My quest for the documentary is driven by the need to find tangible traces of the Piccirilli family of sculptors, who migrated from Tuscany to New York and left behind a legacy of monumental works. I want to see and touch the places where they worked, where they shaped the marble with their tools and skills. The house where they were born is not enough, because their story is about art and craftsmanship, not just ancestry. The studio of Giuseppe Piccirilli, the father of the clan, in Massa-Carrara, is one of the key locations that I want to explore and document. It is there that they learned their trade and developed their vision.
However, finding this studio has not been easy. Previous biographers have claimed that it no longer exists, and that the same fate has befallen the studio they established in the Bronx, where they created masterpieces such as the Lincoln Memorial and the lions at the NYPL. These gaps in the historical record have motivated me to search for any clues or evidence that could lead me to these sites. I have been partially successful, as I have found a photo of the studio in Massa in a state of decay, and some architectural remnants of the studio in the Bronx that confirm its existence. But these are not enough for me, as they do not capture the essence and atmosphere of these places when they were alive and active. I want to see more than ruins and condos, I want to see the dust and hear the sounds of the Piccirilli workshop.
The Old World
According to legend, mostly based on Attilio Piccirilli's conversations with Joseph Lombardo, his father's studio was within walking distance from his home in Piazza Martana in Massa. Local historian Franco Frediani also believes the studio was in one of the buildings facing the piazza. However, I recently found a photograph among others at the studio in the Bronx after the death of Attilio Piccirilli, the leading figure among the Piccirilli Brothers. These photos were salvaged after Attilio's death in 1945 and preserved by renowned New York art dealer Joel Rosencrantz. Most of the photographs reveal people, individual and group portraits. Only a few show public spaces, which I presume were significant for Attilio, who was often behind the camera.
One of them shows the ruins of a building that Franco Frediani believes was captured from the Milani Tavern on the other side of the Frigido River. I believe this image was taken by Attilio in 1921 during a visit to Rome and Carrara with Henry Bacon and other distinguished Americans. According to public records, this building had been a mill in the 1870s and had also housed a marble studio. It is evident that the building was relevant to Attilio. Why would he not only take the picture in 1921 but also preserve it as part of his family album if it did not have an emotional attachment? I believe the building shown in the photo was Giuseppe's studio and that Attilio and his brothers Ferruccio and Furio took their first steps as future sculptors in that space.
The New World
According to Joseph Lombardo there was a first attempt to establish a studio in midtown Manhattan shortly after the Piccirilli’s arrival to New York. The location of that first studio was on Sixth Ave and 39th St, in a repurposed horse carriage warehouse or stable. Unfortunately, we Joseph Lombardo claims that the Piccirilli brothers tried to set up a studio in midtown Manhattan soon after they arrived in New York. The first studio was on Sixth Ave and 39th St, in a converted horse carriage warehouse or stable. However, we have no visual or written evidence (yet), and Lombardo says that the Piccirilli left that place around 1893 and moved to 463 East 142St. This is the location that we all recognize as having a major impact on the public art scene in New York, Washington and across the country.
The Piccirilli Workspaces
The building survived after Attilio's death in 1945, and witnessed many changes in the neighborhood, which shifted from being mostly Italian to predominantly Puerto Rican and African American. Nevertheless, many architectural features from that era remain, and the church that stands on the foundation of the studio has the same floor plan.
I recently visited the church and talked to Casey Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez took me to the back of the building where I think one of the carving courtyards used to be. While standing outside, Fernandez told me he found white marble chips when he was laying down red bricks for a patio. I have no doubt that the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses is built on the foundation of what was once the Piccirilli Studio. It was here that many of the greatest monuments in New York and Washington DC were designed and carved, including the USS Maine Memorial, the lions and the allegorical figures in front of the New York Public Library, the Dupont Fountain, the ornaments for the Pulitzer Fountain, the pulpit and hundreds of other sculptures for The Riverside Church, Civil Virtue, the Four Continents at the US Customs House, the two magnificent allegorical figures on the side of the Fireman's memorial and hundreds more.
After Attilio’s death in 1945, the building stood to see many of the transformations around the neighborhood which went from being mainly Italian to become mostly Puerto Rican and African American. However, many architectural details from the period remain, and the church that seats on the foundation of the studio preserves identical floor plant.
I recently visited the church and spoke with Casey Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez walked me to the back of the building where I believe was one of several carving courtyards. While standing ouside, Fernandez told me he found white marble chips while laying down red bricks to make a patio. There is no doubt in my mind that the Kingdom Hall of Jehova’s Witnesses seats on the foundation of what was once the Piccirilli Studio. It was here that many of the greatest monuments in New York and Washington DC where conceived and executed including the USS Maine Memorial, the lions and the allegorical figures in front of the New York Public Library, the Dupont Fountain, the ornaments for the Pulitzer Fountain, the pulpit and hundreds of other sculptures for The Riverside Church, Civil Virtue, the Four Continents at the US Customs House, the two magnificent allegorical figures on the side of the Fireman’s memorial and hundreds more.
We have established a starting point in Massa, an old building that inspired me to move forward, and a place in New York that we can call the birthplace of the most extraordinary public art between the years just before the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II. The next step is to fill the space in between with the art of the Piccirilli Brothers.