March 3, 2015

A Brief Sketch: Onorio Ruotolo

The old headquarters for the Italian Labor Center, Manhattan
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli
“While he worships the heroic his sympathies are with those whom life has maimed and oppressed.” — John May
Meeting friends for Sunday dinner in Manhattan over the weekend, I stumbled across an interesting facade at 231 East 14th Street half-hidden behind some trees and the building's fire escape. Unsure of its history, I snapped a few photos and continued on my way. Later that night I went online to try and learn more about the work.

Thanks to Ephemeral New York, I discovered that the old marble sign and bas reliefs are attributed to the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo (1888–1966), nicknamed the "the Rodin of Little Italy.” The building, now home to Beauty Bar, was once the headquarters for the Italian Labor Center and Cloakmakers Union in the now long-gone East Village Little Italy.

Only vaguely familiar with Ruotolo’s work, it was great to see an example in person. Before this, I’ve only seen his bust of Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House and a few images published in the catalogue for the 2004 exhibit at the Italian American Museum entitled, The Art of Freedom: Onorio Ruotolo and the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School (Sciorra and Vellon). 
The left panel relief
The subject of the two relief panels reminded me a little of Anthony de Francisci’s Independence Flagstaff at nearby Union Square. Like de Francisci’s memorial, the contrasting allegorical figures represent the decline and triumph of civilization, respectively. 

The panel on the left depicts a downtrodden family. In the forefront we see a despondent woman entangled by a serpent, which is feeding from her breast. Her child reels away in horror as her husband toils in the distance. This, I believe, symbolizes the debilitating effects of tyranny and the hopeless plight of the worker in a corrupt society.

In comparison, the panel to the right portrays an idealized hardworking, loving family. Naked and free, the robust figures undoubtably personify family, labor and a promising future. 

Like many of Ruotolo’s works, the obscured marble facade clearly shows the artist’s understanding of the worker's hopes and fears.
The right panel relief
I’ve passed the area countless times over the years and never noticed the sign hidden in plain sight, but on that snowy day it was simply there waiting for me; just in time for me to post on his birthday.
Life and Work*

Born on March 3, 1888, in Cervinara, a small town in the Province of Avellino, Onorio Ruotolo was raised in nearby Bagnoli Irpino, where his father worked as an engineer. He studied for six years at the prestigious Reale Istituto di Belle Arti in Naples, apprenticing for two years under the great Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito.

In 1908 Ruotolo moved to the United States from Naples, joining the vibrant, but poor, immigrant community. Quickly making a name for himself, Ruotolo sculpted from life, often depicting the injustices of poverty and the horrors of war he witnessed.

Best known for his portraits, some of Ruotolo’s more notable subjects included inventor Thomas Edison, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the last perhaps explaining why the artist was accused on several occasions of holding an “ambiguous attitude” toward Fascism by Carlo Tresca, a popular labor activist and anarchist leader. In addition to sculpting, Ruotolo wrote poetry, illustrated books, published his own journal, and was a teacher. 
The 2004 exhibit catalogue
In 1923 he founded, with Attilio Piccirilli, the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School, which “diffused among the children of workers, the Light of Art.”  Ruotolo, Piccirilli and the rest of the faculty (e.g. Pietro Montana) all volunteered their time and services to teach art to impoverished children. The school, after moving to several locations, ultimately closed in 1942.

Disillusioned with politics, Ruotolo would eventually go on and renounce his earlier political beliefs as well as distance himself from many of his old affiliations, including those with Arturo Giovannitti, Helen Keller and Carlo Tresca, among others.

Suffering a stroke, Ruotolo spent the last two decades of his life writing poetry and published several collections. He passed away on December 18, 1966 at the age of 78 in his home in Greenwich Village.

* The following source proved invaluable to this post: The Art of Freedom: Onorio Ruotolo and the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School, Joseph Sciorra and Peter Vellon, 2004

Further reading: Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943 edited by Francesco Durante, Fordham University Press, 2014