Cover image for The stone carvers : master craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral
Title:
The stone carvers : master craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral
Author:
Hunt, Marjorie, 1954-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington : Smithsonian Institution Press, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
xi, 188 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm
Language:
English
Corporate Subject:
ISBN:
9781560988298
Format :
Book

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NB237.M613 H86 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

For centuries, stone carvers have enhanced buildings ranging from the Gothic cathedrals of Europe to the Beaux-Arts skyscrapers of New York. Steeped in tradition and skilled in an exacting craft, these master artisans have contributed much to some of the 20th century's most celebrated civic and religious monuments, but they have rarely received individual recognition for their work.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One TRADITION I come from generations. My father was a stone carver. My grandfather was a stonecutter. So practically there was no apprenticeship for me. I was growing in the trade. VINCENT PALUMBO For centuries stone carving has been a traditional craft passed down through the generations from father to son and from master to apprentice. Often the trade was associated with certain families long connected with the craft. Sons followed in their fathers' footsteps, apprenticing to the same local shop masters or joining their fathers and grandfathers in the family stone business, "In Italy, that kind of work, it goes traditional in families," Vincent Palumbo said. "You learn from the father to the son. That's the way it was in those days, to follow the tradition. Every family, every father, was like that."     Tradition is an "actively shaping force," Raymond Williams has written, "powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification." A dynamic and selective process, it has a strong incorporating power, bringing forward valued aspects of the past to serve in the present and shaping deeply felt human values into meaningful expressive forms.     For stone carvers Roger Morigi and Vincent Palumbo, whose roots in the craft reach back generations in their families and local communities, tradition has played a critical role in the acquisition of skills and values: it has shaped their attitudes toward work, informed the way they have defined and identified themselves, and guided the way they have performed their craft. From childhood stone carving was a vital, integral part of daily life and work in their families and small hometowns in Italy. "Practically, I was born into the stone," said Vincent. "I never had any concept to do anything else. I'm a descendant of that trade."     "It's got a lot to do with the section where you come from," said Roger, when I asked him how he started in the trade. "Where I come from in the northern part of Italy, we have a lot of quarries, stone quarries. The main industry was stone, and most of the children would go for that. And another reason, the father would be in the stone business, and the children would follow the stone business. They would follow in their fathers' footsteps."     Inspired by their families, by the rich material legacy of the landscape, and by the long-standing occupational heritage of their local communities, Roger and Vincent's early education and development in stone carving took place in the context of everyday life. In the piazza and on the streets, outside the church and in the public garden, while sitting around the dinner table and visiting with friends--the carvers' early training grounds existed wherever people gathered to talk and to exchange news.     Vincent was born on September 10, 1936, in Molfetta, a fishing port on the Adriatic Sea in the province of Bari in southern Italy. Located near the ancient Appian Way, Molfetta is an old Apulian seacoast town. Its medieval quarter is a maze of narrow, winding streets lined with bleached white limestone buildings. The towers of a thirteenth-century Romanesque cathedral rise up at the edge of the sea. "The port is an elevated piazza upon which stands the old cathedral," noted H. V. Morgan in A Traveler in Southern Italy , written in 1969, eight years after Vincent immigrated to America. Hundreds of painted boats, each one named after a saint, deposit in the shade of that noble building all the curiosities of the Adriatic Sea.... Large blocks of stone have been tumbled into the sea at the end of the jetty to break the force of winter gales, and these have formed rock pools in which small boys bathe and catch crabs and shrimps in the seaweed, while in the background, as dazzling as if carved in chalk, rise the twin towers of the cathedral seen against the winding warrens of the old town and reflected in the small rock pools. Vincent described the Molfetta of his youth as a busy town of about 60,000 inhabitants. In his day, he said, the majority of people made their living from fishing or farming, drawing sustenance from both the earth and the sea. "My town, we've got the coast, the sea. We have fishermen. But then we have a lot of farms, too, inside, cultivating the land. Most of this is olives and almonds. That's the main source in our town, agriculture and fish."     In addition to fishing and farming, Molfetta, like many of the other seacoast towns in the region, also supported a variety of small industries, including several brick factories, a steelworks, a few boat-building yards, and an active stone industry. "We have our own local stone which is very good for construction," explained Vincent. "And that's what I've been trained on, this hard stone."     The entire coastal region of central Apulia is rich in limestone, which has been used for centuries by the local people to build their towns, cathedrals, castles, monuments, and homes. "The local limestone with which all the ancient buildings are constructed has been bleached by centuries of sunlight to the whiteness of chalk," noted H. V. Morgan of the distinctive look of the Apulian landscape--a sun-drenched land of barren limestone hills and arid pastures, of gray-green olive groves, rock-filled meadows, and a sparkling azure sea.     "Where I come from, every village has their own kind of stone," said Vincent. "My mother's town, Giovinazzo, has a certain kind of limestone good for making balustrades and balconies. The stone is pretty soft, but a little bit harder than the limestone we have in America. In my town, in Molfetta, we have a stone which is a little bit harder than the one in Giovinazzo. And in Trani we have the best stone--that's stone, not marble--in all of Italy, pietra di Trani , which they send all around the world."     In Vincent's time Molfetta had about four or five active quarries and perhaps a dozen stone shops, most of them small- to medium-sized family operations. "They were all around the city," remembered Vincent. "It depend on where the boss, the little company, can find some land." These shops specialized primarily in stonecutting work: crafting moldings, pediments, balconies, pavement stones, tomb chapels, and the like. Still, said Vincent, "every shop had a couple of carvers" to fashion figures and ornamental details when needed. "In Italy, where I come from, if anybody build a house or villa, there was always carving, always a little art. And so they call for the carver."     On a small plot of land near the outskirts of Molfetta, Vincent's grandfather, Nicholas Palumbo, had his stone shop, a small business that had been passed down in the family over five generations. "We've always been independent," Vincent proudly told me. "America's the first time in five generations that we work for someone else."     Nicholas was a master builder and stonecutter. Vincent's father, Paul Palumbo, was the artistic master, a stone carver and sculptor. Together they ran the family shop. Vincent described the division of work and responsibility this way: "My grandfather was more an architectural person, you know, in building, especially artistic work like monuments in the city for some high, famous people in my hometown, or building artistic tombstones, building tomb chapels in the cemetery with statues all around. All things like that. And my father was the sculptor and the carver. He used to do all the decoration. And so they working together. My grandfather was the man in charge, and my father was the man in charge, too, but more in the artistic line, in ornamental stuff."     An independent master, Nicholas employed anywhere from two to twelve journeymen stonecutters, depending on the amount of work in the shop. Of those, many were family members. "Mainly it was my grandfather, my father, and me," said Vincent, "but also my grandfather's nephew, my brother-in-law, my brother-in-law's father, my brother Nick, and sometimes my uncle on my mother's side, a couple of cousins, and some strange people, too. It all depend on how big the job was. First we keep in consideration members of the family--they came first."     Vincent's grandfather was a well-known and highly respected master in Molfetta. A patriarch of sorts, he had taught many of the local stoneworkers their trade. "Most of the shop masters, they come out from my grandfather. They had great respect for him. They all used to call him `Master Nick.' `Master Nicola,' in dialect." Although Vincent only remembered the times when at most ten to twelve stonecutters worked in his grandfather's shop, his brother-in-law, Matteo Dejennaro, ten years his senior, recalled earlier days "when stone was at its peak" and as many as twenty-five stonecutters worked in the shop. "He had a big yard," Matteo told me, "with lots of work, lots of people."     Born in 1906, Vincent's father was from all accounts a carver of masterful abilities. "My father, in five generations, he reached the highest level of the art," said Vincent with pride. Matteo told me, "He was number one. There was nobody else! He have his art inside his blood. There's not too many people like that." Both men described how stone carvers in their hometown would visit the local cemetery just to view Paul's beautiful work. "He carved a memorial with a little bird, a coat of arms, and a little chain, a flexible chain that moved," said Vincent of a legendary tombstone that his father carved when he was only twenty-one years old. "It was so small, so delicate. No one could believe it! It's in the cemetery in Molfetta, and lots of carvers, they would go to see it. They couldn't believe it. They thought it was an imitation--a [real] chain painted white."     In addition to sculpting and carving his own designs, Paul also carved the work of local sculptors. "My father was the only sculptor and carver in my hometown," Vincent told me. "We had a big international sculptor who was my father's teacher, but he was not a carver, he just model [clay]. And even him, when he have work, he calls my father. He didn't trust nobody to do his work on marble, on stone, except my father. Because my father, besides to be a sculptor on clay, he knew how to work marble, he knew how to work stone, because my grandfather was a stoneman."     The Palumbo family shop specialized in ornamental stonework. They built massive tomb chapels and carved elaborate tombstones. They crafted monuments for the town square, made statues for local churches and public gardens, and carved decorative details such as family crests and intricate moldings for neighboring villas and municipal buildings. "You go to Molfetta, and you go in the garden, the city garden. There is a bronze monument over there to the unknown soldier--an angel with wings spread out helping the soldiers--and all the base, the stone base, was done by my grandfather and my father," said Vincent.     Although the occasional commission for a piece of sculpture or a civic monument came their way, the great majority of work done by the Palumbo family, especially after World War II, was for the local cemetery. "After the war, who could afford to have a monument or a statue? So most of our work, it was on tombstones," said Vincent.     In keeping with the style and custom of the day, the tomb chapels and gravestones crafted by the Palumbos, particularly those built for the wealthier families in their province, could be quite elaborate. "The old tombstones which we did in those days, they're standing tall over there," said Vincent, with obvious pride. He described working with his father and grandfather on tomb chapels--stone mausoleums in which entire families were buried--that were as large as fifteen feet square and two levels deep and were adorned with intricately carved altars, pediments, cornices, and other decorative details.     Tombstones could be just as elaborate, with all manner of ornamental carvings and numerous bas-relief sculptures. "The tombstones are not like over here--just a piece of granite," said Vincent. "They were in marble, maybe two meters long by sixty centimeters tall. You get maybe two- to three-centimeter relief. You got to do in miniature. A lot of the people wanted the scene of how a person died. That sometimes involved as many as seven or eight figures."     Despite the Palumbos' reputation for excellence, times were hard, and jobs were difficult to come by. Like centuries of journeymen stone carvers before them, Vincent's grandfather and father were forced by necessity to lead nomadic lives, "following the stone" in search of work. As a young man Nicholas worked on building projects in at least six countries. "My grandfather was a very good master. In his youth he been to a lot of countries," related Vincent. "He spent ten or fifteen years in Russia under the czar. He was building over there, and he was there during the revolution. My grandfather used to speak seven or eight languages. He'd been to Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania. As a matter of fact, my father was born in Yugoslavia!"     Vincent's father followed a similar pattern, struggling to make ends meet and to support his family. His search for work took him to Egypt, Ethiopia, and eventually the United States, where he immigrated in 1956 and lived until his death in 1966.     When Vincent--the second youngest of five children--was born in 1936, Paul and his wife, Nicolette, were living in Molfetta where, in addition to working in his father's shop, he had established a small carving studio of his own. "My father's studio was located on the main street," said Vincent. "The main street is like a corso . At one end is the railroad station, and on the other end is the sea, and before the sea is the villa with the public garden. And the people on Sunday they walk all the way up and down the street and meet their friends. And on both sides of the street were shops, and that's where my father had his studio. He had about three or four guys, and he did a lot of work over there."     By the late 1930s Paul began traveling to Ethiopia, then under Italian occupation, to work for extended periods. Alone much of the time, Nicolette decided to move the family to her hometown of Giovinazzo, a small fishing village four miles south of Molfetta, where Vincent spent much of his childhood and youth. When World War II broke out, Paul was called back from Ethiopia to enlist in the Italian army. He was later taken prisoner by the British and did not return home until 1945.     When he returned from the war, Vincent's father opened a little carving studio in Giovinazzo. "I remember almost the first work he did when he come back from war," recalled Vincent. "I think he did the relief of the Last Supper. That was the first work he did. And after that he did a statue of the Immaculate Conception." Some of Vincent's most cherished memories are of those early days with his father in the little carving studio in Giovinazzo. "I was a little kid, maybe nine years old, and after school, instead of leaving me on the street to play, he took me with him in the shop. And I had to start to clean the shop for the other people who work in the shop and start to look how the other people working, and so I get involved like that."     Vincent's mother died in 1947, when he was eleven years old. After her death Paul moved his shop back to Molfetta, although he and his children continued to live in Giovinazzo. "He got back together with my grandfather in the same shop," said Vincent, "and they worked together." By this time Vincent had completed his formal schooling, and he began to work full time in the family stone business, riding his bicycle daily from Giovinazzo to Molfetta and back, helping his father and grandfather with whatever needed to be done. Strong bonds between father and son, between family and work, were forged in the shop in those early days.     Vincent worked with his father and grandfather in their shop in Molfetta for nearly ten years. Then, in 1956, Paul immigrated to the United States, joining his eldest son, Nick, and other family members in White Plains, New York. "My brother was the base," said Vincent of the Palumbo family's pattern of migration. "My father used to work in New York City. And there were three or four big stone yards nearby--huge shops for stone, for milling stone, for sculpturing and carving work. And my father used to find jobs through these big stone shops."     As stone-carving jobs became increasingly difficult to find in the New York area, Paul moved to Washington, D.C., where stone carvers and cutters were needed to work on the restoration and remodeling of the U.S. Capitol. "In Washington they were remodeling part of the U.S. Capitol," recalled Vincent. "So my father came to Washington to work on the Capitol. He carved--there's a panel near the entrance with two or three figures and an eagle--and my father carved the eagle. When the Capitol was finished, the Shrine [of the Immaculate Conception] was at the building stage. So he went to the Shrine. Then he joined the Cathedral in 1959. They needed carvers."     Vincent remained in Molfetta, helping his grandfather run the family shop until Nicholas's death in 1961. Paul returned to Italy to help Vincent close the shop, and then together they journeyed back to America, where Vincent, to his great joy, was once again reunited with his father at Washington National Cathedral. "My father, since I can remember in Italy, we always work together, me and him," Vincent told me. "More than father and son, it was more or less just friends. Because since the first day I started to clean the shop until the day he left for America, we always working together. And then, even when I came over to the United States, I get back with him again, and I stayed with him until he died in 1966. Right here at the Cathedral."     Born into a family of stoneworkers, Vincent grew up steeped in the trade. Learning the craft came with being in the family; it was an integral part of everyday life and experience, a part of growing up. "How I learn, I'm growing," said Vincent, "because I come from generations. My father was a stone carver. My grandfather was a stonecutter. So practically there was no apprenticeship for me. I was growing in the trade."     Vincent was nourished by a constant flow of ideas and talk about work; his education in the craft began, and continued to take place, in the home, in the discourse of daily life. "When you come from a traditional family," he said, "you learn from the talking. What happened to me, we was in that trade. We was talking about work anytime; at breakfast, dinner, supper, most of the subject was work. Think about this stone, how we gonna do this, who was gonna do that, we gotta use this trick. So you're growing, and you listen, and your mind, it gets drunk with all those things, and then, when it comes time, you remember."     The importance of the family as a key teaching institution is echoed in the experiences of other traditional artisans. In his memoir, Stone Mad , Irish stone carver Seamus Murphy expressed it this way: "I used to hear my father talking about the craft every evening of his life. He would talk about it for hours to my mother, and she was interested in it, too, because all her people were in the trade, and she knew nearly as much as he did. I remember well when I went to work first, how much I already knew about it. I was familiar with all the tools and the terms the men used about stone. 'Twas just the same as home to me."     For Vincent a crucial foundation was laid during that early, informal period of learning. Like a child learning language, he began to acquire a grammar of stone carving; he began to piece together knowledge of the various elements of the craft and the underlying principles that governed them. Sitting around the dinner table listening to his father and grandfather tell stories and discuss work, he became familiar with the names of the tools and the different types of stone. Little by little, he became acquainted with the work processes and specialized terminology of the trade. He began to get a sense of the structure of working relationships, both inside and outside the family shop, all the while absorbing ideas about what good work should be like, until, as he says, his mind became "drunk with all those things." Vincent brought this reservoir of knowledge to the shop when he began to work with his father and grandfather.     At the same time that Vincent was gaining knowledge about the technical aspects of stone carving, he was also learning about the importance of the craft to his family. The stories he heard about his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and father--how they had learned the trade, where they had traveled, what they had done--instilled in him pride in his heritage and a sense of responsibility to generations gone before, grounding him firmly in a larger whole.     Vincent grew up surrounded by the craft not only in the context of his own family but also in the larger context of his local community. First, there was the rich material culture left behind by centuries of stoneworkers in his region. As Vincent walked through the streets of his town, traveled through the countryside, or visited nearby villages, he encountered daily what folklorist Henry Glassie has called "the handmade history book of the landscape." Greek and Roman ruins, medieval castles, Romanesque churches, and Renaissance villas abound, visual evidence of a legacy of stone craftsmanship going back to ancient times. In Brindisi, to the south, a Roman column carved with marble figures of the gods marks the end of the Appian Way. "There's a lot of history over there," Vincent told me.     Old forms on the land were not the only source of inspiration; there was also a vital living tradition. In Vincent's day Molfetta was filled with men who "worked the stone" or were connected with the trade in some way. There were the quarry people ( cavatori ), "the men who worked in the cave," and the stonemasons ( muratori ), "the men who built the walls." There were stone carvers ( ornatisti ), stonecutters ( scalpellini ), and sculptors ( scultori ). There were the blacksmiths ( fabri ), the men who made and continually shaped and sharpened the hundreds of tools needed to work the stone.     Stone formed a common bond, a unifying thread, a basis for social relationships and daily interaction. "In those days, there were a lot of masters over there," said Vincent. "And everyone knew each other; in each trade--stonecutters, quarrymen, carvers--they all knew each other." Indeed, Vincent found that throughout the town he was recognized and known to others in terms of the trade. "The people in the stone business, in fact most of the town, they recognize me as the grandson of Master Nicola, the son of Master Paul."     Vincent came to see that the "stonemen," as they called themselves, were held in high regard by their fellow townspeople--that his father and grandfather, as master craftsmen, were men of standing in the community, respected for their skill and knowledge. "In those days the men who work on stone, the stonemen, it was quite a respect," said Vincent. "Everybody when they see on the street the stoneman, they say hello to him, they take off their hat. It was a trade that involved not the mechanical work but involved the art. Everybody knew what kind of working man was that. Some of the old men was so proud of their work. They was so precise. And everybody call him master because he was so good, so meticulous."     In Molfetta shop masters worked closely together, helping each other and exchanging labor and materials when needed. "When we don't have the right size stone, sometimes they send me to another shop for a piece of stone. We used to exchange blocks of stone," he related. "And sometimes my grandfather didn't have enough work for ten guys, so you lay off two or three guys, and they go to another shop, to Master Francis, let's say. Then, if my grandfather gets a job again, he calls Master Francis and says, `Hey, can you send me those two guys back?' And they come back. Everyone knows each other. They go all way around from one boss to another one.... As it was in my grandfather's shop, it was same thing in the other shops."     A spirit of cooperation existed not only among stoneworkers in the various shops but also among the members of related trades. "They understand each other, what they had to do. It was reciprocal respect," said Vincent. "All the quarry people, when my grandfather order a stone, all he has to do was give them the measure and the quality of the stone he want, whether it was the white one or the black one, and the quarry people made sure he got it right. And when the stonecutters start to put a face on the stone and some veins show up, my grandfather says, `Put it aside.' And the quarry people, they don't doubt my grandfather's word, they don't even come to look at the faulty stone, they just send him another one. It was reciprocal respect!" (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.