Giuseppe Moretti

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Daniel Chester French. Gutzon Borglum. Giuseppe Moretti. In their day, the professional reputations of these men were exemplary. Their works were world renowned, and their names were practically household words. Today only a handful of art historians and architects could identify all four-Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty; French, sculptor of the seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial; Borglum, sculptor of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Giuseppe Moretti, creator of Vulcan.
Vulcan-the largest cast-iron statue in the world; the grand prize winner of the St. Louis Exposition of 1904; the symbol of the once-booming industry that earned Birmingham the title "Pittsburgh of the South"; the mythical god of fire and forge-whose unflattering and revealing likeness scandalized an entire generation of citizens. Vulcan-the butt of a myriad of tired, old jokes.

The man behind Vulcan, however, was anything but a controversial figure. Indeed, Giuseppe Moretti was one of a dying breed-a grand master, schooled as an apprentice in the ancient guild manner; a dapper, sophisticated man-of-the-world who seldom would be caught outdoors without his green necktie; a practical man who believed, as his ancestors did, that patronage and commercialization were the bread and butter of any artist who had mouths to feed.

Although he embodied old world traditions, Giuseppe Moretti came to America for the same reason that hundreds of thousands of Europeans before and after him immigrated to this country-artistic freedom. He stayed in America to pay homage to those freedoms.

Born in a medieval castello in Siena, Italy, on February 3,1857, Moretti received his early education in the local parochial school. Like many inquisitive boys of his day, young Giuseppe, nephew of a great arts patron, Cardinal Moretti, immersed himself in the rich, flavorful heritage of his culture and was captivated by the work of the Italian Renaissance masters. By the age of nine, he was well aware that faraway Florence was the capital of the Italian art world. Anxious to begin his budding artistic career, the youngster took off down the road in search of Florence. An alert neighbor returned the boy to his home, and soon thereafter Giuseppe was placed under the tutelage and watchful eye of sculptor Tito Serrochi, whose studio was housed in the cloister adjacent to the school.

Florence continued to beckon, and six years later, at the age of fifteen, Giuseppe finally arrived in the city of his dreams. With the blessing and recommendation of Serrochi, he became apprentice to the well known sculptor Giovanni Dupre Under Dupre's supervision, the young man became well versed in several techniques and media. He was especially intrigued by the medium of marble and soon moved to Carrara, one of the major marble centers in Italy, to perfect his skill. A Dalmatian sculptor who saw his work at this time (about 1879) was suitably impressed and invited Moretti to assist him in his studio in Agram, Croatia.

Within months of his arrival, Moretti set up a small shop of his own and began attracting professional commissions. The young sculptor had completed a number of important pieces when his tenure in Croatia was unexpectedly cut short by a massive earthquake that devastated Agram and destroyed his work.

Nudged by fate, Moretti followed the migrant patterns of his Renaissance predecessors and traveled on, this time to Vienna. There he was commissioned to design sculpture for the decoration of the Rothschild palace and to fashion a marble portrait of the Emperor Franz Josef, which was exhibited in the Paris exposition of 1889.

He was next called to Budapest where he executed several pieces to commemorate events in the city's history. During his stay, one of the ministers of public works asked Moretti to begin a search for sources of statuary marble. Delighted with the nature of his quest, Moretti soon discovered an excellent site in the region of Transylvania, some 250 miles from Budapest. The native marble, he believed, would be a great incentive to local sculptors. Moretti's hopes of quarrying the stone were daunted, however, when German officials learned of the Hungarians' plans to build a railroad line to the proposed quarry. A railroad, they argued, in such a strategic location would provide the Russians with an open door for an invasion. The Austro-Hungarian government agreed, and Moretti was denied the grant he desperately needed to unearth the vast wealth of statuary marble.

A disconsolate Moretti was sure that German intervention had been the sole reason for his failure to procure Hungarian marble. And in the summer of 1888, he decided to abandon Europe for the country he believed would give him the greatest freedom to pursue both the artistic and the business sides of his career, a country unlikely to buckle under to any other government's demands-the United States.

Expecting to take America by storm, Moretti arrived in New York with high hopes and with what he assumed would be adequate financial resources to tide him over until he could establish new commissions. Soon his funds dwindled and the letters of recommendation that he brought with him lay dormant, since all of New York's important people seemed to be away from the city for the summer. The immigrant's golden American dream quickly began to tarnish.

But one letter of introduction hit its mark and opened the door to Moretti's first commission in the United States-the Newport, Rhode Island, home of William K. Vanderbilt, Sr. Christened the "Marble House," the $11 million structure was a birthday present from Vanderbilt to his socially ambitious and formidable wife, Alva. Moretti was retained by the esteemed American architect Richard Morris Hunt, a favorite of the Vanderbilt family, to produce the interior's marble friezes and statuaries, including work on ostentatious bas-reliefs of the architect himself and Jules Hardouin Mansart (master architect for Louis XIV during the construction of Versailles), which stood side by side on the mezzanine level of the grand staircase.

Marble for the project came from around the world-costly yellow Siena and black-veined Breccia marble from Italy, soft pink Numidian marble from western Algeria, and hundreds of tons of purest white marble from the quarries in Westchester County, New York. A private wharf and warehouse were required to unload and store the huge quantities of marble shipped to Newport during the mansion's construction.

Anxious to keep her neighbors and social rivals at bay, Alva Vanderbilt shrouded the palace in secrecy. An eight-foot-high fence was erected around the property to hide from the casual onlooker the progress made on the magnificent structure. Artisans and workers were imported from Italy-not so much for their skill as for their inability to mingle and discuss the mansion's progress with the villagers. In fact, in procuring this assignment, Moretti's difficulties with the English language may have been more of an asset than his facility with marble.

Moretti, having set foot on American soil only months earlier, must have felt very much at home in the temporary Italian colony-a colony that years later he would plan to duplicate in Alabama.

Once the Vanderbilt palace was unveiled, Moretti began scouting about for new projects. The result was a lifelong love affair with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and an abiding friendship with the man whose grand schemes for that city would determine the course of Moretti's career.

In 1885, Pittsburgh's director of parks and public works, Edward M. Bigelow, had developed a plan to transform "Steel City" into the "City Beautiful," adorning it with public works of art and magnificent boulevards. At the recommendation of others on the planning committee, the director invited Moretti to visit him in Pittsburgh, where he outlined his grand plan.

The sculptor immediately recognized the potential of Pittsburgh's rugged terrain for such a vast project and was struck especially by the possibilities dormant in the fashionable Schenley district. He also envisioned a lifetime commission for himself and eagerly accepted Bigelow's offer.

Bigelow, something of an opportunist and showman himself, was obviously not a modest man, for the first assignment he gave Moretti was a bronze statue of Director Bigelow which would sit on Highland Park's Bigelow Boulevard below the director's home on Mount Bigelow. The director's plans for Highland Park in the Schenley area not only included huge monuments and statuaries but also a spectacular annual Fourth of July celebration featuring such acts as Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show and numerous side shows, including a separate horse track.

The Bigelow statue proved to be Moretti's most difficult commission to date. For one thing, the sculptor spoke little English a handicap which would plague him throughout his life-and had to communicate with his subject through an interpreter. Also, up to that point the sculptor's monuments to living figures had been fashioned out of marble in a one-step technique. He was now attempting to cast an accurate human likeness out of bronze. Usually only one model of a statue was required before the final product was cast, but the hard-to please monument committee demanded model after model, prompting Moretti to complain that it seemed as if Bigelow's features were changing daily. The casting company, Henry Bonnard Bronze Company of New York, had its own problems-it was losing money hand-over-fist on the project. Once the completed statue was moved into place for the dedication, Moretti vowed that he would never again attempt another cast-metal statue of a living man.

A sympathetic Bigelow gave his new friend freer rein when it came to the design and execution of other works planned for the Schenley district. Within a period of five years, Moretti produced four spectacular monuments, the likes of which Pittsburgh had never seen: the Highland Avenue Entrance to Highland Park, an imposing granite construction decorated with bronze groups and figures; the Stanton Avenue Entrance to Highland Park, depicting two groups of lean, heroic youths taming wild horses; the four marble panthers erected on Panther Hollow Bridge; and the Stephen Collins Foster Memorial in Highland Park, which includes a rendering of "Old Black Joe" playing the banjo at the feet of the composer.

Ushering in a new phase of Moretti's career, the four monuments are testimony to Moretti's growing facility as a sculptor and designer. The Highland Park entrances are indeed ambitious in both scope and breadth; and although the proportions of his human figures are sometimes skewed, especially those of the Stanton Avenue youths, the form and flow of the four panthers, whose sinewy muscles ripple under the smooth marble, mark a new stage in Moretti's maturity as an artist.

Moretti produced the Pittsburgh works in a creative fervor, establishing the pace that would dominate his prolific career. In the forty-seven years between his arrival on American's shores and his subsequent retirement to the little Italian village of San Remo, his output was staggering. An inventory of his work, compiled after his death by his assistant and pupil, Geneva Mercer, includes fifteen World War I memorials, nineteen monuments, six church sculptures, twenty-four memorial portrait tablets or busts, fourteen cemetery memorials, twenty-seven sculptured works in marble or bronze, and another twenty-seven small bronze statuettes.

"This is an age of hurry," he would later comment. "It is an era of industry, of science. And art, like other things must follow the trend of the times." Throughout his career, Moretti firmly believed that art was a commodity-a precious commodity, but a commodity nonetheless. "Art for art sake? It is all very well," he replied in his broken English. "But Athens and the Rome of long ago have fallen. The age of beauty alone in art has given way to a new age. Today, generally speaking, artists must sacrifice the 'art for art' sake or starve."

Events following the completion of the four Highland Park works suggest that Moretti was probably a better philosopher than businessman. At the urging of Mr. Bigelow, Moretti, buoyed by his own success, fashioned an elaborate model of a new work for the entrance to Schenley Park. The twelve-foot model-its details perfectly to scale featured two major Gothic arches which would frame the boulevard; a likeness of Mrs. Mary E. Schenley fashioned from a photograph shipped to Bigelow from the Schenley household in England; and other ornate statuary. Moretti sank all of his profits from the Highland Park work into producing the impressive model and then lost his insurance - E. M. Bigelow failed to win reelection, and a new slate of city officers withdrew Moretti's commission.

Moretti's next business venture proved even less profitable. In 1897, Moretti struck up a partnership with fellow Italian immigrant Riccardo Bertelli. As a boy growing up in Genoa, Bertelli dreamed of becoming an artist, but his father insisted that he pursue a more practical education, so young Riccardo received his degrees in chemical engineering and science. Arriving in New York in 1895, however, he hoped to combine his training as a scientist with the aesthetic skills of a sculptor in order to open a casting foundry for works of art. In Giuseppe Moretti/ Bertelli believed he had found the perfect partner, and the two launched a small bronze foundry in December 1897 with the help of a $20,000 loan from another Italian compatriot, Celestino Piva, a wealthy silk importer.

Within two years the company collapsed, taking Piva's investment with it. Documents finalizing the dissolution of the foundry cite Moretti's financial mismanagement and the enormity of the debt as the causes of the company's failure. Once Piva withdrew his backing, Bertelli bought out Moretti's share, reorganized the business, and renamed it "Roman Bronze Works." By 1900 the foundry had relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn, secured the financial backing of Celestino Piva once again, and acquired the exclusive casting rights to the works of the great American sculptor, Frederic Remington. Bertelli's Roman Bronze Works continued to flourish for years, and in 1928 the company cast the John H. Patterson Memorial, the last known work by Giuseppe Moretti.

Moretti's brief and disastrous foray into the business world did not hurt his standing as a commercial artist, however, and commissions for public works continued to pour in. By 1903 Moretti's stature as an acclaimed sculptor attracted the attention of James A. MacKnight of Birmingham. MacKnight, secretary of Birmingham's Commercial Club (forerunner of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce), had been assigned to locate a designer to fashion the city's contribution to the St. Louis Exposition, a fifty-six-foot-high cast-iron rendering of the mythical god Vulcan. Moretti won the commission for two simple reasons: one, while the other candidates had told MacKnight that the average cost for producing the mammoth plaster model would be $12,000, Moretti agreed to complete the work for the paltry sum of $6,000; and two, he agreed to produce the model within the narrow allotted time frame of about forty days from the date of the contract agreement-a time frame at which other artists had balked.

To some, the lofty ambitions of the Commercial Club and the enthusiastic vigor of the sculptor were pure folly indeed. But the artist, then in his forties, had always believed in the grandiose dreams of others and in his own abilities to make those dreams come true (witness Pittsburgh's Highland Park), so with superhuman effort and under less than ideal circumstances-the model was created in an unfinished church building near New York City during the freezing winter of 1903-04-Moretti completed his daunting task and headed to the "Pittsburgh of the South" to supervise the model's conversion into iron.

In Birmingham, controversy still surrounded the project. Word leaked out that this Vulcan would not assume a handsome profile but would be the misshapen and ugly figure described in Roman mythology. Moretti himself complained to friends, "Do they not know, these people who say my Vulcan is unshapely, that his mother Juno cast him from heaven because his body was distorted?" In defense of the artist and the project, MacKnight wrote an article for the Birmingham News heralding the arrival of the "Man Who Will Make the Colossal Vulcan - G. Moretti, a Native of Italy, a Lover of America":

It is only fair to Mr. Moretti to say that he is doing Birmingham a great service in taking the commission to build this great statue of Vulcan. He is actually doing it at considerable sacrifice to himself, and with a certainty of being obliged to postpone some of his other important commissions; but he told me frankly that he realized how important this work would be to the artist who undertook it, if it were properly done, and that the fame to be derived from it was a more important consideration to him than the price to be paid. If the artist of this work can take such a view of the matter what must be its advertising value to Birmingham?

In conclusion it may be stated without betraying any confidence that Mr. Moretti is the instructor of several ambitious young members of the millionaire set in New York, who have well-equipped studios, and are seriously interested in modeling the "human form divine."

As if that weren't enough inducement for Birmingham's social set to welcome Moretti with open arms, MacKnight tacked the following information to the final paragraph of his editorial: "He is a bachelor, not over 40, and is not a poor man. What will he do to the hearts of some of the belles of the South when he comes down here in February remains to be seen." Apparently the charms of the Alabama ladies did not capture the attention of the sculptor; Moretti married a Boston blueblood, Dorothea Long, some years later.

But once Moretti arrived in the state, he did develop an insatiable passion-for Alabama marble. Legend has it that soon after his arrival, Moretti heard about the unique mineral deposits of the area and was referred to John H. Adams, an expert on the Alabama formations, for more information. Visiting Adams in his Republic Steel Office, the sculptor noticed an unusual object on the desk-a marble Bible. "Where that come from?" he asked in his broken English, believing that the marble must have come from his beloved Carrara. When he was told that the creamy white stone was the product of a quarry at Sylacauga, just thirty miles from Birmingham, Moretti urged Adams to take him there.

For weeks there after the two men explored the state's marble resources. Moretti was appalled at the crude way the stone was being dynamited and shipped for the sole purpose of fluxing steel. He immediately began a campaign to put into place proper quarrying methods and to promote architectural and artistic uses for the Sylacauga marble. In America-in Alabama, of all places-Moretti was finally able to realize the goal he had first envisioned in Hungary: to uncover and develop an unlimited supply of superior marble without governmental interference.

His discovery of Alabama marble also resulted in the creation of Moretti's most precious piece of Sculptured - a life-sized head of Christ carved in high relief directly into marble from a miniature sketch model. The first known work of fine art fashioned from Alabama marble, the Head of Christ was completed in 1904 and exhibited at the St. Louis Exposition, where it won a silver medal. By presenting this splendid sculpture alongside the iron man, Vulcan, Moretti hoped the world would learn, as he had, of the wide range of natural materials found in Alabama. In fact, Moretti told Birminghamians that he hoped someday to erect a colossal figure of Venus in Alabama marble that would match Vulcan in size and scope.

The Head of Christ was Moretti's most cherished work; he carried it with him throughout his world travels and refused all offers of purchase, no matter how generous. At the end of his life, he tenderly recalled, "I selected the marble myself with infinite care, the very first piece from the Sylacauga quarries ever to be used for an artistic purpose." Geneva Mercer wrote of her mentor's two great masterpieces: "He made the vast colossus Vulcan at the request of the people. He carved the Head of Christ out of the depths of his own heart, in the material that he loved and afterwards devoted almost ten years of his life to promoting and developing. This devotion was Mr. Moretti's gift to Alabama."

Geologists would surely agree with Mercer's assessment, but Alabamians of his day would claim that Moretti himself was a gift to the state. "During the time that the sculptor was in Alabama," reported one newspaper account, "he made many lasting friends who remember him as a vivid personality who dressed in the latest fashion and always wore a green necktie; a man of great charm, integrity and sensitiveness."

He was also a man of surprises. Local photographer Harry Mayer, who frequently accompanied his friend Moretti on trips to the Sylacauga quarry, recalled that on one of their visits the artist asked if he would go to the Talladega railroad station to meet one of Moretti's New York friends. After being sworn to secrecy, Mayer learned that the guest from the East was the famed tenor Enrico Caruso. For a week the opera star was in Alabama, incognito. Mayer would drive Caruso and Moretti into the hills where they would spend hours singing together; he later reported that the tenor repeatedly praised Moretti's voice, declaring that he should be a singer instead of a mere "stonecutter'' (In their homeland of Italy, sculptors-no matter how accomplished and acclaimed-were historically considered more artisan than artist.) Chances are Moretti had met Caruso through their mutual benefactor, Celestino Piva, who had financed the bronze foundry Moretti had operated just blocks away from the Metropolitan Opera House.

Despite his love of the beautiful terrain and the lure of the brilliant Sylacauga marble, Moretti had to leave Alabama for other commissions, and in 1916 he returned to Pittsburgh where his friend E. M. Bigelow had been reelected director of public works. Bigelow's next grand scheme was the erection of a life-size portrait of Guyusuta, an historic Indian character of the region. The bronze equestrian statue would sit atop Mount Bigelow overlooking the director's home. Moretti was in the process of designing a small statuette as a model when his friend and supporter died. Although the full-scale Guyusuta was never completed, Bigelow's legacy to the city of Pittsburgh was a rich and glorious one. Determined to carry on Bigelow's mission to transform Pittsburgh into "The City Beautiful," Moretti established permanent residency in the city, setting up a studio on Bigelow Boulevard.

In 1919 the artist received a commission from Toronto, Ohio, for his first World War I memorial, a project that would breathe new life into his career. Within a period of five years, Moretti created thirteen World War I memorials (circa 1927, while he was living in Italy, he fashioned a fourteenth, a portrait of a single soldier). Convinced that he was taking the lead in what would be a new era in the creation of war memorials, he exclaimed, "America shall stride-yes, leap-to the forefront in art. The war has made this possible."

In a conversation with noted art critic Charles S. Howell, Moretti elaborated. "Art, in its various meanings is to be benefited greatly by the sentiment that the world war had reawakened...."Reaction from war is to give to posterity something tangible, a something that will declare the genius, the history of that struggle in which respective peoples were involved.

"…I am sure that within a year fine expressions of these concepts will be found within the art galleries, the great halls of public libraries, public squares, the large city cemeteries, indeed, wherever people are wont to erect statuary as a memento to loved ones, there will be found marbles and bronzes; all typifying deeds of valor and heroism.... I doubt not that nearly a new school of artists will come of this war ......"

Pittsburgh, Moretti declared, would be the center for all this great activity. "Some say Pittsburgh shall be acclaimed the Athens of the New World," he said. "Already, I can think of no similar place that would rival the Schenley Park district in its wonderful buildings and beautiful panorama. And this work-building and improving upon the glorious part nature has already played-has only begun.

"No, I shall not leave Pittsburgh-it is the fine home for the artist-strong, mighty, rugged-so!" Mai piu parlare mai piu-never say never. Five years later, the Pittsburgh Gazette Times announced, "Moretti, Noted Sculptor, Will Give Up Studio Here And Locate in Alabama." The sculptor told reporters that he was coming to the South in search of "more daylight," but the fact was that Moretti had been spending more and more time in the Sylacauga and Talladega areas where he had acquired property in the marble quarry valleys. He had already begun construction on a home and studio near Talladega, with hopes of developing the commercial uses of the nearby marble and of establishing a colony of workers and their families from his native Italy.

Moretti's artistic obligations, however, robbed him of the time and energy necessary to oversee the development of the area's full potential. He spent only a year in residence in Sylacauga before he had to travel to Florence, Italy, to execute what is arguably his most important public work, the memorial commemorating the Battle of Nashville Although he was not able to meet all his personal objectives during his five years in Alabama, Moretti fulfilled the only obligation the Alabama people demanded of him-playing the role of a colorful international celebrity.

By 1930, Moretti's health was failing. He yearned for the seascapes and blue skies of his homeland. With some regret, he packed up his extended family-Dorothea Long Moretti and Geneva Mercer-along with the contents of his studio and left Alabama for the village of San Remo on the Italian Riviera.

Writer and friend Alice Jeffress Boswell visited Moretti during his retirement in Italy and described his delightful surroundings:

[The Morettis] live in a charming Italian villa, at the top of a terraced garden, overlooking the Mediterranean.... On. the lowest terrace ... in a setting of gnarled olive trees, Palms and white roses, nestles the little cream stucco studio, a perfect gem of architecture. This perfection is understandable when one learns that the studio was built from a miniature model molded in clay by the sculptor so that he might "see exactly how it would look." Interesting has reliefs and an ornamental iron railing add charm to the entrance; the heavy door is hung on unusually beautiful decorative hinges and a cordial welcome awaits one's lifting of the cheery bronze knocker, a laughing cupid dancing on top of the world.

The sculptor lived his final days in the same way he had lived all of his seventy nine years-with curiosity and exuberance. His rich legacy included not only a vast inventory of art works, but also a robust appetite for life, a healthy pursuit of commerce, a passionate love for beauty, and a commitment to Old World traditions.

When asked to comment on the modern, futuristic art which dominated the international art world throughout his career, the artist declared, "There is no art in futuristic creations.... The futuristic artist sees what he has created. But how anyone else can remains to me a mystery.

"The realm of sculpture as well as painting has its so-called futuristic creations. At an exhibition in New York long ago I saw two egg-shaped objects in marble, well-polished. One of the eggs was much larger than the other. The title of this work was 'Mother and Child.' The creator of that piece of work evidently saw the mother and child, but I could not."

At the same exhibition Moretti saw a marble column which looked like "a lot of tin cans joined together. This work was called some kind of a queen. But even the Bowery would disown such a queen," he scoffed.

The sculptors of those works were Henry Moore and Constantin Bancusi, two of the most renowned and influential names in the history of twentieth-century art. Their works are housed in the great museums across the globe for the privileged to see. By comparison, the name of Giuseppe Moretti remains wrapped in obscurity, a footnote in the history books. But in his time, his contribution to Alabama was immeasurable-he revealed to many Alabamians the beauty and importance of art as well as the artistic value of the state's natural resources.

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