American Aristocracy: The Gods of Copley Square – Fanfare
“Distinctly different from anything America had produced before.” So historian James F. O’Gorman pronounced the Brattle Square Church, and so say we all, admirers of Henry Hobson Richardson, who even early in his career impresses. Welcome to almost Copley Square in the 1870s (almost because it was not until the 1880s the square achieved more or less its final form and was named after John Singleton Copley, the distinguished Colonial painter of Tory Boston).
Visible from the back of the MIT block, across Newbury Street and a short-end-of-the-block away at the corner of Clarendon and Commonwealth, this church of 1870-73, still there today (when it has become the First Baptist Church), would be as much the northern gateway to emerging Copley Square as the MIT block of the 1860s was the the soon-to-be-squares cornerstone. And in this new landmark’s wake, the classical serenity of the MIT block, forever elegant, quickly became architectural background for one particularly of the 28 students who enrolled in MIT’s new School of Architecture in 1872, Louis Sullivan.
Impossible to imagine a more dramatic situation, more fraught for America’s future in such matters: the student, today regarded as the father of modern American architecture; his vantage point, the first school of architecture in the United States; the church’s architect, on the verge of becoming the first American architect of international stature: Sullivan, MIT, Richardson – and every day the tower rose higher and higher. Historical forces were in play more obviously than is usual. In a very real sense American architecture for the next hundred years was at stake: Richardson, MIT, Sullivan, Wright.
That was what the developing square was like in the 1870s. The founding on what would become the future square’s northeastern corner in the 1860s of MIT, the historic Darwin debates, the invention of the telephone, found their first echoes in the new school of architecture, the new Brattle Church, the response of Sullivan – lightning seemed to be striking again and again in almost Copley Square and never quite in the same way. Having established itself as a center of science and technology in the 1860s, in the 1870s a whole new arena of discourse was suddenly asserting itself, art and religion, and both discourses were making themselves felt in the context of a developing urban scene.
Louis Sullivan was all of sixteen, the youngest of the protagonists in this dramatis personae. He came from a complicated background and would have a complicated life, but this son of an Irish immigrant father and a Swiss-German immigrant mother was as eager as only a teenager can be, and his best biographer, Richard Twombly, in describing Sullivan’s response to the developing scene as he found it, offers us the first glimpse we have of life in the emerging square in its earliest years.
Twombly describes it this way: already, at least at MIT, it was a place “where instinct and intellect roamed freely,” centering for Sullivan on his best friend and role model, engineering student George Tompson, and on an urban scene evidently such as to newly prompt “Louis to wearing fashionable clothes,” his biographer recounts, and to try to “induce his side whiskers . . .[and] inject a bit of swagger into his walk.” He began “to part his hair in the middle,” and “to sport a pearl-studded white shirt and a black suit of the latest material and cut, as befitting a polished college man.” A busy college man, as his schedule makes plain.
Louis began his mornings at nine with . . . [a] calculus course, except for Wednesdays, when he went next door to the Museum of Natural History, and Saturdays, when he studied English composition and literature. At ten o’clock on Monday Louis took drawing (plans, elevations, sections, detail, ornament and sketching from buildings) . . . and from Tuesday through Saturday German, drawing again, formal logic, French, and [drill]. At eleven his courses were natural history, French, formal logic, German, stereotomy (shades and shadows, perspectives and elements of machine construction) and drawing and at twelve o’clock, depending on the day, drawing, perspectives and drill . . . . [After lunch] he studied either drawing, architectural practice, or architectural design.
It was a many-faceted course, not only a fusion of college studies with technical studies, but a unity of different modes of architectural studies then in vogue, reflecting the pioneering work of the architecture school’s founder, Henry Ware. Margaret Henderson Floyd, in her splendid Architectural Education and Boston, a comparative study of Boston’s three oldest architectural schools – MIT (1868), Boston Architectural College (1889) and Harvard (1893) – notes that America’s first formal architectural curriculum at MIT “managed to blend the new French atelier [studio] system of instruction in the high arts with the English tradition of industrial arts, which aligned with MIT’s status as a technical school.”
Still, it is striking, perhaps because the architectural department, as it was first called, was so new, how little influence it exercised on the development of the coming square of which MIT was the cornerstone. Instead, the leading architectural influence in the emerging square was a Southerner from New Orleans who came to Boston via New York, having received his architectural training in Paris. That was Richardson, who was assisted by another Harvard man, Charles McKim. And to confuse matters even further, Richardson turned out to be a far better teacher than anyone at MIT for Louis Sulliavn, who certainly was not happy there, his head turning more and more to the view out his classroom window toward the new Brattle church.
This disparity between architecture within and without the new school would not last. A decade later Richardson was choosing MIT’s best as his assistants. But imagine if Sullivan turned up instead ten years later, how different history might have been had, Richardson chosen a 20-something Sullivan, who like most natives, couldn’t get out of town fast enough, an old story in Boston where anyone with any brains usually wants to strike out for what is imagined to be a bigger world somewhere else, while on the other hand being instantly replaced by newcomers like Richardson from all over the country who, smart enough to make it to school in Boston, fall in love with the place and never leave, or, if they do, end up coming back, again like Richardson. Sullivan, furthermore, would have jumped at the chance to work for Richardson. All he would credit the institute with was that it taught him to draw really well. But about soon-to-be Copley Square the future pioneer of American modern architecture felt very differently. He never got that view from his classroom window out of his head. Years later Sullivan would assert that the Brattle tower so filled his waking hours he was sure it was “conceived and brought to light by the mighty Richardson undoubtedly for his special delight.”
Where if anywhere is the Brattle tower’s rival I certainly do not know. If it is at all possible, see it first from young Sullivan’s vantage point a century and a half ago on the corner of Clarendon and Newbury Street. The inspiration of subsequent towers in many American states and several European countries , perhaps the best guide to the building is Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s Architecture of HH Richardson and His Times, in which he asserts that “while Richardson never did anything much like the Brattle Square Church again, here he turned the corner of his career.” Explains Hitchcock:”[The Brattle church's character derives from such “fundamentals” as] the proportions of [its] exterior mass [and the effect of its] wall surfaces, of quarry-faced Roxbury Puddingstone laid in random ashlar . . . more beautiful than th[e] walls of other contemporary churches because they are quieter and plainer.” The formation of Richardson’s style took place when he designed the Brattle Church. . . [His] reaction against the [architectural] chaos of the [eighteen] sixties began there . . . His key works . . . are progressively more restrained . . . yet with little loss of imaginative power.”
Indeed, if Richardson’s great achievement was to discipline the picturesque without boring us all to death, this church, which Hitchcock calls a “masterpiece,” is the key landmark. Writes Twombly of Sullivan’s response: he found it “fresh, exciting and unique” . . . a magical mixture of masses that evoked the Romanesque with no attempt at slavish imitation. . . . [It was] masculine, bold and massive . . .[characterized by] crisp, abstract geometry . . . monumental, yet not overbearing.”
Richardson’s first great exponent, critic Marianna Van Rensaeler, did not agree. Her view of the matter has enough value not to be forgotten. “There is scarcely another work of [Richardson's] which could be criticized as this church must be,” she wrote twenty years after its design was begun, and she invoked the architect himself in support of her view. “Nothing about the church satisfied [Richardson] but the tower,” she recounted, and insisted that the best that could be said of the design as a whole was that it was “a partial failure.” She felt this was true, moreover, from an “artistic” point of view. She did admit that the tower, for which she testified Richardson did have “an especial liking,” was a stroke of genius, but found that this “chief intrinsic beauty” of the church was also “its chief defect as a feature in such a composition – its magnificent independence.”
Such magnificence surmounts every objection, however, and what O’Gorman calls the “stony quietude” of the church – lovely phrase – seems to me a fine foil to the tower. As Margaret Henderson Floyd would write in her Richardson study: “The marriage of a Norman church with an Italian campanile and arcaded porch created a dynamic fusion between the Brattle Square Church and its corner site.” And then there was the sculpture. Even Van Rensaeler rejoiced in its extraordinary quality – “noble,” she calls it – by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.
Contemporaries were at once struck by “the strange and interesting structure of the tower of the Brattle Square Church,” to quote from The Art Journalin 1877, “the most conspicuous and peculiar feature of which . . . nearly 200 feet [high . . . is] a procession of giant[s] . . . carved [into the stone work." Bartholdi's four great trumpeting angels at each corner of the tower especially fascinated, the more so because in as great a flash of inspiration as I know of, architect and sculptor supplied 'the one thing needful' on a magnificently conceived but too often dully detailed streetscape – and I do mean flash! The angels long trumpets were plated in gold. Commented The Art Journal in 1878 of these "gilded trumpets. The glitter of these in the sunlight produces a curious effect, and seems rather incongruous with the somber tint of the stone." Poor dullard. I'd eschew 'curious' for what it must have been – and could be again (preservationists take note) – dazzling.
Even The Boston Evening Transcript in reporting on the dedication of the building on December 23, 1873, found the angels "colossal." They still are forty years later in Sullivan's St. Paul's Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, "clear homage" Narciso Menocal writes, "to the frieze of the sacraments in the Bratte Square Church of his youth." Indeed, Richardson's first major church remained with Sullivan always, never perhaps more remarkably so than in Cedar Rapids, which in 1910 was not nearly so sophisticated as it is today. Their placement certainly a collaboration with Richardson, Bartholdi's four great angels always catch the eye, and their offspring are visible not only in Iowa but in the most famous building of Sullivan's career, the Transportation Building of 1891-3 at the Chicago Worlds Fair. There it was famously a sextet of angels that held up the topmost cornice. All the while, enough could not be said of the Copley Square originals, certainly by Hitchcock:
The upper half of the [Brattle Church] tower is an extremely ingenious and original creation . . . The frieze of the Sacraments with trumpeting angels at the corners, modeled by Bartholdi after a sketch by Richardson and executed in situ . . . considering the scale and the distance from which it must always be seen, is equal to that of Rude’s Marseillaise on the [Arch of Triumph in Paris]. The gilded metal trumpets of the angels . . . accent the corners of the silhouette against the sky in the most brilliantly picturesque manner conceivable. / Yet on top of this frieze Richardson successfully returned to the simplicity and structural quality of the lower part of the tower.
How important would this tower be to the new square? It seemed to some to set its whole tone. La Chiese della Piazza Brattella, Il Campanile degli Angeli, Boston’s Dantists called it, and the august Transcript willingly followed suit, while the compilers in 1886 of Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, concluding in the entry under “Brattle Square Church” that its tower “strongly resembles some of the beautiful towers of Florence in its outline,” makes that point significantly again as the keynote of the “Copley Square” entry, where they venture this: “The square is striking from the character of the buildings, The solid tower of Trinity, the lofty campanile of the ‘New Old South’ and the highly ornate tower of the Brattle Square Church, give a sort of Florentine air.” Note it is the Brattle tower, not the two in the center of the square, that seems dominant. Alas, the fact, which Hitchcock pointed out, that the Brattle tower was meant to be seen “from a distance” is hardly relevant anymore, when it is obscured in the heart of the square because of too tall buildings on Boylston Street, and its effect on the square can be felt now only on Clarendon Street behind Trinity.
The four great friezes, were a problem in execution. American Architect and Building News in October of 1881 detailed their history: “”Bartholdi . . . forwarded from Paris four sketch models on a small scale . . . These were accepted and working drawings ordered at one fourth the full size, and Mr John Evans was engaged to reproduce them upon the huge slabs of freestone, which were already in place. Two of the models arrived safely and were faithfully carved into execution, but the remaining two were lost at sea, and as time pressed, Mr Evans undertook to cut the panels which they represented from the small sketch designs.” With the assistance of letters from the sculptor and “under the assiduous eye of the architect,” Evans and his Italian stone cutters turned in a bravura performance.
So much so that it might not be too much to say, if the square were an opera – and why not? – that the trumpeting angels were worthy of announcing Richardson’s debut on the world stage, meanwhile distinctly setting the tone for the emerging square. For Boston perhaps, I will concede, and for so churchly a debut, an oratorio might be more seemly (Boston has never been an opera town), its opening chorus “The Entrance of the Gods.”
What gods were those? It is a problem that not until after they have come and gone in human affairs do we recognize our gods for what they were. When Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgewick over a century ago in 1910 complained, “the gods of Boston have gone and the half-gods come,” he was echoing Maud Howe Eliot a generation before when the daughter of Julia Ward Howe, she of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and an undoubted departing god, could be forgiven for her own complaint of the Civil War generation then passing from the scene that it seemed to Maude like “the twilight of the gods.” Yet Maude herself, who would be the first woman to earn a Pulitzer Prize (for her biography of her mother) was a sufficient god to her own posterity for sure. It were ever thus.
Maude Eliot could not get one man particularly out of her mind in this respect, Massachusetts great war senator Charles Sumner, who died in 1874,and who seemed to her “towering in mind, character and stature.” Movingly she remembered his state funeral in Boston (which makes for an interesting comparison with the recent one accorded Senator Edward Kennedy) where Maud recalled that “the black horses walked the entire way from the State House to Mount Auburn, six or seven miles, the sound of the ‘tramp, tramp’ of the military escort [and] the feet of that great host of mourners seemed to beat out the refrain: He was the noblest Roman of them all.
Difficult in today’s traffic to conjure that sound now. However, Sumner’s visage was being sculpted in stone within sight of the route of his funeral cortege even as it passed by. That’s a part of the Brattle tower too, whose trumpeting angels sound after all their brightest fanfare, not for one god, nor for two, but for all the gods of Copley Square.
That more civic than religious fanfare is ill conceived, some will say; it’s a church tower, after all. Pace. It is a Unitarian church, and of a famously liberal congregation (see chapter one). All of which explains why the only word to describe the symbolism of its tower sculpture from a Christian point of view is absurd. The four friezes are described (again by Bacon’s Dictionary) as “representing the sacraments of baptism, communion, marriage and burial.” Now, various Christian denominations argue for two sacraments or for seven. None, however, argue for four. Nor do any include burial among their sacraments of whatever number. It is the sort of iconography to be expected of an architect who kept his religion (if he had one) to himself, a French Roman Catholic sculptor who knew nothing of Boston Unitarians, and a building committee of Unitarians who knew next to nothing about sacraments.
These surmises of mine are entirely borne out by the extant correspondence at Harvard and at the church between Richardson and Bartholdi that seems to document the fact that the sculptor took the lead in the matter of the tower sculpture, as why would he not? “You have approved allmy ideas [emphasis added],” Bartholdi writes to Richardson, even admonishing him: “don’t disappoint me and don’t change your mind” – an indication of candor between friends, yes, but also surely something worrying the sculptor.
Sure enough the original idea of the four sacraments, nonsensical as it is, soon was challenged by a much more sensible and also very Unitarian-sounding counter proposal: not four sacraments, but four “periods”; Patriarchal, Mosaic, Judaic and Christian. ( A “flock” is suggested as the chief motif of the first, and so on.) Bartholdi, however, responded very negatively to the betrayal he had clearly expected. “I was astonished and wounded from the proposition you made to me,” the sculptor wrote back to Richardson, “to change the magnificent subjects on which we had agreed,” adding, “you no longer trust me.”
When next the matter comes up, the architect has returned to Bartholdi’s first idea, writing the sculptor: “I never doubted the choice of subject from the artistic point of view, but simply as to its fitness, but . . . . I have had some of our most cultivated men to see [your sketches] and I am proud to say that their success is as great here as in Paris.” The ‘cultivated men,’ one may be sure, were the Brattle Church’s Building Committee, Unitarians all. Bartholdi, hardly mollified, replied that there never should have been any cause for “worry” in the first place; “the sculptures had been “composed and executed [in a] way to be appropriate to any Christian cult.” Cult! One hopes Richardson was discreet.
Meanwhile, not everyone had Louis Sullivan’s eye! The building was not at once, even the tower, a success. The Boston Globe ruminated aloud in 1874, when the Brattle was only eight months old, that “the tall square tower . . . has been a puzzle to many people, some of whom have thought it one of the stand-pipes erected by the Water-Board.” Even the tower sculpture was not without detractors. And unlike Van Rensalaer’s criticism of the church as a whole, none of it was at all well considered. Worse than the Globe‘s sarcasm about stand-pipes was the coarse sobriquet tossed off by so many low-brow’s about the ‘Church of the Holy Beanblowers.” It was the Transcript that wrote of Il Campanile degli Angeli, but not everyone read the Transcript, nor was the Tower of the Angels for everyone, especially when reports began to circulate that there was more to the tower sculpture, or perhaps less, than met the eye. Were there hidden meanings?
The first such report appeared in a Boston journal, The Index, on October 29, 1885 (Volume 17), where the four friezes are described as “peculiarly remarkable.” It was certainly an odd enough compliment, which the editors explained this way: “the sculptor has given to the figures the faces of his friends and well known public men.” The same information is detailed four years later in 1889, in Lee Wallace’s Leading Men of the World and this time it isn’t Louis Sullivan’s eye that comes to mind, but Maude Howe Eliot’s. Certainly Maude must have been pleased to learn she had only to look up at the Brattle Tower and she would find it “easy to recognize the strong features of [Senator] Sumner.”
Curiouser and curiouser, as they say, though when one recalls it is ‘the Boston religion,’ Unitarianism, that we are talking about, it makes perfect sense, as David Donald explained that “Between the age of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, Sumner was the one American who had equal claim to distinction in the world of the intellect and the world of politics.” It is a repute, furthermore, that has endured. H Pauli and EB Ashton write:
Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was more than a political leader. He was the embodied libertarian spirit of America. He believed deeply in the global continuity of the [American] Revolution . . . [H]e saw the march of freedom . . . as a world-wide movement . . . Cultured, traveled, a linguist, an American grand seigneur, who the elect of the Old World accepted as their equal, he naturally became the Senate’s voice in foreign affairs, as much the author of Civil War foreign policy as Lincoln . . . Sumner’s enemy was slavery. He fought it . . . without mercy, qualms or compromise . . . [T]he Negroes called him ‘the Moses of the black race’.
No god was greater in Boston than Senator Sumner, unless it was Lincoln. And as it turned out Lincoln too was blazoned too on the Brattle tower! The third of the near contemporary sources of the 1880s and ’90s, Nathan Woods’History of the First Baptist Church of Boston confirms this, asserting as well the presence at the top of the church tower of three of Boston’s literary gods, all anti-slavery if not at first abolitionists: Emerson was there, and Hawthorne; Longfellow too. keepers of the Puritan-Patriot-Brahmin psyche all.
This is true as well, one must add, of the weakest link, today, Longfellow, whose reputation as a poet has so declined. Recall, however, that Longfellow has been called the man who invented America – or at least the American myth (“listen my children and you shall hear . . . “), whose vision, Charles Calhoun, his latest biographer, affirms was “a distinctly Bostonian one, Whiggish, yet cautiously progressive . . . democratic up to a point.” Never mind that Longfellow was also a multi-cultural who pioneered comparative literature studies in this country. (Well might Henry James be impressed at the ease with which Longfellow’s “European culture and his native [culture] kept house together” something James has never accomplished). Indeed, few remember that Longfellow, a great Dantist, spoke fluent Italian. Bartholdi remembered, clearly, and Bartholdi’s friendship with Longfellow certainly was akin to his friendship with the sixth of the figures Woods cites as adorning the Brattle tower – Guiseppe Garibaldi.
Suddenly, a foreshadowing of what Christianity meant for “the Boston religion” – as MA Dewolfe Howe called Unitarianism – was evident. The Back Bay’s patricate, proud of their own Patriot legacy, and disciples of Sumner in their projection of it’s continuing significance world-wide, just as they had embraced the cause in the 19th-century of Greek independence – a representation of Hiram Powers Greek Slave would appear in Copley Square in the 1870s on the facade of Boston’s new art museum – so to they embraced with equal fervor the 19th-century Italian freedom-fighters (against the hated pope of Rome, after all), as ardently, furthermore, as they ignored what seemed to Brahmins the more peripheral Irish ones (who were also, don’t you know, such a trouble to dear Queen Victoria!)
Still – Garibaldi? Not Virginian Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence proudly in hand. Not Boston’s John Adams, moving to declare Independence in Philadelphia. Nor Ireland’s Daniel O’Donnell either, famously achieving through peaceful means Catholic Emancipation. None of them. Instead, Garibaldi, the much more volatile and violent father of Italian independence, who in Boston Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis’s words was seen then as we might put it today as “not unlike Che Guevara.”
Garibaldi on Commonwealth Avenue, Che Guevara or not – was it not a huge provocation? Aristocracies, even intellectual aristocracies, do not typically enshrine revolutionaries in places of honor, living revolutionaries, that is. One of our 19th-century sources, Wallace, attempted an explanation – the only one ever advanced so far as I can tell – when he wrote of Bartholdi’s “portraits”: “Between Bartholdi and Sumner a warm friendship existed; and when the latter last visited Paris in 1872, it was the sculptor who entertained him. With Longfellow he became well acquainted. Of Lincoln . . . [he was] always an admirer . . . Garibaldi was his fellow soldier and commissioned officer in the War of 1870-71.” Very personal. Very random. Startlingly un-Boston Brahmin!
Rather than explanations of the tower’s symbolism, which seem heavy-handed, never mind unimaginative, in the face of what may be the most magnificent of all the church towers of the land, why not study the Brattle tower’s iconography in the spirit of its time and place and sponsorship, alert for likely edifications sparking, as this tower does for me, at least more than a few; the brightest being three, brought to mind respectively by Abraham Lincoln, the pope, and the Statue of Liberty! The sum of them emphasize another theme of Copley Square we have misunderstood historically.
Just as we forget that the square’s cornerstone, MIT, signalled that science and technology was the square’s first mission, enacted as we saw last time here in the historic Darwin debates, the invention of the telephone, the design of America’s first subway and the foreword to the computer, so too another of the prime causes of Copley Square was immigrants as citizens, as it were, and not just famously through the Pubic Library in the 1890s and 1900s, as is pretty well understood, but from the very beginnings of the square in the in the 1870s, part of the Brahmin’s purpose from the beginning.
Abraham Lincoln? The president who is, by the way, the one profile still instantly recognizable in the Brattle tower’s procession of giants, gave one of his most famous speeches whilst still a little-known local politician in Peoria Illinois in 1854, in which he declared that because of slavery America’s “role is soiled and trailed in the dust,” adding “already the liberal party throughout the wold expresses the apprehension ‘that the one retrograde institution in America is undermining the principle of progress and fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw.” This was not, Lincoln declared, “the taunt of enemies, but the warning of friends.”
No one has ever known from whence came Lincoln’s quotation until Rice University historian W. Caleb McDaniel, quicker than most to see how research has changed in the digital era, ran a search on ProQuest’s database of historical newspapers and uncovered the truth of the matter, which is posted on his excellent website under the title “New light on a Lincoln quote.” Lincoln’s source, it turns out, the Sept 29 1854 New York Times, was an editorial from the Sept 12 edition of London’s Daily News, an editorial complaining about the behavior of a pro-slavery American ambassador in Europe who had “recently denounced an anti-slavery letter published by the Italian revolutionary, Guiseppe Mazzini.”
Now if la Chiesa della Brattella is a fitting stage for Garibaldi, it is an inspired one for his master, Mazzini, in a capital where every other Brahmin, it sometimes seems, was a besotted Italiophile, and Harvard something like the beating heart of Italian studies in the US, whether literary or artistic, and how avoid political too in such a context? Mazzini was the first guiding light of the Risorgimento, the Italian independence and reunification movement, hugely influential in the US, and Garibaldi was Mazzini’s foremost follower, a sea-captain adventurer turned heroic freedom fighter and general.
Mazzini, who his biographer calls “the most influential revolutionary in Europe” in his time, was an extremist in the democratic cause, in many ways to Italy what William Lloyd Garrison, the famous Boston abolitionist – whose statue on Commonwealth Avenue Garibaldi looks down on a block away – was to America. Indeed, one is not surprised to learn that the editor of The Liberator met Mazzini more than once, and found him, Garrison recounted, a “sublime idealist” and a “magnetic” personality. Zealots both, Mazzini, like Garrison, was a supporter of universal suffrage and women’s rights.
If Garrison was the American Mazzini, the rich texture of the global exchange we’re noting here is clear in the fact that in the most mainstream circles (see Elbert Hubbard’s essay on Garibaldi, for instance) Mazzini was also called in his time the Italian Emerson. Significantly, moreover, just as Garrison and Mazzini read and knew each other, so did Emerson and Mazzini, although in their case they never met; their plan to do so during Emerson’s 1848 British lecture tour went awry – Margaret Fuller wrote to Emerson, and not for publication, “there is one, Mazzini, who understands thee well.” Indeed, Mazzini’s biographer suggests Mazzini thought only Emerson and the British essayist and historian Thomas Carlye, stood as importantly in their time for individual freedom. Certainly Boston’s Brahmins took Mazzini very seriously.
The most critical was Charles Eliot Norton, the uber-Brahmin Harvard art historian and keeper of the flame (an inventor of the course concept of) Western civilization, who wrote “a book to bring under the searching light of Boston principles the radical social theories that had animated Italian rebels,” Notre Dame historian James Turner writes in The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton. “When the idea came into his head is impossible to say – maybe on the evening in Florence when he and the Brownings talked Italian politics and Robert handed [Norton] a copy of Mazzini’s Foi et avenir – but in the result, Recent Social Theories, Norton concluded the cry of Mazzini, while “dazzling” – Norton was a more progressive thinker than most realize and a democrat up to a point – was what Turner called a “toxic illusion.”
“In most countries” – Britain was the only exception Norton would allow – “the people was a far cry,” he insisted, ” from ready to govern itself.” Distinctly not a Utopian, Norton was sure the people, “misled, troubled and exasperated,” needed “guidance from the few who have been blessed . . . fitting them to lead.” It was, Turner observed drolly, “venerable Boston doctrine” – Boston Brahmin doctrine – reflecting “the republicanism of the [American] Founders” and “an enduring Enlightenment faith in the plasticity of human nature,” improvable through education.
Wendell Phillips, on the other hand, the most ultra-liberal, as we might say today, of Boston’s Brahmins, was strongly pro-Mazzini. Indeed, “Phillips was a part of a large transatlantic community,” of mid-19th century thinkers,” Caleb McDaniel writes, of a circle of thinkers “who were trying to develop a theory of democratic government that would answer its enemies while accounting for its flaws – a community that included English Liberal John Stuart Mill, the Italian Revolutionary Giuseppe Manzini, and [others].” The English Republic, for instance, was one place, according to L. Brake’s and M. Demoor’s Dictionary of 19th century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland, that “offered a platform for the views of prominent European exiles . . . most prominently, Guiseppe Manzini . . . [and] also . . . articles by internationally acclaimed authors such as Wendell Phillips.”
Much less well known was Pietro Bachi. But Bachi,though a little-known figure today (notwithstanding his recent appearance in a 2003 novel, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, the Bachi character by Pearl’s own admission a composite and thus misleading). Yet an obscure Italian revolutionary in the flesh of the early 19th century may play a role after all in our understanding of a late 19th century stone figure of an Italian revolutionary atop a church tower. Indeed, Pietro Bachi was Mazzini’s man in Boston, his ambassador as it were to Brahmin Boston.
Bachi’s Boston of the 1820s, ’30s and ’40s was the neighborhood of old Beacon Hill behind the 18th century Bulfinch State House, a modest quarter of crowded brick houses on narrow streets, many of which were lodging houses (Walt Whitman lodged on Bachi’s street when he was in Boston; so did Thomas Edison), an area frequented mostly by travelers and, of course, legislators, in those days always men. Senator Sumner, a bachelor, lived only two blocks away. Bachi himself lived at 20 Bulfinch Place, just off Bowdoin Street.
A Sicilian who earned his doctorate in law at the University of Palermo, Bachi was, in the usage of the day, a gentleman, and was soon made welcome in some of the grandest drawing rooms of Beacon Street’s palazzi, including historian William Prescott’s and Harvard professor of literature George Ticknor’s, with both of whom Bachi was invited to read Dante, the background doubtless of Ticknor’s recommendation to Harvard to appoint Bachi Instructor in Italian in 1826, and later in Spanish too, an appointment which carried over into the tenure of Tiknor’s successor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both professors of comparative literature insisted their students read the classics in their original languages, and as neither was a native speaker they sought assistants who were scholars too, and a perusal of the North American Review and of New England Magazine will disclose as well the extent of Bachi’s scholarship generally. Books too there were – one dedicated to Ticknor – including an Italian grammar that in its time was much acclaimed.
Despite his evident success in Brahmin Boston, Bachi was not entirely what he seemed, however. He lived, in fact, distinctly a double life. When, for example, in his “Figures of the Risorgimento in America,” Eugene Scalia details how “upon his arrival in Boston in October of 1836,” the writer Luigi Marriotti called on Bachi at Bulfinch Place, the author finds it necessary to explain that a more truthful account would be that Antonio Gallenga called upon Dom Ignazio Bartolo! What was true of the caller was true of the host: Pietro Bachi was an alias; it wasn’t the Harvard instructor’s real name at all. That the two men, furthermore, shared similar reasons for their deceptions is made plain by Scalia when he writes that Bachi (aka Bartolo) lent Gallenga (aka Marriotti) a “most sympathetic ear to what must have been a familiar tale of plotting, detection, flight, exile. . . As they parted, Gallenga was invited to call again that evening between eight and nine, when Pietro d’Alessandro . . . [another] political exile, would join them, as in fact he did,” writes Scalia.
A revolutionary cell in Boston? Well, it would hardly have been the first. Certainly all three of these exiles had much in common, including considerable success in their new home. Both Gallenga, the subject recently of a new biography I have not read by Renzo Dionigi, Antonio Gallenga: An Italian Exile in Brahmin Boston, and d’Alessandro, the author of “Monte Auburno,” a hymn of praise to Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, had nothing to complain of insofar as their welcome was concerned. But in our context Bachi stands out, his biographers identification plain enough” “Petrp Bachi, follower of Mazzini, and hence champion of a far larger cause, the unity of republican Italy.”
Scalia, indeed, paints a moving portrait of Bachi that more than hints at his troubles: “[The] high regard Bachi enjoyed as a language teacher could have done little to remove the shadow upon the life of a lonely man who had staked it to be a leader of mean and not a tutor of boys . . . [So it was the] old Carbonari’s revolutionary zeal . . . [was] rekindled by Mazzini’s decision in April of 1840 to reactivate Giovine Italia . Pietro Bachi was in fact one of the first among the old Carbonari [a secret society dedicated to Italian freedom] living in the United States to answer the call. Appointed Ordinatore for Boston, he soon had a Congrea there . . . Furthermore, upon reading in Mazzini’s Apostolato popolare of the opening in London of a Scuola popolare gratuita for indigent Italians, Bachi hastened to open one in Boston.” Still, “on learning that Mazzini and [others] had finally agreed on a concerted revolutionary effort to take place in 1844, Don Ignazio Batolo, laying aside his borrowed name, made ready to join the fight for the freedom and unity of a republican Italy.” Good spycraft defeated him, sad to say, and larger events as well Writes Scalia: “There was nothing left for Don Ignazio to do but to go back to Harvard and his alias. ”
What perhaps seemed distinctly another letdown to a now late middle-aged Bachi looked otherwise probably to Mazzini, who doubtless saw the value of his Boston Ordinatore‘s work in America. Indeed, when he heard of the Boston school, “in the very next issue of Apostolato, Mazzini was able to announce ‘con gioia riconoscento’ what had been accomplished in Boston ‘per le cure del nostro ordinatore Professor Bachi’. Mazzini, indeed, was “gratified,” Joseph Rossi recounts in his Images of America in Mazzini’s Writings, that Bachi and his Bostonian cohort had scored such a success. The Boston school was the first in America, inspired a second school in New York, and Rossi records how “Mazzini hoped the examples of London, Boston and New York would soon be followed by Paris, Lyons, Algiers, Barcelona, Constantinople and Montevideo [in which six cities] were huge numbers of Italian [immigrants].”
How much of an overlap there was between Bachi’s role as a Harvard instructor and Mazzini’s Ordinatore for Young Italy it is hard to say. What is clear is that Bachi enjoyed a wide influence in Boston. Consulting The Teaching of Italian in the United States, one learns that among “those who studied under Bachi were Oliver Wendell Holmes . . .and Henry David Thoreau, also James Russell Lowell and Edward Everett Hale.” Furthermore, student response to Bachi was enthusiastic. In his Harvard Reminiscences, Andrew Peabody described the Italian instructore as a “man of learning, of fine appearance, and of gentlemanly manners.” Similarly, Edward Everett Hale, in his New England Boyhood, wrote: “everybody liked [Bachi], not to say loved him . . . We all had a great regard for him.” And Hale added, suggesting the strength of Bachi’s influence: “he had exactly the gift which a good teacher ought to have in interesting wide-awake young men in this study.” And not just in the classroom, but throughout America’s liberal aristocracy Bachi also “gave private instruction,” Peabody wrote, “in the Italian language to Bostons Almanac de Gotha.”
Bachi’s secret was not much of a secret I suspect. Acknowledging there was “an element of mystery” about Bachi, Hale noted how he “interested us vitally in the literature of Italy”. How far behind could the politics of Italy have been? We do know for instance, through Gallenga, that no less than the Govenor of Massachusetts, Edward Everett, knew of Bachi’s use of a false name, and it seemed not to bother him, “in the know” as he almost certainly was. Everett likely took Mazzini’s view of Bachi. When results disappointed, when Bachi’s demons finally undid him, Everett, by then Harvard’s president, found no difficulty in firing the Italian instructor for drunkenness and insolvency.
What was going on here? A sidebar may help. A sidebar in this wise – after a perfect Boston Brahmin Unitarian upbringing – Miss Ireland’s School at 9 Louisburg Square and four years at Bryn Mawr – before she joined the faculty of Wellesley, American social worker and pacifist pioneer, Emily Balch, did graduate work abroad in economics in the 1890s, first in Paris, then in Berlin. In between, this daughter of a Boston lawyer who had been Senator Sumner’s secretary, spent 1892 in practical training in Boston. Through Harvard social pioneer Charles W. Birtwell’s Children’s Aid Society, Balch, as she later wrote, “met regularly with a little group of Italian children in Boston’s then notorious North End . . . This school was one of the things to which Miss Lizzie Putnam, of that extraordinary group of Boston aristocracy of goodness and public spirit, gave herself without stint.” Like Balch, like Bachi. Brahmin values.
Oh, yes, in her old age, in 1946, three quarters of a century after the Brattle tower sculptures were carved in place, Balch was the third woman in history, the second American woman (the first being her Chicago opposite number, Jane Addams) and the first Boston Brahmin woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The pope? Between those two capitals, Imperial and Papal Rome on the one hand and Brahmin Unitarian and Emersonian Boston on the other, peace was no more possible than between the pope’s Rome and the Italian people, something Boston heard about constantly because Margaret Fuller never let her fellow Boston Transcendentalists ever forget that saga wherein even though Mazzini entrusted the defense of the Roman Revolution to Garibaldi, the European Catholic powers broke through. Thereupon, of course, they restored to his secular throne as ruler of the Papal States the only European sovereign, Boston did not need to be reminded, who during the Civil War recognized the Confederate States of America – the pope!
The Brahmins were not only right. They were outraged. And, of course, exhilarated. “Garibaldi’s American Contacts” by H. N. Gay yields rather a startling letter of those days from of all people, Charles Eliot Norton, who had found Mazzini’s cause so impractical, but nonetheless was greatly fired up by Garibaldi’s defense of it. In good Brahmin fashion, Norton declined to confuse his ideals with his judgement, but went with his ideals, writing to a friend, “it is a fine thing to be living in times that can produce such a man [as Garibaldi].” Significantly, Norton worked hard to raise money for the Italian cause, as he had generally for immigrants in Boston through model housing and night schools.
Throughout the Brahminate similar sentiments abounded. Read Henry James’s biography of Boston sculptor William Wetmore Story: “it breathed” Ernest Samuels wrote in his biography of Bernard Berenson, “of Rome, of Garibaldi . . . of the drastic struggle for Italian freedom.” Similarly, in the case of Henry Adams. Oscar Handlin tells us in Boston Immigrants, that Adams was another “ardent admirer of Garibaldi.” Adams, in fact, had covered Garibaldi, and met him, in his capacity as a journalist, whilst he was correspondent for The Boston Courier. Nor was Adams Garibaldi’s only praise singer in Boston. In one year, 1861, both of Boston’s leading ruling class journals, the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review ran extensive articles on Garibaldi. Nearly a decade later, on October 16, 1872 as his Brattle tower figure was being sculpted into place “Garibaldi on Liberty” appeared in The Boston Globe. And that, of course, was after Fuller, Emerson’s co-editor of The Dial, went to Italy, and became the ally and intimate of Mazzini.
Fuller’s huge investment in this event – she even worked in a Roman hospital caring for the wounded – resonated with especial force in the New England capital because the Roman chapter of the Italian War of Independence focused, of course, on the revolution against the pope, antipathy toward whom was one of the few issues about which Boston’s liberal-minded Unitarian Brahmins and its narrow-minded Yankee middle and lower classes could agree to put up a common front.
Like the Roman Catholic convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts (attended by so many Brahmin Unitarian daughters) that was attacked and burnt to the ground by a mob of working class Protestant bigots, Yankees all, this is yet another instance where it is just possible to glimpse the truth that 19th century Boston history was not always or even primarily driven by ethnic conflict, as so many local historians continue to repeat again and again. “Be the heroine of your lives, not the victim,” playwright Nora Ephron told her Wellesley class, but the hugely disproportionate emphasis on ethnic conflict in so much popular history writing is very distorting. In actuality, class and religion were often in my view more controlling than than ethnicity.
John F Stark Jr, in International Conflict in an American City, observes as not everyone does that Yankees and Brahmins were not the same thing, that, in fact they were “two distinct communities”; Yankees “skilled artisans, tradespeople, shopkeepers and civil servants,” Brahmins “a small, self-conscious elite . . . [with] a distinct sense of history and noblesse oblige . In “literature, the arts, education and social service, Brahmin contributions,” he adds, were such as to earn Boston the rather lofty title of Athens of America, “aptly convey[ing] the image that the city’s Brahmin culture projected to the nation and to the world.” Of Yankee contributions he says nothing.
It was not the case, however, that there was “a strong sense of kinship” between the two groups, “transcend[ing] cultural differences that were expressed in wealth, accents and manners.” Oscar Handlin, in Boston’s Immigrants, has long since proven otherwise, writing that while there was “an element of admiration, as for an aristocracy, [the Yankees] resented the aloofness and the religious indifference of the Brahmins. . . [who were] more concerned with defining their own position than with identifying with the mass of Yankees who seemed to them bogged down in mercantile materialism and evangelical superstition. In the Brahmin strategy. . . the Yankee Silas Lapham was almost as much an outsider as the most recent Denis or Bridget from Ireland.”
Say a thing often enough, however . . . Consider an otherwise not uninteresting account, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s The Guardians, which deals with the later and larger Northeast state’s brahminate, somewhat a successor to Boston’s in which Boston Brahmin descendants played a role. Of one such figure Kabaservice speculates, for example, that the family’s two Irish maids perhaps “immunized him against the characteristic prejudice against Irish and Catholics of the Boston Brahmins.” Since it was a very odd Brahmin family that did not have Irish maids (Samuel Eliot Morison in One Boy’s Boston suggests similarly that such maids were widely loved among his Brahmin peer families) the point seems rather mindless and rather falls of its own weight.
That class and religion nearly always trumped ethnicity was true on both sides of the divide, Just as in the convent’s burning ethnicity played a secondary role – far more important was the virulent working class Yankee resentment of Brahmins (upper class Yankees, after all), patronizing a Roman Catholic convent school (run by a French, not an Irish Catholic order) – so Oscar Handlin tells us that “Margaret Fuller, among many, admired Mazzini, whom the Irish hated,” while that had less to do with Mazzini’s ethnicity and more to do with his religion, he being notably anti-Catholic. Adds Starks: “The data seem to indicate that the tendency to generalize from the case of Boston must be tempered. . . Boston had some unique features. The first was the pervasive influence of America’s only urban aristocrats – the Brahmins. Indeed, the dominance of Unitarianism among the Brahmins frequently made them appear anti-Christian . . . The second was the dominance of the Catholic Church in local politics.” Significantly, Stark cites Barbara Solomon’s Ancestor’s and Immigrant’s:
Northern Italians were better educated, many were artisans, particularly stone-cutters, many were irreligious; some of their children became Protestants. Northerners were, by and large, urban. The southerners were primarily agrarian and Catholic. In addition, Northern Italians were literate radicals on the whole”.Notice how ethnicity comes in second, always trumped in the final analysis in class and religion.
Similarly, recall that the founder of MIT, William Barton Rogers, was the son of an Irish patriot whose part in the rebellion of 1798 against British rule in Ireland was large enough he felt the need to depart for America. It was not a family heritage that at all barred Rogers – because he was also an upper middle class Protestant academic – from acceptance into Boston’s Brahminate.
There were even strongly pro-Roman Catholic Brahmins, including as it happens, the Brattle Church’s pastor, Samuel Kirkland Lothrop. In his sermon at the dedication of the new church, for example, he had compared it to Boston’s new Roman Catholic cathedral, holding the cathedral up to his congregation as an example for them to emulate the fact that “to any true Catholic the splendid new basilica now being built on Washington Street will be fragrant with memories of the saintly Chevrus and the learned Fitzpatrick [two successive Boston Catholic bishops], those two noble prelates.” When in September of 1875 the competition of other Unitarian churches only blocks away, was already proving too much for the hugely over-extended Brattle Church, its beleaguered pastor, in a letter to the proprietors later published, opined without any sense of stress that “the Roman Catholics would buy it [the church building], and probably will, if it is thrown upon the market, because it is admirably adapted to their modes of worship.”
However, it would not surprise one to learn that there were residents of Commonwealth avenue who were not averse to keeping Catholics – the religion of most Back Bay servants of Irish extraction – from worshiping too close for comfort. Lothrop’s words may very well explain the actions of others in his congregation who were anti-Catholic. Certainly when the church building finally was sold at public auction in 1881 to J. Montgomery Sears, who lived just two blocks away, he did not buy it as a second home! But buy it he did, and although there was some talk of “historic preservation” – of an eight year old building – events took quite a different course and fairly quickly. By combining dates documented in Woods’s history with articles in the Transcript on May 11th and June 16th, both in 1881, and one more in the Advertiser on July 29th of the same year, a clear time line emerges. In May Sears bought the church; in June a group of Baptists held a meeting there to drum up support for a Baptist church in the Back Bay, in late July Sears applied some pressure (threatening to demolish the building in October if it was not sold by then) but in the event the point became moot because by then a sale portended.
Indeed, after six years standing closed and unused, from 1875 to 1881, Sears had a likely purchaser meeting on the premises within a month of buying it, was within six months of closing in on the deal which the Baptists finally voted on in December. Not only did a venerable Boston congregation, dating back to 1665, move into the church, (Pastor Lothrop participated in the new dedication) but Sears made a hefty profit! The First Baptist Church of Boston – the Back Bay liked “First” Churches – paid him $19,000 more than he’d paid for the church.
I suspect, moreover, this was an instance of what might be called equal-opportunity bigotry at work, for liberal Brahmins no more wanted evangelical Yankees on Commonwealth Avenue than Roman Catholics. The venerable First Baptist was one thing, Methodists, radical activists as a rule and very fervid about it, was quite another. When President Warren of Boston University argued according to the Transcript on June 16th for “[the church's[ presentation to his university . . . as an auditorium for lectures [and] exhibitions” – another sign BU was moving toward Copley Square from the very beginning – the idea went no further than Pastor Lothrop’s when he thought that the Roman Catholics would probably buy it. Whatever the reason, six years after First Baptist settled in, the Back Bay finally got its Roman Catholic Church, Saint Cecelia’s Church of 1888, built very far from the “aristocratic rectangle” and down a side street on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered Boylston Street, nowhere near Commonwealth Avenue or Copley Square.
Garibaldi himself encountered antipathy of this sort when in the wake of the failed Roman Revolution he too found it expedient to cross the Atlantic for a while, spending a year in New York, another captaining ships between South America and China, and ending up in Boston. According to Merle Curti in his article on the impact on American thought of the Roman Revolution, the only trial the Italian patriot encountered was the “Catholic opposition that nipped in the bud plans for an official welcome in America.”
It was not a good time for him. “In 1853 . . . Graibaldi, who came to Boston in command of a ship from South America [and] was entertained for some time as a guest in Winthrop [a seaside town adjoining the city to the north] according to King’s Handbook of Boston Harbor, a contemporary publication. “From Boston, shortly before leaving the United Sates,his biographer documents, Garibaldi wrote to a friend” “What can I say to you about my wandering life? . . . I thought that distance might lessen the bitterness in my soul, but sadly (fatalmente) this is not true. . . . I still yearn for the emancipation of our land.”
One could go further down this road at this point, but it is important not to. The future held – holds for us in this series – a good many and striking tales. A generation forward, in the 1880s and ’90s, of Khalil Gibran, a first-generation Syrian immigrant in Boston for example, Nail Hassam would write in his Immigrant Narratives, “Gibran is Broadway or Copley Square or the Strand or the Avenue de l’Opera” – in other words the haute scenses respectively of New York, Boston, London and Paris – but we are not quite yet there yet in our narrative. We will see monuments built in Copley Square to Gibran and huge architectural landmarks built not by the artistic hands but the investment income of Italian Americans who studied hard in the BPL. Sufficient now the Brattle tower.
“The Italian artists have been compelled to abandon their labors for the present,” the Boston Journal reported on December 23, 1873, “on account of the cold weather and their exposed position at the top of the [Brattle] tower.” A year later, in the fall of 1874,the Globe reported that as another winter approached there was still “around the top of the tower a staging which will be removed as soon as the stone figures . . . have all been cut in place,” while a contemporary account of another Evans crew in the very cold city of Chicago in the same era explained that “the way sculptors engaged in carving the exterior keep warm . . .. [is] their tiny stoves, [which] do not burn with natural gas, but ordinary laborers carry up coal to them every few hours . . . [The men stand] on their scaffolds under their canvass roofs, plying their tools vigorously into the hard stone . . . according to Plaster-of-Paris molds . . . They earn from $4 to $6 a day for ten hours of work . . . [They] draw and make their own designs [on the]stone before they use their hammers and chisels.”
Clearly these stonecutters made their presence felt city-wide, and surely as much if not more to passers-by bundled up and hurrying past, who could hardly help but notice the rather compelling evidences, as the newspaper counted them, of “shaky platforms, roofed and walled with canvass,” each of them precariously “clinging to the granite walls,” all the while their “smoky stove-pipes suggest[ing] habitation” as well as “the clatter, chiseling and hammering.” Hard to ignore.
I like to think, for instance, that composer George W. Chadwick, who lived on Marlborough Street, passing by on his way to the square, may have got the idea for his opera, The Padrone, from the shaky situation of the stonecutters. In his opera, Chadwick frankly exposes the ‘padrone’ system whereby Italian-Americans were exploited by a compatriot boss who in return for a low-paying job and housing virtually kept immigrants in bondage. And exposed all this the more effectively because “the greatest American composer of his age or generation,” in the words of then New York Times music critic Olin Downes, wrote an opera that was as good music as social commentary in the best Brahmin fashion. It “blended the exotic (Italian culture), the real and everyday (Boston life) and the tragic-romantic (thwarted young love and murder)” so effectively as to lead Harvard musicologist Victor Yellin to argue in his biography of Chadwick that in The Padrone Chadwick reached “a peak of American opera.” Writes Yellin:
[Even though the opera's protagonists] are Italian, the melodic-ryhthmic phrases clearly reflect the English text and the American locale. The result is an opera as American as [Puccini's] Madama Butterfly is Italian . . . It is quite clear that the dramatic situations have universal appeal, yet the medium of expression is Yankee, not Italian, pathos. This is what gives The Padrone verisimilitude as an American opera.
When New York’s Metropolitan, the nation’s premiere opera house, turned down the opera, the dean of American composers, as Chadwick then was (and a judge on the Met’s committee to award prizes to American opera composers) shrugged off the insult. Perhaps he suspected what Yellin concludes was the case, that then director of the Met, himself Italian, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, was embarrassed at Chadwick’s exposee.
The Padrone was not, of course, set in Copley Square, but in Boston’s North End Italian ghetto. Yet to the extent that it was the confident Brahmin Back Bay that in different ways empowered Garibaldi and the author of The Padrone, to that extent Chadwick’s work might indeed be called a Copley Square opera after all, “a sympathetic outsider’s understanding, far in advance of its time,” in Yellin’s words, ” of the way cultural forces act on the every day lives of ordinary people of specific ethnicity.”
If the Brattle stonecutters did play any such role in sparking Chadwick’s opera, it was a memory long remembered from the composer’s days as a music student of 18; a memory that stayed with him for more than thirty years; The Padrone was not written until 1912. However, Chadwick’s biographer puts the young music student in Copley Square in the early 1870s,and it was the sort of memory that might have been likely to jog the composer, one of the few “Yankees” to bridge the gap (as Silas Lapham never did!) and rise from a very humble Yankee background to achieve Brahman stature – Social Register entry, Back Bay townhouse, exclusive club, all of it – as the director, finally, of the New England Conservatory of Music.
The stonecutters themselves were on their own trajectory, many of them. The man whose firm they all worked for, John Evans, himself an immigrant, was a Welshman who built the leading American firm of architectural sculptors, a firm which was Copley-Square based,(at the corner of Exeter Street and Huntington Avenue) in response to the big city American building boom of the late 19th century, in which Boston was a leading player, nowhere more so than in the new Back Bay. Indeed, no sooner had Evans’s crew finished work on the Brattle tower, they and others were to be seen at work on the New Old South Church tower in the heart of the square, the magnificent foliate ornament of which visible all over its facades is considered their masterwork. (Evans himself would teach at Copley Square’s new art museum, our subject two chapters hence.)
That the arrival of the Italian immigrant in Boston should register so strongly artistically first, mirrors, of course, (leaving politics aside) the way the Irish immigrant presence first registered in the literary sphere. (Boston’s first and itself quite beautiful civic sculpture of a representative of the great 19th century immigrant groups was the monument in the Back Bay to poet and editor John Boyle O’Reilly, erected in 1896 in the Fenway.) And a royal road it could be, the stonecutter’s path. Consider Joseph Coletti. The son of a stonecutter, Coletti became an assistant in sculptural matters to John Singer Sargent in his work in Copley Square – the story of which will be our finale here several chapters hence – and was so promising Sargent paid his way through Northeastern and on to Harvard where in 1919 Coletti found himself in company with medievalist A. Kingsley Porter, architect Ralph Adams Cram and millionaire art patron John Nichols Brown, from which trio of patrons Coletti fashioned a distinguished career.
That road also ran two ways, and from the beginning. Long before he became, so to speak, the star of the square – as he did in the mid 1890s with the erection of the square’s architectural apotheosis, the Boston Public Library – the immigrant, not only a player in creating the architectural splendor of the square, was distinctly among those as citizens for whom several aspects of the square were deliberately designed to appeal.
Gasps of disbelief always greet this assertion and sputtered response usually takes the form of some version of yet another iteration of the Brahmin-versus-immigrant narrative, allied in this case with the New York-versus-Boston narrative – conflict is always a good read. It’s all in aid of the thesis that Copley Square (with its galaxy of institutions) was not at all what I assert it was, the result of the ongoing Puritan-Patriot-Brahmin passion – their primary passion – for learning that was the most enduring characteristic of that continuum, which we began to study here with the founding at extraordinary cost of Boston Latin School and Harvard College in the 1630s; but, instead (money and politics being actually this elite’s chief passion) the square was a last desperate consolation prize in the face of Brahmins’ loss of economic power to New York and political power to Immigrants. Nonsense.
Yet even so distinguished a scholar as Mona Domish, whose brilliant work on the overall design and planning of the Back Bay has set a standard exceeded by nobody, badly misunderstands Copley Square itself, writing that “many of the city’s philanthropic and cultural institutions were located at Copley Square, deep in the Back Bay, not readily accessible to the city at large. Most of the cultural improvements of the late 19th century were meant only for the elite.
Even aside from the trolley car network – by 1897 including America’s first subway, as noted in the last chapter – which so conspicuously early penetrated the square, it was certainly not in any sense deeply embedded in the Back Bay, but located rather on its extreme southern periphery, immediately adjoining a rooming house district in the South End that as we will see eventually here was closely tied to the square (it was where MIT students lived!), a district that not a great many blocks further deteriorated into one of the city’s worst slums. Nothing could be further from the truth. (The relationship between that slum and the square is the subject of a famous book by a Jewish immigrant, Mary Antin, that, again, will figure in the chapter on the Public Library.)
Now it is certainly true that Copley Square in the climate of its times might be mistaken for a Boston Brahmin version of Palace Square in St. Petersburg, though as it turned out Trinity Church was not the Winter Palace, nor its rector the czar. Like that centerpiece of the Russian capital, Copley Square offered socialist workers protests an inviting target. One especially huge demonstration in 1908 – all report of which seems subsequently to have been suppressed interestingly – climaxed in an “invasion” of Trinity Church during Sunday morning services by hundreds of stubborn workers demanding jobs and including not a few immigrants from southern Europe one deduces from the arch report of one newspaper that in the famous sanctuary “an odor like unto garlic arose.” The dramatic parade marching down the center of Commonwealth avenue while on either side Boston’s Brahmins descended the front staircases to walk to church in their finest finery was worthy of a scene from a Serge Eisenstein film.
But that was an exceptional event. It was already true in the 1870s that immigrants were becoming a significant and even conspicuous presence in the square not just as artists but as citizens, consumers, as it were, of the square’s earliest cultural offerings. When the new Museum of Fine Arts – our subject two chapters hence – opened in 1876, Walter Whitehill recalled in his centennial history of the institution that “Italians had been the mainstay of Sunday crowds in Copley Square,” that being the day the museum was open free of charge. Many contemporaries noticed this at the time, furthermore. The museum started a trolley service to the new facility, “with an Italian guide to bring selected groups from the North End” ghetto to Copley Square, which may surprise rather less when one remembers that Charles Eliot Norton, he of the book so wary of Mazzini’s ideas in the face of an uneducated citizenry, was a trustee.
Indeed, in Her Boston Experience, author Margaret Allston in 1899 recounted how these slum dwellers brought not only a lively interest in art to the square but more than a little of the style and dash to aristocratic but sometimes dour Copley Square that we saw Louis Sullivan attempt. Indeed, Allston was much taken by how
the great number of Italians who congregate in [the art museum] of a Sunday afternoon, when there is no admission fee. . . [The] Italian women, some in gay garments, others in plain dark clothes, invariably brightened by a brilliant handkerchief or scarf about the neck or draped on the head, lend bright patches of color to the throng . . . The men are less picturesque in attire, but are equally so in face and gesture. [The knowledgeable] account for their choice of that particular place for Sunday rendezvous by their native taste for the best expression of art obtainable without cost.
John Jay Chapman was especially enthusiastic about “Italian immigration to American shores,” writing: “The Italian peasant who brought with her in the steerage nothing but a cardboard box tied with with a cord of and a collection of personal rubbish wound up in a bit of sail-cloth, was carrying about in her brain the unconscious record of 2000 years of painting, architecture and decoration.” Indeed, “the possibility of creating an Italian/New England hybrid, possessing the skill of Paul Revere and the ingenuity of Michelangelo was a cause of Chapmans,” according ot historian Jane Dini, who in her “Boston’s Micehlangelo” – John Singer Sargent – dwells a good deal on the issues we are discussing here, writing that
In the mid 1880s Bostonians remained actively interested in Italians, particularly when they immigrated to their city . . . [William Dean] Howells marvelled at the enthusiasm of an Italian immigrant who exclaimed to the author about ‘that Public Library’. To which Howells mused, “He, a poor man, and almost unknown, had taken books from [the Library] to his own room and was able to do so whenever he liked’. These poor Italians, Bostons newspapers also reported, were earnest supporters of the Museum of Fine Arts. The transcript commended Italian immigrants for their regular attendance to the museum; they far outnumbered all other visitors, including [as the newspaper admonished] patrician Back Bay. Although Italians were often described as dangerous, they were rarely divorced from their artistic heritage and were perpetually linked to a rich fine arts inheritance.
And Italians, of course, were notoriously bad Catholics.
It is even the case that already in the 1870s one of the square’s luminaries was an Italian American, who like Rogers himself, was the son of an immigrant to America, for “the brilliant mathematician and engineer who succeeded . . . in 1872 as head of [MIT's] Department of Mechanical Engineering,” in historian Samuel Prescott’s words, was Gaetano Lanza, who another historian, Francis Wylie, describes as “the son of a Sicilian immigrant” to America. Lanza became well known, establishing MIT’s first laboratory for testing full-size structural members.
Finally, the Statue of Liberty? As New Yorkers have doubtless seen coming, the Brattle tower’s parade of giants is the much less well known work of a sculptor whose most globally famous work is the Statue of Liberty. And Boston’s tower is in a very real sense when all is said and done – with its iconography of liberty and liberals and freedom fighters – the much more complicated, much more thoughtful – all right, more elitist – Brahmin version of Liberty Enlightening the World, to give his New York work its full title.
Now Lewis Mumford long ago pointed out that “it was in the Back Bay that Boston first established itself as one of the centers of world culture in the arts and sciences.” Copley Square and its coming galaxy was a symbol of Boston reinventing itself on the global stage, the Brattle tower its first icon as much as MIT was its cornerstone. Similarly the Statue of Liberty, the more dramatic, the more expansive, and, yes, the more wide-open welcome of which at the gateway to America as New York harbor became, was equally a case of New York reinventing itself on the global stage.
If the welcome was more expansive in NY, it was more learned in Boston. Not content with Garibaldi at tower’s top, the one thing needful must have seemed a full course of lectures on the Italian freedom movement, and what else was the Lowell Institute for? Thus in 1861 Professor Guglielmo Gajani of the law faculty of the University of Bologna was invited to give such a course, even as the events in Italy were coming to a climax. His second Lowell lecture series, he counted among his students no less than Louisa May Alcott, in whose selected letters his name arises. Himself a member of the constituent assembly of the Roman Revolution in 1849, Cajani came to America in 1853 and supported himself lecturing and writing. According to the Dizianario Biografico/Treccani his lectures’ “main polemical target, the papal theocracy,” ahem, “put him in touch with pre-eminent members of the cultural life of New York and Boston.” Longfellow’s name comes up. And letters from Cajani to Senator Sumner survive at Harvard.
Massachusetts’s great war senator did not only keep in touch with Rome, of course, – Paris was always an important stop for American liberals like Sumner and for the French variety too, sullied as the
revolutionary capital was by Napoleonic assault in the 19th century, the Old World revolutionary capital was as needful of support as her New World sister city. Hence Pauli and Ashton’s hymn to Sumner, already quoted here, arises in their history of the Statue of Liberty.
Certainly, both the Boston sculpture and the New York sculpture were the issue of the same progressive minds, beginning with Edouward-Rene Laboulaye – he is also in the Brattle frieze – a French jurist specializing in American constitutional law at the College de France, who took “the United States” Albert Boime reports, “as the ideal society.” Having become during the American Civil War an ardent Unionist, Laboulaye was in close touch with Senator Sumner, whose anti-slavery discourse he urged often in print in French journals. The Frenchman was dedicated to the cause of Lady Liberty and found in Bartholdi an equal enthusiasm, so dispatched him to America to drum up support.
It was on that trip when he was in New York that Bartholdi and John La Farge, a French-speaking New York artist and second generation American, became friends according to James L. Yarnell’s biographical study of La Farge. Royal Cortissoz’s account is the most intimate:
Bartholdi . . . produced the model for the present statue [of liberty in La Farge's studio] and it was there he made the acquaintance of Richardson . . . ‘They were soon friends,’ writes La Farge, ‘which makes all the prettier a little speech of Richardson’s to Bartholdi when Bartholdi, naturally influenced in Richardson’s long stay in France, inquired if he did not like the French, and Richardson replied, “No,not at all” . . . [T]he relief for the Brattle S[quare] Church . . . [was given to] Bartholdi . . . [who] prepar[ed] the models in France, to be carried out here. In the relief as it was put up were several portraits, including those of Richardson and myself.
Gods? Sounds more like friends. But as I’ve already suggested it is only the next generation that can make the distinction. As for the rest of it, I love the way Yasmin Sabina Khan puts it in her Liberty Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty:
The calm and stable personae that resonates from the [Statue of] Liberty figure is also suggestive of the seriousness of purpose that characterized Americans in the view of the French. It would have been natural for Bartholdi to look into the faces of people he observed as models of American character. Could a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the man most closely associated with the efforts of preserving liberty and the Union, have influenced [the sculptor]? Or the face of his friend La Farge as a young man? The likeness of each was believed to be included in his design for the Brattle Square Church in Boston.
And what of Richardson’s own journey? Like William Barton Rogers a Southerner drawn North, in Richardson’s case from New Orleans to Boston, Richardson as much an immigrant as Rogers. I shall quote from a paragraph from James O’Gorman’s study, Living Architecture, about the effect of the Civil War on Richardson, then studying architecture in Paris: “Richardson struggled with his conscience . . . [T]he war set in painful conflict Richardson’s feelings for his natal and his adopted homes. Mounting stress required some sort of release . . . After stewing over the summer, in late September, 1861, the year Richardson first set sail not for New Orleans but for Boston.”
It is somewhat misleading of me to cite that paragraph, in which O’Gorman is describing a very early stage of Richardson’s engagement with the issues raised by the Civil War. But the destination of that first return trip, then “pointless and frustrating” as O’Gorman calls it, profoundly predicted the trajectory of the rest of Richardson’s life. When he returned home to America for good, he never saw the South again; never went there once. He settled instead in the Northeast and finally in Boston, establishing his home and studio in the suburb of Brookline.
1861 was the year of MIT’s incorporation and the year after the historic Darwin debates. Did Richardson, as a young architect-to-be might well have, walk over just as Alexander Graham Bell would do, to see how the early development of the era was progressing where a decade later in 1870 Richardson would begin work on the Brattle Church? It was the Brattle’s magisterial tower that subsequently won Richardson the invitation to enter the competition to design Trinity Church in the heart of the square. One wonders what La Farge meant when he referred to his friend Ruchardson’s response to that invitation as “courageous.”
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.