The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

10.The Italian Presence in the United States Capitol

VIVIEN GREEN FRYD, Vanderbilt University

Many scholars have studied the Anglo- American colony of expatriate artists who lived and worked in Italy during the middle of the nineteenth century. 1 At that time, most Americans who wanted to pursue careers as sculptors settled in Florence or Rome to immerse themselves in a "poetic or fairy precinct" 2 and, of course, among other things, to study ancient art. 3 Few, however, have noted that at the beginning of the century when there were no trained American sculptors in the United States Italians came to this country to fill the void. Except for two works executed by Horatio Greenough -- the Rescue ( 1836-1853, currently in a storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution) and the portrait of George Washington ( 1832- 1841, National Museum of American History) -- and one relief in the Rotunda carved by the Frenchman Nicholas Gevelot and entitled William Penn's Treaty with the Indians ( 1827, U. S. Capitol collection) (Plate 71), most other sculptural ornamentation of the U. S. Capitol prior to the 1850 extension was done by Italian artists. 4

In this essay, I shall concentrate on those works created by Italian sculptors for the interior and exterior of the U. S. Capitol Rotunda between 1825 and 1844 that deal with two themes, the discovery of the new land and the colonization of America: Enrico Causici's Landing of the Pilgrims ( 1825, U. S. Capitol Rotunda) (Plate 68) and Conflict of Daniel Boone and the Indians ( 1826- 1827, U. S. Capitol Rotunda) (Plate 69), Antonio Capellano's Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas ( 1825, U. S. Capitol Rotunda) (Plate 70), and Luigi Persico's Discovery of America ( 1836- 1844, in a storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution) (Plate 72). 5 By examining the meaning of these works, I shall demonstrate that the Italian artists created a provincial interpretation of Neo-Classicism fused with images derived from popular illustrations, and contributed to the creation of a national iconography that outlined the Frontier Myth.

Possibly inspired by the example of the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, who had been commissioned in 1784 to execute a full-length, lifesize portrait of George Washington for the Virginia State Capitol, and by the few Italians who earlier had carved works for the U. S. Capitol, Causici, Capellano, and Persico came to the United States in the hopes of establishing their reputations. These artists may have recognized they they could not surpass the leading sculptors in Europe, for in coming to this country, they competed only among themselves. 6 They did not become American citizens; they remained visitors, and left the United States sometime after completing their Congressional commissions. 7

The Italian presence in the Capitol actually had begun earlier with the first phase of its architectural decoration executed between 1805 and 1814. Recognizing that no trained sculptors could be found in this country, in 1805 the architect of the Capitol, Benjamin Latrobe, had contacted Philip Mazzei in Rome, asking his assistance in procuring European sculptors. 8"'The Capitol was begun at a time when the country was entirely destitute of artists,'" Latrobe explained, "'and even of good workmen in the branches of architecture. . . . It is now so far advanced as to make it necessary that we should have as early as possible the assistance of a good sculptor of architectural decorations.'"9

At this time, native three-dimensional work was

____________________
This essay is based on research done under the auspices of three fellowships: the Vanderbilt University Research Council Direct Research Support Grant, Summer 1986; the United States Historical Society Fellowship, June 1987; and the Smithsonian Institution Short Term Visitor Grant, July 1987.

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