June 29, 2012

The Legacy of Pietro Montana

Victory With Peace by Pietro Montana (Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli
“My wish has been to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, and to be the servant of a noble purpose . . . art is not a vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power, which must be directed toward the refinement and improvement of the human soul.”  — Pietro Montana, in an address before the Hudson Valley Association *
After stumbling upon Anthony de Francisci's Independence Flagstaff at Union Square, I was keen on discovering other monuments by Southern Italian artists in NYC. I did some digging and found several works. Unfortunately, for some of the artists I've been unable to obtain any biographical information except that they were Italian-Americans. 

I did, however, hit the jackpot at Freedom Triangle in Bushwick, Brooklyn. While taking a ride to Williamsburg with a friend we noticed an extraordinary statue of what appeared to be an angel. We pulled over to take a closer look. According to the plaque affixed to the fence protecting the monument from vandals the artist was Pietro Montana from Alcamo, Italy. "He's Sicilian," I told my friend as I started snapping pictures!

Called Victory With Peace, the bronze statue depicts the Greek goddess Nike (Victory) bearing an olive branch. Crowned with a laurel wreath and wearing a Greek chiton the winged deity cradles a sword in her right arm. She stands on a granite pedestal with an inscription carved around its base dedicated to the ninety-three neighborhood men who fought and died in the First World War. The 19th Assembly District Committee erected the monument in 1921. 

Luckily, the plaque mentioned other works attributed to the artist. This gave me a good starting point to begin my research and I soon visited some of them.
Dawn of Glory by Pietro Montana
First up was Dawn of Glory on the Brooklyn side of Highland Park bordering Queens. Unveiled on July 13th, 1924 the memorial honors members of the local community who served their country during World War I. An estimated 10,000 people attended the ceremony. The larger than life statue depicts a fallen soldier rising from the battlefield. Nude and powerfully built the ascending figure casts off his shroud symbolizing his triumph over death. I would later learn that the soldier was modeled after the famous Calabrian bodybuilder Angelo Siciliano (1894-1972), better known as Charles Atlas. 

According to Elmer Sprague, author of the wonderful Brooklyn Public Monuments (2008), "Montana's linking of death in battle with resurrection, a theme often represented in European war monuments, is unique among American World War I monuments." The granite pedestal, decorated with torches and Roman fasces, used to have a dedication plaque with the names of the 108 servicemen who fought and died in the fratricidal conflict. 
Fighting Doughboy by Pietro Montana
Not far from Freedom Square is Heisser Triangle and the Bushwick-Ridgewood War Memorial. Called the Fighting Doughboy the statue was Montana's first monument. In 1920 the Unity Republican Club held a competition for a WWI memorial and Montana's design won. With open shirt and helmet on the ground the heroic figure appears to have just jumped to attention. Fist clenched and rifle in hand the hard-nosed infantryman looks ready for any challenge. Sadly, the bayonet point appears to have been damaged. The Parks Department website confirms that the monument has been vandalized on several occasions.

Dedicated with much fanfare on November 20th, 1921 the monument commemorates the 151 soldiers from the area who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The work was a huge success. A copy stands outside Borough Hall in North Arlington, New Jersey and was the basis for another Doughboy Montana made in 1927 for East Providence, Rhode Island. A gentleman from Ohio who witnessed the unveiling thought the statue resembled his fallen son so much he requested a replica. It serves as a monument in the cemetery where his son lies buried.
Washington Irving and Mark Twain by Pietro Montana
My next visit was to the Brevoort Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street in Manhattan. A small bronze tablet with bas-relief portraits of Washington Irving and Mark Twain on the outside wall serves as a reminder that the two famed authors once resided at the location. Commissioned by the Greenwich Village Historical Society, the piece was mounted on May 26, 1925.

Finally, I dropped by Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to view Montana's Mrs. Catherine I. Carroll Memorial. The work can be found just inside the left stairwell in the main lobby. Installed in 1927 the bronze tablet with incised marble frame was a gift from friends to perpetuate her memory. Wife of Senator Daniel J. Carroll, she dedicated much time to the welfare of neighborhood children. The relief portrait shows a kneeling Mrs. Carroll compassionately caressing two impoverished children. I'm not sure of the symbolism, but a lit brazier sits atop a baluster in the left hand corner filling the background with flames and smoke. Perhaps it represents the eternal flame?
Mrs. Catherine I. Carroll tablet by Pietro Montana
My early research brought me to the NYC Parks and Recreation website and their entries on Montana's monuments. After additional searching I came across Elmer Sprague's Brooklyn Public Monuments (2008) and Ilaria Serra's The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies (2007), which had short chapters dedicated to the artist. This is where I learned Montana published his memoirs, Memories: An Autobiography, in 1977. I combed the web and found a used copy in decent condition. I did notice some biographical discrepancies between the various sources, so whenever there was a conflict I referred to Montana's account, assuming he would be the definitive authority on the details of his own life. 

Pietro Montana was born on June 29th, 1892 in Alcamo, a small city in the province of Trapani in northwestern Sicily. The third of six children—Giuseppe (Peppino), Liborio (Popo), Pietro, Agata, Brigida and Maria—he was raised in an environment conducive to artistic learning. His father Ignazio worked as a wine maker for the Marquis of Sirignano. Lu Padre, as his children affectionately called him, also made wine barrels and crystal chandeliers for the church. During holidays Ignazio would make paper lanterns to illuminate the streets and hot air balloons to light the night sky. He also made the carroccio, or wooden carriage, used by parishioners to carry their saint's statue during religious processions.

As a child, when not in school, Montana would accompany his father to work and lend a hand whenever possible. After dinner he would listen attentively to the poems his father would recite in the Sicilian tradition. Perhaps the true seeds of his artistic talents were sown during the Christmas season when he would mold intricate figurines out of clay and wire for the family prespio, or Christmas Nativity.

In 1900 the dreadful fillossera (Phylloxera) blight wiped out Sicily's grape vineyards and ruined his family's main source of income. The disaster exasperated already dire economic conditions and spurred mass emigration from the island. To compensate for the loss, Ignazio bought two sewing machines and with the help of Montana began knitting sox for emigrants leaving for America. 

That same year, Montana's oldest brother Giuseppe died of meningitis. He was only twenty-five years old. As to be expected his mother, Marianna, took it badly and became a recluse. On the advice of a cousin, the family moved to Camporeale. They hoped that a change in scenery and closer proximity to relatives would help their distraught mother cope with her loss. The family continued with their stocking-making venture, but due to the large numbers of people leaving, could not keep up with the demand.

In the meantime, Montana's older brother Liborio and two brothers-in-law left for America. After establishing himself in Brooklyn as a tailor, Liborio sent for Montana. Ignazio obtained a passport and passage for his son and at the age of fourteen, with eighty Lira in his pocket, departed from Palermo aboard the Citta di Napoli to Ellis Island. Just a month later his parents and sisters decided to join them.

Soon after his arrival a family friend gave Montana a tour of New York City. His first stop was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The experience was an epiphany. Seeing all the masterpieces and watching the art students copy the works inspired Montana to pursue art. 

As a teenager Montana and his friends frequented an anarchist social club called Club Avanti. He recalled listening to the lectures and perusing its library filled with Leftist propaganda. Their ideology of violent revolution and redistribution of wealth never appealed to him:
"Men always envy those who succeed and have fortunes. In life, there can never be equality among all, for some men are limited in ability, while others are intelligent and capable and succeed in their fields. The one who fails wants to adjust the system." (Memories, p.39)
Montana bounced from job to job until he began apprenticing for a photographer, all the time practicing his art. One day his cousin, Father Giacomo Ruvolo, noticed his artwork and arranged for Montana to draw the portrait of Archbishop Mondelain. Happy with the work, Ruvolo encourage him to take classes and helped him fill out the applications. In 1909 Montana was accepted into Cooper Union Art School. He worked during the day, studied at night. He graduated in 1915.

Eventually, with the help of his brother, Montana opened his own photography studio. This allowed him to make his own hours and concentrate on his artwork. 

With the outbreak of the First World War, immigrant communities were naturally worried about the welfare of their relatives back home. News of Italy's disaster at Caporetto inspired Montana to make a bas-relief sculpture (Profughi del Friuli) of the Friuli refugees fleeing from the advancing Austrian army. He entered the massive piece in the annual National Academy of Design exhibit. Despite not meeting the regulations for the submissions they displayed the sculpture anyway because of the quality of the work. 

Montana's big break came in 1920 when he made a name for himself with his Fighting Doughboy statue. The popularity of the piece earned him other commissions and some important connections. With his new success Montana was not only able to give up his photography business, but also buy his parents a house in Brooklyn with a yard so his father could have a garden. He would later be instrumental in founding the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art in New York City.

In 1927 Montana became friends with Alfrida Kramer, who worked at the David Manes Music School. He painted several portraits of her and their friendship would soon blossom into love. They married on April 3, 1930 in an Episcopalian church because Alfrida was Protestant. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe, first taking a cruise to France then to Italy where Montana exhibited his work in Rome. Alfrida and Pietro would return to Europe years later for the World's Fair in Paris (1937). While staying with close friends in Brussels, Belgium Alfrida converted to Catholicism.

Back in the States Montana started teaching art, first to affluent women then to blind students. It was such a novel idea that Eleanor Roosevelt came to observe his techniques. In 1931 he entered his Orphans, two baby pigs carved in black marble, into the annual National Academy of Design exhibition. He won the gold-medal.

Montana was also very active in the Italian American community, contributing much of his time, money and skills to various charitable causes. During World War II he helped organize various fundraisers seeking financial support for Italy's war orphans. When Italian POWs and suspected Fascist sympathizers were sent to concentration camps in the United States he organized food and clothing drives for the prisoners. Care packages were also sent to distressed family and friends back in Italy. Of course some questioned his humanitarian activities, but any suspicions of disloyalty were quickly put to rest when his philanthropic record was examined. Montana also helped the suffering people of France, Russia and Japan.

After the War Montana continued making art as well as supporting worthwhile causes. He worked very closely on behalf of war orphans with Father Carloni, an Italian military chaplain who survived the Russian front. He also made several memorial plaques for American servicemen. Deeply religious, Montana did many works for the Church, including the Stations of the Cross at Fordham University Church in the Bronx and four saints—Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius—at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The Montanas made another journey to Europe to visit Alfrida's relatives in Sweden. They enjoyed their stay so much Montana donated a couple of statues to the cities of Klippan and Nordiken. From Sweden they made their way to Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Pius XII at Castel Gondolfo. From the Eternal City they traveled south to Sicily to visit Montana's hometown of Alcamo. To his surprise, they were received with a hero's welcome. Greeted by the Mayor, the town held a banquet in their native son's honor. All the important citizens of Alcamo were invited.

When the owner of Sherwood Studios, Montana's home for twenty-eight years, decided to sell the property the tenants were forced to leave. Alfrida and Montana moved into another studio in Manhattan, but it did not meet their needs, so they decided to move to Rome. In 1962 they set sail on the Raffaello and reached Napoli after eight days at sea. While waiting for their apartment to be prepared the couple toured Europe, taking in many sites and visiting old friends. Far from hurting Montana's livelihood the commissions kept coming in from the States. They lived a simple life.

After Alfrida's death, Montana returned to the U.S. to be with his family. He sold or gave away many of his pieces; however, the bulk of his artwork was donated to Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. The university honored him with a doctor of humanities degree. Working to the end he kept busy with commissions and family portraits. 

One day Montana decided to visit his monuments in Brooklyn. It was fifty years since he last seen them. He was shocked and appalled at the poor state of preservation. He couldn't believe how quickly the neighborhoods deteriorated. So he wrote a letter to Mayor Beame imploring him to do something about "our depreciated neighborhoods' problems." As a philanthropist who came from a poor immigrant community himself, he felt that there was no excuse for what he was seeing. He blamed the government’s welfare system and people who he felt were exploiting it instead of using it to get back on their feet.

A year before he died in 1978, Montana wrote his memoirs. In it he revealed his biggest regret was not having children. Sadly, due to a childhood illness and operation, Alfrida was unable to have any. He consoled himself with the knowledge that his legacy would live on through his artwork.
"No man in this world can fulfill his every desire. But I do thank God for the many achievements He permitted me to accomplish." (Memories, p. 184)
Memories: An Autobiography by Dr. Pietro Montana, N.A., F.N.S.S., Exposition Press, 1977
Brooklyn Public Monuments: Sculpture for Civic Memory and Urban Pride by Elmer Sprague, Dog Ear Publishing, 2008
The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies by Ilaria Serra, Fordham University, 2007

* Quoted from NYC Parks Department website