Mother Italy (New York City sculpture)

A short description and history of the sculpture, and then: how do I feel about this piece, and why?

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962.

Stats

  • Sculptor: Giuseppe Massari
  • Medium and size: Bronze, 9 feet wide, 7 feet high
  • Location: Poses Park, part of Hunter College, on the south side of East 68th Street, just east of Lexington. You can’t enter the park, but you can easily see the sculpture through the fence.

The sculpture

Mother Italy is a modern take on an allegorical sculpture. The central figures represent abstract concepts: Mother Italy, Dance, and Theater.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. At center: Mother Italy, with a figure representing Dance at our left, Theater at our right.

Falco’s article on Mother Italy, which relies on a study by someone who knew Massari, says that the bust on the left is Roma, “representing the universality of spirit in the arts and the law to which Italy has contributed so greatly” (Falco). Yes, I am performing that devious scholarly trick of quoting because I don’t understand and therefore can’t rephrase. There is no goddess “Roma.” The city of Rome – even if we’re talking headquarters of the Roman Empire rather than the city itself – isn’t associated with the arts and the law, to the exclusion of, say, engineering, military prowess, and ponderous bureaucratic machinery.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Bust of Roma. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Bust of Roma. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

The other figures represent classes of people that Massari considered important for his theme. On the left are a working man and a child.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. At left: immigrant with pick-axe, child, bust of Roma.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. At left: immigrant with pick-axe, child, bust of Roma.

On the right are a priest and a mother and child.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. At right: priest, mother and child, bust of Columbus. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. At right: priest, mother and child, bust of Columbus.

The bust on the far right represents a specific person: Christopher Columbus. Or, sort of: no portrait done during Columbus’s lifetime survives, so his appearance is a matter of conjecture. See here and here.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Bust of Christopher Columbus. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Bust of Christopher Columbus. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

So we have allegorical figures, figures representing types of people, and a portrait. But wait, there’s more!

To the left of the inscription on the base is a radio antenna that symbolizes the achievements of Guglielmo Marconi. So says Falco: I can’t make anything like an antenna out of it. Zoom in and have a squint.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Inscription: ___

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Inscription: “This monument commemorating the Italian contribution to the new continent was conceived and donated by the sculptor Giuseppe Massari in recognition of the assistance which the United States gave his native country for the reconstruction needed after the ravages of the Second World War.”

To the right of the inscription are a train and subway cars, because much of New York’s early subway system was constructed by Italian immigrants.

On the back, again according to Falco (I can’t see it!), are symbols of sports at which Italians have excelled: boxing, cycling, boating, and aviation.

The inspiration

Giuseppe Massari, a native of Ortona a Mare in the Abruzzi (more or less east of Rome, on the Adriatic Sea), worked in America from 1928-1930 and again 1934-1940. He spent part of that time in the studio of Paul Manship, who created Prometheus, the Four Elements, the Lehman Gate, and the reliefs for the New York Coliseum. Massari’s work is reminiscent of Manship’s – stylized, simplified.

Massari returned to Italy in time to see his home and some of his works bombed out of existence. After the Second World War ended, it occurred to him that the American army, in liberating Italy and helping it to recover from the ravages of war, was in a way repaying Italy for the benefits Italian immigrants had brought to the United States.

He conceived [Mother Italy] as a gift to the United States with a dual purpose. It was to be one which would remind this country of the contributions made to it by those immigrants who came from Italy; but, at the same time, be an expression of deep and sincere thanks on the part of Italy for the help the United States was extending … for its regeneration and rebirth. (Falco)

The wanderings of Mother Italy

Massari completed a small-scale version of Mother Italy in 1953. Later that year, he brought the model to the United States, hoping it might be accepted by the White House. No luck. He cast a full-size version, even though no site had been chosen. The government of Italy paid to have it shipped to the United States in 1962. Mother Italy was not placed at LaGuardia Airport; it was not displayed at the 1964-65 World’s Fair; it was not placed in front of the headquarters of the Order Sons of Italy in America, in Washington. It was not placed in a public park in an Italian neighborhood, because during the 1970s outdoor sculptures were routinely vandalized. (See the photos in Lederer’s All Around the Town.)

As a temporary solution, Mother Italy was entrusted to the Capitol Monument Company (owned by the Di Tullio family) for display at its Bruckner Boulevard headquarters in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx. When the patriarch of the Di Tullios died in 1975, his heirs sold the property in the Bronx and all its contents – including Mother Italy. For years, the sculpture’s whereabouts were unknown. It was finally rediscovered in 1990.

After negotiation with Hunter College’s incoming president, Dr. David A. Caputo, an Italian-American, Mother Italy was dedicated in 2000 in a small park owned by Hunter. It’s not far from the Italian Consulate and Cultural Center. Every year, Italian-Americans have a ceremony at the sculpture on the Saturday before Mother’s Day: the report of the 2015 ceremony is here.

Do I like this sculpture?

Good question. No simple answer.

Emotionally, I’ve never felt a strong reaction to it, mostly because it’s not easy to decipher at first glance. Too many figures, all lined up but not telling a coherent story. I have to look at each figure separately to grasp what’s going on, and by the time I do that, my thinking, analytical side is engaged, rather than my gut feelings. I do like some some allegorical figures very much (Martiny’s groups flanking the entrance of the Surrogates Court, for example, here), but I always have to invest some time in figuring them out.

Which brings me to the content and theme of Mother Italy, and its  philosophical implications. I’m ambivalent about Mother Italy because I don’t think religion and muscle power were among Italy’s major contributions to American (or world) civilization. A sculpture that features such elements will never be on my top ten list.

In terms of style – the “how” of the sculpture – I rather like the stylization, just as I often like Manship’s stylization. I’ll take this any day over the mucky-muck globby textures of Rodin and his thousands of imitators. But even though I find the style pleasant (or at least inoffensive), when I start studying individual figures such as Dance and Theater, I find the expressions, poses, and details aren’t interesting enough to hold my interest for very long.

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

Mother Italy, by Giuseppe Massari, ca. 1953-1962. Photo: Dianne L. Durante

In terms of art history, I like this sculpture because it’s representational at a time when the Cool Dudes were only creating abstract works. New York City got its first public outdoor abstract sculpture in the early 1960s. Among the elite, representational art had been unfashionable since the 1920s. Massari gets points for not joining the avant-garde lemming community, so busy being fashionable in style that they discarded all content.

Stepping back to the big-picture view: the adjective that keeps coming to my mind for Mother Italy is … ummm … “nice.” I enjoy looking at as I pass it on my way to work, but I don’t yearn to own it.

So: what do you think about this sculpture?

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About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are 3 volumes on Alexander Hamilton, *Central Park: The Early Years,* *Innovators in Sculpture* (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see https://www.patreon.com/diannedurante .

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