Submitted by: Alexander F. Contini
Ancestor / Family Name: The Contini Family
Ancestral Town: Rome, RM, LAZ
The Continis of Rome were master formatori. They made molds and casts for many of the most famous works of Italian and American public sculpture. Their craft provided the step between the sculptor’s model or “bozzetto” and the finished monument.
Among the works cast by the Attilio J.Contini and Sons are the Jefferson Memorial, the U.S. Grant Memorial and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Washington, D.C. In New York City they cast the Hans Christian Anderson in Central Park and Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. Attilio’s Uncle Eugenio cast many of Daniel Chester French’s works to include the working model of the Lincoln Memorial, The Four Continents gracing the Alexander Hamilton Customs House near New York City’s Battery and the Alma Mater at Columbia University.
Making a bronze statue involves several steps. First, the sculptor must conceptualize the work to gain the commission. The work can be an exact portrait of a known person or subject or it can be an allegorical figure which represents an idea.
Second, the sculptor creates the vision in wax, clay or plastalina which is a clay / linseed oil modeling medium.
At this stage our family, the formatori or mold makers, would step in to make a plaster mold of the sculptor’s model The model is divided into manageable sections for the mold using thin brass shims. The Contini family was known for their precise “piece” molds.
Plaster is then applied in layers until the mold is sufficiently strong. If necessary, rebar or pipes are tied into the mold to strengthen it. When the plaster is set, the mold is disassembled where the brass shims separated the pieces. The clay is scooped out unfortunately destroying the original work. That is why the skill of the formatore is so critical. A mistake in the mold will result in the loss of the sculptor’s work.
The mold is reassembled and plaster is poured into the mold to create a maquette (French) or bozzetto (Italian) or as we came to know it, a “cast.” If the statue is to be enlarged, a craftsman known as a “pointer” using a three- dimensional pantograph creates a rough image of the statue at the larger scale. The sculptor returns to the enlarged work and refines the details.
The formatore then makes a mold on the enlargement using the same process as before. If the sculpture is to be larger or “heroic” in size, the pointer may return to make the next enlargement followed again by the sculptor’s refining and the work of the formatore. A final plaster cast is shipped to the bronze foundry where it is used to make the heat-resistant mold for pouring the bronze. The Contini family worked most often with the Roman Bronze Works in Corona owned by Italian immigrant Riccardo Bertelli (1870-1955).
Members of our family would accompany the finished bronze statue to assemble it on the chosen site. The assembly of the statue was facilitated by the Contini-developed “Roman” joint. There are photos of Attilio Contini working on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the National Parks Jefferson Memorial website.
Our family folklore says the Continis were formatori for at least five generations (not including mine) so the trade may have started in the 18th century at least. There are candlesticks and tea service made by an Eduardo Contini in 1809 which would have used the same casting process. However, there is no evidence that he is related. Some members of he family believe the Continis began making castings of musket parts. There is a Contini in Italy who does not appear to be related who still works on quality firearms.
The oldest known Contini, verified as an ancestor, is Angelo Contini born in Rome circa 1816. He may have died in 1875. He had at least four sons some of whom traveled to other countries. Angelo’s oldest son Orazio was born in 1834. He traveled to France, were it is believed he owned a restaurant. We do not know if he ever worked as a formatore in Italy or France. His death record as reported to the Roman Tribunale by the French noted that he lived on Rue de Villiers in the St. Denis district of Paris. He died in 1908 at the age of 74.
Another son, Ettore, born about 1836, may have worked in Greece according to family lore. His wife Caterina Scalistiris was Greek. The 1903 business directory for Rome noted that Ettore Contini had a formator studio on Via Bonella in Rome. We found numerous family postcards mailed to that address. Via Bonella disappeared when Mussolini built the Via Dei Fori Imperiali through that area. Ettore died in 1911 and his wife immigrated to America to be with their son Adolfo Contini who came to America in 1903.
Oral history notes that a son of Angelo worked in Russia but there is no written record of any son doing so. There is a possibility that one of Angelo’s sons may have worked with the Roman sculptor Pietro Canonica (1869-1959) who was commissioned to make busts and full-sized sculptural portraits of Russian and Arabian royalty in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. We have not yet identified which archive in Rome contains Mr. Canonica’s papers. There is a “castle” on the grounds of the Villa Borghese in Rome which was Canonica’s home and studio and where his work is now exhibited.
My great grandfather Augusto (1843-1907), was the third son and worked in Rome. Among his commissions was to copy sculpture in the Vatican Museum. I have a letter from an archivist in the Vatican noting that both Augusto and his father Angelo appear in Vatican Museum documents. He is also reputed to have helped cast the Victor Emmanuel II statue in Rome, but this is family oral history and I have not found any written record. This statue is among the largest equestrian statues in the world and is facing the Piazza Venizia in front of Il Vittoriano, Italy’s tomb of the unknown soldier.
Family oral history also notes that Augusto was banished from Rome for his support of the Italian unification movement. He made a politically incorrect statement while working in the Vatican. A Vatican historian wrote me that this could very well have happened but it would be expensive to do the research to prove it. During an interview with an uncle, he told me that he thought the incident happened about 1848 but logically it most likely took place about 1870 for the elements of the story to make sense. It was at that time that the Papal States were under siege and eventually fell to Garibaldi.
Augusto moved to Naples. He worked for the Institute of Fine Arts and made the casts for the decorative sculpture in the Humberto I Gallery near the Palazzo Reale. He was back in Rome in 1884 as my grandfather Attilio was born in that year on Via dei Delfino near the Teatro Macellus. The family notes that he was asked to return to Rome because he was the only person who could safely make a mold on the second century B.C. Greek statue Lacoon. It is not certain that he did make that mold. Returning to Naples in 1893, Augusto cast Il Genio Che Domina La Forza by sculptor Luigi De Luca. Family tradition notes that De Luca used Augusto’s children Attilio and Gaetano for his models.
One son reportedly moved to England but we have no evidence as yet of any work in England. The aforementioned Eugenio Contini (1859-1921), the fourth and youngest son, did travel to America from Manchester, England in 1891 aboard the SS Alaska. He worked for the sculptor Daniel Chester French. Eugenio is mentioned in the book The Life of Daniel Chester French written by Margaret French Cresson. The archives in French’s studio Chesterwood in western Massachusetts contain Eugenio’s photo and correspondence.
Eugenio’s last major piece for French was the casting the working model of the seated Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial. The stone carver and noted sculptor in his own right Attilio Piccirilli (1866-1945) and his brothers used Eugenio’s working model as a guide to carve the final figure of Lincoln. Interestingly, Attilio Piccirilli signed the marriage certificate as a witness at Eugenio’s New York City Hall wedding in 1895.
In 1902 Eugenio invited his nephews Adolph (1881-1952), the son of the Ettore Contini, and Attilio (1884-1960), the son of Augusto Contini, to join him in America to work on sculpture for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis). This is the fair that Judy Garland sings about in the film Meet me in St. Louis.
As mentioned, the Continis initially worked for the Roman Bronze Works foundry but eventually contracted directly with the sculptors. While working for Roman Bronze, Eugenio and Attilio cast some of Frederic Remington’s last works including his famous Bronco Buster which you often see in photos of the president’s Oval Office. Remington’s full-sized Cowboy is in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.
Attilio Giuseppe Contini, my grandfather, had some special talents and soon became the caster of choice for James E. Fraser, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Paul Manship, Donald DeLue, and nearly every American sculptor of the 20th century. He passed his skills to his sons when he formed Attilio J. Contini and Sons.
Cesare Contini (1907-1990), the oldest son of Attilio, remained in the family business all his life. Like his father he was sought after by many prominent 20th Century sculptors.
Second son Orazio Contini (1909-1996) worked the family farm in Ulster County, New York during the 1920’s and 30’s. After World War II, he worked primarily as a stone mason restoring historic houses in Kingston, New York. During the war, while stationed as instructor cadre at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Orazio assisted his father in making the mold and cast of Rudolf Evans’ Thomas Jefferson. He was granted a special military leave by President Roosevelt to insure the statue was completed in time for its dedication in 1943.
Attilio’s third son Aniello (1910-1998) told me during an interview that he never could grasp the skills demanded by his father. He became a pressman in a publishing house in lower Manhattan. He was an aerial photographer in the Army Air Corps during World War Il. Aniello retired from the U.S. Air Force as a materiel control supervisor in 1967. He subsequently held several government positions in Tompkins County, New York.
Aniello travelled extensively and photographed equestrian statues throughout the United States. His photos are preserved in the Contini Family Collection. Aniello was the most familiar with the early family history as he had traveled to Italy in 1952 to meet his grandmother Augusta and his Italian cousins. The Italian family no longer worked as formatori; rather they became contractors and managed some large building projects in Naples.
Fourth son Amedeo Contini (1912-1994) helped occasionally to include work on Anna Huntington’s Jose Marti which joined Sally James Farnham’s Simon Bolivar in a monument to South American freedom fighters at the southern end of in New York’s Central Park. Attilio worked on the Simon Bolivar in 1920.
Fifth son and my father Victor Contini (1914-1995) worked primarily for Republic Aviation on Long Island, New York after the war as a pattern maker. His obituary in the New York Times noted that he “translated his ancient mold-making craft into a space-age skill as an aviation pattern maker.”. Victor worked on several aircraft including the F-105 Thunderchief a fighter/bomber used in Vietnam and the A-10 Thunderbolt (Warthog to the pilots) used in the Gulf Wars. His last work before retirement in 1977 was on the tail section of NASA’s Space Shuttle.
Victor often took leave to help with major family projects to include the enlargement of Frederic Remington’s Coming Through the Rye for the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and Georg Lober’s Hans Christian Anderson in New York’s Central Park. He worked on Frederick Hart’s Ex Nihilo a pediment for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I had the privilege of seeing this beautiful work when it was still “in the clay” in Hart’s D.C. studio.
The sixth and last son James Contini (1920-1992) worked on a few of the Contini projects to include the Thomas Jefferson for the Memorial. Due to the demands of the Second World War, the elements of bronze were not available for the arts. James and his father Attilio painted a bronze patina on a plaster cast of the statue in time for its dedication in 1943. The plaster statue remained until 1947 when it was replaced by the bronze for which the Continis made the mold. James eventually worked as a chemist for Hercules Powder Company.
Attilio’s daughters helped on occasion, but the work was difficult. Augusta (1906-1992), the eldest child, managed the business of the family firm. She later became the chef and housekeeper for The Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, the Scalabrinians, a religious order dedicated to helping Italian immigrants. They served in New York’s Little Italy at Our Lady of Pompeii Church.
Elena (1913-1999) married early. Her son Eugene Pickles helped his uncles in the business on occasion but left for military service in Vietnam.
The youngest, Concetta (1923-2001), helped during the war when the “boys” were in the army. Later, she did administrative work for a corporation in New York but her husband William Caycedo (1917-1980) helped often with the Contini family business until his death.
My wife Debbie often asks me why we are stopping in out-of-the way places on our trips. I answer that I must visit and photograph a certain piece of sculpture cast by my family. Eugenio Contini and his nephew Attilio and his sons cast many of the statues for public monuments throughout the United States. We even found Huntington’s Lincoln: The Circuit Rider in Salzburg, Austria.
Continis cast Solon Borglum’s Buckey O’Neill: The Roughrider for Prescott, Arizona and his General Gordon on the grounds of the Georgia state capitol. They cast Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Buffalo Bill Cody: The Scout for Cody, Wyoming, and A. Phimister Proctor’s Theodore Roosevelt; The Roughrider for Portland, Oregon. Attilio is featured in a 1922 film The Making of a Bronze Statue produced for the Metropolitan Museum of Art which documented the creation of the Proctor’s statue.
Laura Gardin Fraser’s American History Panels and her husband James E. Fraser’s George S. Patton are both at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Attilio cast Evelyn Beatrice Longman’s bronze doors for the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis and Georg Lober’s George M. Cohen in Times Square. They also cast the bronze doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for the sculptor John Angel.
James E. Fraser employed Attilio and then his son Cesare for all of his sculpture created during the 20th Century. Casts of his famous End of the Trail can be found in several locations to include a short-lived stay in San Francisco for the Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915. My Uncle Cesare helped restore that End of the Trail for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
There are a number of Fraser pieces in Washington, D.C. that the Continis cast to include the duel statues of Heritage and Guardianship at the National Archives and the Alexander Hamilton and the Albert Gallatin at the Treasury.
The Continis cast Donald DeLue’s Washington at Prayer on the grounds of the Heritage Foundation at Valley Forge. DeLue’s Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves at Normandy and the Rocket Thrower for the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Corona, New York were also cast by my family as were the Louisiana and the Mississippi Memorials at Gettysburg.
Continis are likely the only formatori mentioned in the biographies of American sculptors. Some sculptors such as Stanley Bleifeld praised the work of the Contini formatori saying “[Cesare] Contini’s willingness to cast my work even though busy with work for such others [Huntington, the Frasers] encouraged me.” Margaret French Cresson noted in her biography of her father that “[French] engaged the best plaster-caster to be had” referring to Eugenio Contini.
So, what happened to the Contini family and their craft? World War II saw the five Contini sons in the service of their country in four theaters of the war: Europe, India, America and the Pacific. When they returned to post-war America there wasn’t enough work to support their new families. All but Cesare turned to other employment. The 1950’s would have been the time when my generation would have learned the family craft but figurative sculpture had given way to “modern art” sculpture which used a cutting torch and welding in lieu of casting.
The Continis continued to cast statues, but not at the pace of the 20’s and 30’s. The last piece of note that the family cast was The Lone Sailor by Stanley Bleifeld for the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. I also saw a copy of this piece at a Navy monument at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
My older brother Michael (1949-) and cousins Attilio (1942-), Eugene Pickles (1948-) and Stephen Caycedo (1957-) helped Uncle Cesare on several pieces during the 1960s and 70s. Our generation studied law and engineering. They became school teachers, mechanics, college administrators and career soldiers. By the 1990s, plaster as a mold-making medium, gave way to rubber. The work of the formatori has returned as a service offered by the foundries.
My contribution to all this was as the truck driver transporting pieces from the studio on 12th Street in Manhattan to the foundries in Queens or to the airport for shipment to European foundries. On one occasion I used my “engineering” skills to disassemble the large George Washington in the Masonic Temple in Manhattan, an undertaking which made my Uncle Cesare very nervous. I also got the job every few years of cleaning the studio with its smell of linseed oil and plaster dust.
When the family brownstone home and studio property in lower Manhattan was to be sold in 1991, I found a treasure trove of papers, photographs and artifacts in a dumpster; thrown there by the men hired to get the house ready for the sale. I recovered as much as I could find. Among the artifacts were the tools used by my grandfather, the candlestick phone on which he discussed jobs with many of America’s foremost sculptors, and the typewriter used to prepare invoices for the work performed for those sculptors.
My contribution now is that of amateur genealogist, biographer, archivist and curator for the Contini Family Collection. I narrate the Contini Family story, a PowerPoint presentation titled Behind Every SculptorBehind Every Sculptor. I have shared our story with numerous historical societies and Italian cultural organizations.