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The Piccirilli Brothers in London 1886-1887

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

The general consensus is that the Piccirilli came to New York from Massa-Carrara in 1888. However, it is important to mention that London came before New York and that the Piccirilli were hoping to make England their home away from Tuscany. To make the story more interesting, we often add that they were penniless, fleeing starvation, and never looked back when they arrived in New York. Although that was often the case for most of the four million Italian immigrants, it is not necessarily an accurate depiction of Piccirilli’s ordeal. The following notes for The Italian Factor, a documentary film in progress, will hopefully enrich the known story by revealing details of the nearly two years the sculptors spent in London before coming to disembarking in New York.

The Italian Factor
Angel. Offered at Bonhams, New York, 2015

The Piccirilli Brothers in London | The Angels

The Angels were three exquisite marble reliefs adorning the reredos behind the altar at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. One of the angels plays the aulos, another the harp, while a third holds a rectangular object, symbolizing the column to which Christ was bound when he endured the Flagellation. Attilio and Furio Piccirilli carved these astonishing figures between 1886 and1887.

Attilio and Furio were born in Massa-Carrara, a region known for its marble quarries and workshops. They came from a family of sculptors who had been working with marble for generations and were graduates from the Accademia di San Lucca in Rome before coming to London.

For decades, the twelve bass reliefs were thought lost after the remodeling of St. Paul’s immediately after WWII. As with many other works of art stolen, damaged, or lost during the war, Piccirilli’s angles will resurface in action at Bonhams in New York in 2015. All but three were sold on that memorable occasion at an average price of $21,500. Based on the photos shown in the catalogue, these panels have been restored and they look just as fabulous as they did during the unveiling in 1888.

The Italian Factor
Angel with autos. Offered at Bonhams, New York, 2015

Contemporary reviews affirm that the reredos, including the angels by Attilio and Furio Piccirilli, were considered one of the most remarkable furnishings introduced to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the nineteenth century. In an article published shortly after its unveiling, Garner described reredos as ‘the most important work of the kind that has been erected in England since the early part of the sixteenth century.’ St. Paul Cathedral’s main altar and reredos with Piccirilli angels [2]

St.Paul Cathedral’s main altar and reredos with Piccirilli angel's
St.Paul Cathedral’s sanctuaries and main altar before the explosion

The Italian Factor
Angel. Offered at Bonhams, New York, 2015

The Studio

In London, Attilio and Furio lived in a rented space in Chelsea and almost immediately went to work for Farmer and Brindley on the reredos project at Paul’s. Farmer & Brindley was a well-established architectural firm located on Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, roughly three miles from the Piccirilli’s studio in Chelsea. The walk (weather permitting) would have taken the brothers an hour strolling past Buckingham Palace, St James’s Park, and over Westminster Bridge with a foggy view of Big Ben. It must have been quite a sight for the two ragazzi from Massa coming on to the world. Attilio and Furio spent a year working on Thomas Garner’s design for the Angeles in Chelsea, producing works for private and institutional clients.

The angels were installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1888 as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. They received much praise and admiration from the public and the critics, who considered them among England’s finest works of modern sculpture.

The Italian Factor
Angel with Lyra. Offered at Bonhams, New York, 2015

However, after the job was completed, they found themselves back on square one, or not quite for now; they had the recommendation of one of the most prestigious architectural firms in London.

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The Path to America

Furio was the first to find a job with John MacNeish, a wealthy patron from Glasgow. Later that year (1887), all the Piccirilli from Massa-Carrara, except for the oldest brother Ferruccio, joined Attilio in London. By then, Ferruccio was in Alexandria with a large force of Italian volunteers who traveled to assist the resistance against the British conquest of Egypt. This was the first, but not the last, time that an international conflict would find the Piccirilli brothers on different fronts, not at all an uncommon situation.

With the encouragement of John MacNeish, who presumably arranged for Attilio to exhibit two sculptures at the 1889 Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, the family left Britain for the United States, where other sculptors from Massa and Carrara had already been providing their skills.

[1] Warren, Jeremy. Attilio Piccirilli and Furio Piccirilli Three Angels from the Reredos for Saint Paul’s Cathedral [2] IBID. Garner 1890, p.167.

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