, every two or three doors, are groups of trucks, whose drivers and horses are stabled somewhere in the midst of these tenements. It is not much after ten o’clock, and plenty of people are in the street; if it be one of the hot summer evenings, everybody is out, half of them asleep on the trucks, or in door-steps, or on the cellar doors, where the mothers have brought pillows, or maybe a mattress, for their children to lie upon; and there they will sleep all night rather than stifle inside those awful hives of neglected humanity.”


Mulberry Street | Detroit Photographic Co.

Acording to Josephine, it was by a stroke of good-luck that James was discovered while drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. His benefactor, whos’ name remains in the shadows, will help James to pursue an art education in Rome, an ambition that was otherwise out of reach to the son of a sweatshop seamstress, and a garbage collector.

In Rome, Novelli had the opportunity to study with Gulio Monteverde, Ettore Ferrary and other distinguished sculptors of the Italian academia. Occasionally, perhaps on long weekends, James traveled to Sulmona where he once modeled a bust of his grandmother, now unfortunately lost, although a photograph is conserved on the archives of the Smithsonian.

Throught his life, Novelli’s ethos gravitated between the example of his grandmother, the Italian upbringing, the sacrifice of his parents, and the example of Abraham Licoln, who he regarded as a role model of civil virtues.

James Novelli working in his studio on the Saratoga Memorial | photo by Dewitt Ward Steve Novelli Collection, courtesy of NYC Parks.
At work on the Saratoga Memorial | Photo by Dewitt Ward | Steve Novelli Collection, courtesy of NYC Parks

For most of his life Novelli struggled between commissions for memorials celebrating political figures, and monuments to heroes from the Great War, and his bass-reliefs for mausoleums celebrate the elegance of art-nouveau with particularly distinction.

By mid’1930s Novelli´s footprints begin to fade. He´s name was dropped from the membership of the National Sculpture Society, and for a while he worked employes by The Public Works of Art Project in the maintenance and restauration of monuments, including his own, but in 1936 Novelli he filed for unemployment, and shortly thereafter he gave up his atelier-studio on West 23rd street.

Then, the trail goes cold...

Four years later, sadden by the war between Italy and the United Stetes, and distressed by economic hardships James Novelly hanged himself in his apartment in Jackson Hights. He was 54 years old.

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