The man who carved Lincoln’s head

Ugo Lavaggi

Take all the histories, biographies and documentaries on Abraham Lincoln, all the novels, poems, songs, plays, paintings, photographs, Hollywood interpretations, and all the other statues (including that bizarre visage on Mt. Rushmore) and place them side by side. What do you find? That there is not a single rendering which more profoundly and succinctly conveys the incredible responsibility history placed on the shoulders of this man, than the 19-foot high marble statue central to the Lincoln monument in Washington, DC. Few would argue the fact that it embodies the single most powerful civic work in America.

Said to have been “designed” by Daniel Chester French in accordance with architect Henry Bacon, the figure was actually carved out of 28 blocks of Georgia marble by the renowned Piccirilli Brothers in the Bronx, who completed the work between 1920 and its unveiling in May of 1922. Though public record is mute, word has come our way that the head of Lincoln was carved by one Ugo Lavaggi, whose grandson, Robert Lavaggi, sells organic vegetables (in season) at the top of Wittenberg hill, and who was more than pleased to speak to us about his grandfather two Sundays ago, on that very snowy Lincoln’s birthday.

Ugo Lavaggi was born in 1887 in a tiny town called “Cassano” — just the other side of the mountain from the famous marble quarries in Carrara, Italy. At 13, he hiked across that mountain seeking work as an apprentice stone-cutter in one of the carving shops thriving there. This would be a trip he repeated twice a day, six days a week, for the next six years, until, the master stone-carver agreed, Ugo’s apprenticeship was complete, and the 19 year old was ready for Florence.

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Successful in the city of Michelangelo’s David for an undetermined number of years, Ugo next decided on Paris. Here he was likely mentored by an older Italian named Malanni. The up-and-coming carver admired Malanni’s daughter, Micaela, though the two never spoke until the day Lavaggi crossed the street to propose. With her father’s consent they were married in Paris. Shortly thereafter, Ugo left for New York to seek work as a master carver; once settled, “he would send for her.” Indeed, Lavaggi secured a promising job in the studio of the prestigious Piccirilli Brothers, of the Bronx. His letter to Micaela read in part: “Get a ticket for the next boat. Quick — before war is declared.” Reunited with Ugo in New York, Micaela bore a first child, the boy they named Rene, in October of 1915.

At least four working models of the seated Abraham Lincoln evolved in clay under the knowing hands of “designer” D.C. French, before the Piccirilli’s set to work in 1920. No photographs of Ugo carving the head of the 16th President survive. Furthermore, The Piccirilli brothers (there were six of then) were known to comment: “the accomplishment of one is the accomplishment of all;” in other words, don’t look for individual credit.

Whatever idealism we might invest in Ugo Lavaggi at this time, involved the fact that both he and his wife were strict atheists, and probably anarchists — as was typical of the northern Italian stone-cutters. (Firebrand anarchist Emma Goldman, for instance, made a point of lecturing a famous community of Italian stone-cutter anarchists imported to Barre, New Hampshire.) Liberty from the tyranny of Church and a too-often-corrupted State, would therefore have been of utmost importance to Lavaggi. What he may or may not have known about “The Great Emancipator” remains mysterious, of course, as does any notion of Ugo’s own beliefs “emerging” from beneath his chisel in the larger-than-life (and death, too!) head of our nation’s greatest martyr.

Yet directly behind the figure of Lincoln appear these words: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” And so the notion of a temple to justice, not from heaven above originating, but achieved at great cost, here on Earth, could hardly fail to have resonated within beliefs of the Carrara-based carver.

What we do know is that Lavaggi — against his wife’s wishes — left the Piccirilli’s in the early 1930’s and set up his own shop with his teen-aged, first-born, Rene. Father and son won their very first bid, competing against the best carvers in America, including the Brothers Piccirilli. The Lavaggi shop’s biggest contracts would eventually include the Philadelphia Post Office, the La Salle Monument in Galveston, Texas, and the vast war memorial in the Kansas City.

Out of town on just such a job, Ugo died of heart failure in his sleep at the age of 59. Rene carried on the business for another 20 years, in which time he married, became a Communist, and studied at the Art Student’s League in New York City. Here he befriended a Italian immigrant by the name of Victor Basil, who would eventually trade sculpture for hair-cutting, and move with his wife and growing family to Woodstock, upstate. Rene Lavaggi, his wife and his ten year old son, Bob, visited the Basils in Woodstock, with Bob and his mother staying in Victor’s cabin on Easton Lane during the summer of ‘56. Fifteen years later, Bob, that “red-diaper” grandson of Ugo, moved here permanently in ‘71.

Today Bob LaVaggi explains that his father — and likely his grandfather — believed art should be used as a political instrument. Many Woodstockers of old, be they Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Ban-the-Bomb agitators, Civil Rights activists, or LGBT pioneers, would have agreed. Byrdcliffe, Woodstock’s first art colony was, after all, a John Ruskin-inspired colony, which sought to save hand crafts from extinctions awaiting in The Factory. A generation later John Flanagan carved the Maverick Horse with an axe, in just two days, at “the worker’s rate” of fifty cents an hour. Black-listed Afro-American Communist and singer extraordinaire, Paul Robson, sang at the Maverick not long after.

In the twenties and thirties dozens of Woodstock lithographers honored Americans, reeling from the Great Depression, in gritty Black & White. Thirty years later Bob Dylan wrote many of his best anti-war songs here, until abandoning political protest (much to the chagrin of local hero Pete Seeger “who died with his marching shoes on” — and still singing.) More or less simultaneously, Philip Guston — hermit of his Maverick studio — was driven from the inexplicability of Abstract Expressionism, by his own growing sense of outrage at American involvement in Vietnam.

Obviously, there has always been that tug of war here, between expressions of “the highly personal,” and that “civic responsibility” manifest in political art.

Overtly political art is vulnerable to becoming little more than propaganda; yet remove a political voice entirely and the public goes uninformed. Left uninformed long enough and politics merges with the lowest of the arts, ie. Entertainment, until a circus results — one phase, it should be noted, which is always short-lived.

In search of an honorable exit on President’s day, we circle back to the extraordinary carving of our near-biblical hero, Abraham Lincoln; that solitary and uniquely courageous president confronted with the impossible challenge of a new nation coming apart. Whereas our dilemma today would seem to be that, as a nation, we are instead confronted with the impossible challenge of a new president, himself, coming apart.

Moral: Make political art.

We fail to do so at our own peril.

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