A short description and history of the sculpture, and then: how do I feel about this piece, and why?
- 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.
Mother Italy is a modern take on an allegorical sculpture. The central figures represent abstract concepts: Mother Italy, Dance, and Theater.
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.
The other figures represent classes of people that Massari considered important for his theme. On the left are a working man and a child.
On the right are a priest and a mother and child.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
- The history of the sculpture is from an article by Nicholas Falco that was read at Mother Italy’s dedication at Hunter College on June 26, 2000, Additional information is on the Italy Culture website.
- If you’re intrigued by allegorical figures, my walking tour of the Financial District will introduce you to some fascinating ones.
- For more on analyzing and evaluating sculptures, see Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love.
- Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.