27 April 2018

Quo Vadis? Giuseppe Moretti's Movable Pittsburgh Monuments

I keep thinking about that Giuseppe Moretti sculpture that was removed from Oakland amidst public hullabaloo and a recommendation of the city's Art Commission.

You know, this one.

Birmingham Public Library, 617.1.120, Collection Archives Department, Giuseppi Moretti, Papers, 1888-1981; Collection No. 617

Wait, you thought I meant this one?

You're forgiven for the mistake, given that Giuseppe Moretti's 118 year old Stephen Foster memorial has finally been uncermoniously hauled away on the back of a flat-bed truck. No, it isn't on its way to becoming a traveling public art installation (Although the PPG's Christopher Huffaker wondered if this could maybe become a thing with other statues. And, you know, I think there's merit to that idea).

After decades of sporadic protests, and one year of intense debate, Moretti's Foster was removed to a temporary Public Works storage facility. As of this writing its next display place is still unknown.

Moretti's seen it all before from the Great Beyond. His art gets around. Even the Foster piece originally began its days as a public sculpture in Highland Park, relocated to a prominent spot in Oakland after repeated vandalism at its more isolated location.

Giuseppe Moretti, Pittsburgh's Sculptor

Pittsburg Press, 11 September 1900 at the time of the Foster memorial dedication
Born in 1857 in Siena Italy, Giuseppe Moretti was our go-to civic sculptor during Pittsburgh's City Beautiful period. His works graced many pre-WWI era public spaces. In addition to the Stephen Foster memorial, the list of Moretti monuments is long -- and mostly East End-ish. Moretti created the Highland and Stanton entrances to Highland Park (I wrote about his Horse Tamers in detail HERE) and the four panthers on either end of the Panther Hollow Bridge. At Schenley Park, his legacy includes a likeness of the 'Father of Pittsburgh's Parks' Edward Manning Bigelow, and a statue of goddess of health Hygeia for a WWI physician memorial.

Formerly in Oakland, the twin bronze Sphinxes that stood sentinel outside the late lamented Syria Mosque were relocated to Harmar Township by the Shriners when that facility met the wrecking ball.

Apparently long gone is a 10,000 pound Carrara marble drinking fountain that Moretti created for Highland Park in 1902 called Echo. It sat atop the lower Bunker Hill steps across from St. Clair, and consisted of a granite base "....surmounted by the recumbent figure of a child with its head resting in a listening attitude upon an enormous sea shell, from the interior of which the water rushes forth."

Moretti's 'Echo' drinking fountain, Highland Park, c. 1922
Pittsburgh City Photographers Collection
Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection

Moretti also crafted elaborate honor roll tablets for East Liberty Presbyterian, Shadyside Presbyterian, and Oakland's First Unitarian churches; safety trophies for Carnegie Steel plants; and various honorary tablets commissioned for local fraternities, cemeteries, and schools.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 January 1923

He even created a medallion for the SS Pittsburgh of the White Star line. It looks intensely cool and would occupy pride of place in my family room if someone wants to dredge it out of the Gulf of Athens for me:

Moretti ocean liner medallion - FOR STEAMSHIP PITTSBURGH Pittsburgh will ' be...
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 15 May 1923

Moretti also completed pieces elsewhere in the United States. His most famous work, a colossal cast iron statue of Vulcan, towers above Birmingham Alabama to this day. But impressive on a smaller scale--and closer to Pittsburgh--is his heroic 10-foot-tall Soldiers Memorial in Bellevue’s Bayne Park.

Flush with income from his many commissions, Moretti built a home and atelier in 1916 for $30,000 at 4029 Bigelow Bvd on a triangular lot at the corner of Centre Avenue. Much altered, the building still houses works of marble and granite on a far smaller scale as the headquarters for The Tile Collection.

Birmingham Public Library, 617.23e, Collection Archives Department, Giuseppi Moretti, Papers, 1888-1981; Collection No. 617

When constructed by the Schenley Farms Company, it was described as a cream-colored brick and white Alabama marble building crowned with two gilded figures. The figures are indistinct in this photo, but they look like nudes wrestling with a globe. Moretti would occupy this building for only a few years before leaving Pittsburgh in 1924 for cleaner air, better light, and his favored Sylacauga marble deposits in Alabama.

Quo Vadis

According to Pittsburgh newspapers, Moretti began work on a sculpture in 1914 based upon characters in Henry Sienkiewicz's 1895 novel Quo Vadis (that's Latin for "Where are you going?"). It's hard to imagine when reading its heavy prose today, but this novel won a Nobel prize in literature.

Set during Nero's reign, the book chronicled the love of Lygia, a young Christian woman, and a Roman patrician named Marcus Vinicius. You'd maybe guess that the plot takes dramatic turns, and you'd be right about that, but no spoilers from me about how it all ends.

Wildly popular in its day, Sienkiewicz's novel inspired Moretti to take chisel in hand and begin carving at some Italian marble to create his own Quo Vadis, a piece he intended to be his masterwork.
Detail, Birmingham Public Library, 617.1.120, Collection Archives Department, Giuseppi Moretti, Papers, 1888-1981; Collection No. 617

Moretti planned to display his Quo Vadis at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition (aka the World's Fair) held in San Francisco in 1915. But Moretti was a busy guy, and apparently commission after commission won out over completing Lygia, the bull and Giant Ursus. The piece languished rough and unfinished in his Pittsburgh atelier. Moretti presented the city with Quo Vadis when he left Pittsburgh in 1924, and it was on view at Phipps Conservatory for roughly ten years. Around the time of Moretti's death in 1935 "....it was just plain 'grotesque' to Superintendent of Parks Ralph E. Griswold, who had it taken out of Phipps Conservatory...and relegated to storage space."

And so Moretti's Quo Vadis "gathered dust in storage for ten years at Schenley Park," kept crated "in the storage yards back of the stables" before resurfacing in 1944 with controversy cloaking its three figures. The five ton piece returned to the public eye when a suburban couple, Mr. and Mrs. I. L. Peters, offered to move it at their expense so it could grace "....their Spanish type home on Pine Creek Hill, Perry Highway" in Wexford.

As detailed in the Post-Gazette, '"I think it's a work of art" said Mrs. Peters, a former art teacher at Colfax school, "and so does my husband, an art supervisor. Besides, I read the book Quo Vadis."' Cultural appropriation was not a concern in 1944, for the Post-Gazette further noted that "The statue is a bull, and bull-fighting is Spanish, so the statue ought to be just the thing, said Mrs. Peters."  

The Press described Mrs. Peters as someone who was "....supposed to know as much about what it takes to make a pagan sculptured group as the City Art Commission."

Isaac Lee and Margaret Hunter Peters lived in North Highland Manor, one of the earliest housing developments in the Wexford-McCandless area Mr. Peters was at one point an art instructor at South High, and Mrs Peters worked for the Pittsburgh Board of Education.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 September 1944

That Art Commission responded to the Peters request by evaluating Quo Vadis and declaring it to be of negligible artistic value, unfit for public display and "....obviously inferior in quality of design and workmanship." Accordingly, Pittsburgh's Art Commission passed a resolution to allow the Peters to do with Quo Vadis as they wished, so long as the city didn't have to pay for it. The committee's decision to rid the city of the piece was made on the motion of member Norwood MacGilvery, described as "of the art faculty of Carnegie Tech, and one of the leading artists of the city." He and commission chair/local architect Charles M. Stotz were described as never having heard of Giuseppe Moretti.

The local papers had a lot of fun with the sculpture, its subject matter, serious investigative journalism into the exact cattle species portrayed, and recording various opinions.

Indeed, it seems everyone had an opinion about its artistic merits. For instance, City Council President Thomas E. Kilgallen:
....turned art critic long enough to warn folks that if they want to throw the bull "it better not be this one because it's not so pretty. I went out to see the bull, which stood on a hillside behind the stables with bushes growing around it. Everyone knows a politician has no aesthetic side, but to me this bull was an uncouth, abhorrent hunk o' stone. If no Pittsburgher wants it....let those Wexford people have it.
Joseph Bailey Ellis, Carnegie Tech professor of sculpture, damned it with faint praise:
I saw the bull before they put it out of sight. It looked to me like it had been carved from imported Italian Carrara marble.  But the man who carved it didn't have enough artistic background to reach first base. He carved ably enough with his hands, but he didn't use his head.
The Mayor's PR secretary was said to have interpreted the Art Commission's assessment "....as a round-about way of saying it was 'vulgar.'"

Pittsburgh City Council wanted to sell the piece. But that's when Mayor Cornelius D. Scully stepped in.

Giuseppe & Dorothea Moretti, Geneva Mercer
Birmingham Public Library, 616.4.70b
It's all fun and games until someone tattles to the widow. Once contacted, Mrs. Moretti and former Moretti students and assistants Geneva Mercer and Mrs. Karl J. Doll begged to differ with the assessments printed in the local papers. They were "horrified" that Moretti's piece "should be incompetently and arbitrarily condemned as unartistic" given his international reputation as a sculptor. Mrs. Doll claimed the piece had been offered to her family but they had no room for it. She decried the unsophisticated public rush to judgement, which she claimed was particularly unfair given that Quo Vadis was an unfinished, rough piece:
....Mrs. Doll suffers shock and chagrin. "How could one be expected to judge something that is not finished?"
Geneva Mercer, occasionally described as a Moretti "adopted daughter", was a sculptor in her own right and former assistant to Giuseppe Moretti. She stated:
The group is a handsome arrangement of beauty in lines and masses. It is designed for outdoor display, with grass, trees, and shrubbery. It is called unfinished, but for such a display I do not see the necessity of finishing the group. So far as I know, it has never offended anyone.
Meanwhile, a citizen's group had formed and vowed to raise funds to keep the sculpture in the city, far away from the greedy grasp of pilfering suburbanites in their North Hills Spanish villas. They declared they would even mortgage their property if necessary "....to give the art a proper setting."

The Mayor, wary of arbitrarily deciding the fate of a gift by a noted artist, decided to leave the fate of Quo Vadis to Mrs Moretti. He even made a few chivalric statements to the effect that public ridicule needed to stop. But even he couldn't resist weighing in with an opinion about art, dragging on a former prize-winning Carnegie International painting by artist Peter Blume:
Mrs. Moretti is a lovely woman well up in years...and I am not going to plague her any longer by such publicity about a statue that certainly is better art than 'South of Scranton.' She has been deeply hurt by the way the figure has been ridiculed and I want to put a stop to it.
His Honor had spoken, and accordingly there was no more press ridicule of the situation (the press being a more obedient and complicit creature back then).

Mrs. Moretti let it be known that she would like Quo Vadis to go back on public display, but that didn't happen. In March 1946, the Pittsburgh Press reported that the work was still languishing
....in its traditional home in the refuse dump. It hasn't been moved despite a city-wide argument two years ago. If anything, it has sunk a little deeper into the refuse and cordwood...Councilmen, once the controversy started, wanted to forget all about it. Apparently they succeeded--nothing further was heard of plans to sell it to the highest bidder or restore it as a tribute to the sculptor's widow in Boston.
The work was decidedly the worse for the wear by this point. The Bull was hornless and tailless and "looked more like a cow."  The Giant Ursus had lost an arm, and Lygia "....to put it mildly, is bruised and battered." The new Parks director claimed he was going to have the work appraised and possibly repaired.

I've yet to find any mention about the ultimate fate of the sculpture. I live in Wexford, too, and I'm pretty sure it's not in anyone's Spanish villa out here.

In 1951 an Academy Award-nominated motion picture starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov was released based on Sienkiewicz's novel. You'd think that might have stirred local artistic memories, or at least civic consciences and consciousness. Alas, in the absence of other information, we have to assume that Quo Vadis may have met its ultimate fate on the dust heaps of art history.

In the 1920s, what appears to have been at least a partial copy of the Moretti piece showed up at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota in Florida. However, Mrs Moretti adamantly denied that her husband had a hand in its creation.

Quo Vadis, ubi iisti?

Of course, it's tempting to draw comparisons between the assumed fate of Moretti's Quo Vadis and the recent fate of his Foster memorial.

Plenty has been said in Pittsburgh (and beyond) over the years about the appropriateness of publicly displaying the Foster memorial, with various degrees of discernment applied. (Everyone has opinions and eliminatory orifices, and sometimes the contents of both bear a startling resemblance).

I recognize that history does not equal commemoration, but I also know that how we choose to commemorate frames history. Commemoration is contemporary, subject to contextual interpretation and prevailing zeitgeist. As a community, Pittsburgh has dedicated ample scholarship and a literal place to honor and recognize Foster's importance. The Moretti statue was created in 1900 with the best of intentions, funded by private donations, and well-loved in its day. But it was also a monument described then as portraying Foster "catching inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo."

Vandalized Foster statue, Highland Park, April 1937
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection,
Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection
The Moretti Foster piece immortalized the writing of the song 'Old Uncle Ned' (lyrics can be found HERE). Today we recognize that the portrayal of Foster's companion Old Ned or Old Black Joe (he's gone by both descriptors over the years) is a bronze representation of what Spike Lee termed a "Magical Negro." In 2018 such tropes shouldn't still resonate; to make sure they don't, informed action needs to be taken and education supported.

That's why when public opinions hit the fan about Moretti's Foster, I was fully on board believing we could do better than continue to prominently display a commemoration that caused pain. I also believed we could continue to simultaneously recognize Foster's contributions, celebrate Black music, and find a better home for this statue that would contextualize its historical framing for future understanding.

Times change, tastes change, understanding changes. Quo Vadis was originally a work of historical fiction with an underlying pro-Christian message. Moretti's portrayal of a pivotal scene from that story would have resonated for those who knew the plot, but thirty years on that message was lost in a sensational portrayal that was devoid of context. Moretti's homage had lost its meaning, much as the meaning of his homage to Foster changed with the passage of time and enlightened understanding. I do hope there is a kinder fate ahead for the Foster statue, for it deserves an appropriate home.

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