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BORROWED RADIANCE
19th to 20th Century Italian Artists of Northern California
By Francine Brevetti

    It is heartbreaking but after Moar’s closed, the mural was removed and stored in Los Banos. We have no record of its current location.

    Let us know if you have news of its whereabouts.

    Gottardo Piazzoni (1872 to 1945), a Swiss-Italian was among the school of painters known as tonalists who used a muted palette. His landscapes are dreamy and poetic. His most famous local work adorned San Francisco’s Main Public Library staircase. But when the library was converted to the Asian Art Museum, Piazzoni’s expansive, subdued murals were transferred to the De Young Museum. They are there today.

    His grandson, the late painter Russell Chatham, reminisces growing up under his nonno’s tutelage and discusses Piazzoni’s life and work in this video:

    The Works Progress Administration, the project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that put folks to work during the Great Depression, employed well over 30 Italian and Italifornian painters, muralists, tile setters, and sculptors. 

Today, San Franciscans and tourists are most likely to know the murals of Rinaldo Cuneo (1877-1939) in Coit Tower. 

    Born in San Francisco, Cuneo studied art in London and Paris before the WPA engaged him as one of the Coit Tower muralists. At this monument he and other muralists painted directly on wet plaster, depicting scenes of Californian laborers in agriculture, industry, urban and rural life.

    Another WPA artists was Primo Caredio (1896-1964) whose tile murals of wine-making and grape clusters festoon the walls of the Beach Chalet on the Great Highway.  The former cinema, the Alhambra on Polk St., is today a health club. But its tiled minaret still bears witness to Caredio’s skill. 

    From the sober works of the WPA, we turn to the opulence of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Publisher William Randolph Hearst studded his castle with treasures stolen from Europe. He also had such gems copied into his splendid palazzo. 

    Hearst engaged a quantity of Italian artists to create sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and murals, adorning his playground for the wealthy and famous. Among them were Cardini, the uncle and nephew Giaritta, and Ettore Serbaroli.

    According to the Castle’s records, stone mason and carver Lorenzo Cardini (1885-1969) “created original artwork and fabricated modern additions that would blend in with the fragments of antique artworks.” Cardini’s carvings include the Standing Swan lampposts found along the Neptune Terrace.  A video of his work can be seen on the Hearst Castle site: https://hearstcastle.org

    Tony Giaritta and his nephew Joseph (1909-2004) set the tile for the Castle’s opulent Roman pool. In this stimulating video, the Giaritta’s describe how they cut sheets of Murano glass to fashion the pool’s glowing tiles.

    Famed Hearst architect Julia Morgan engaged Ettore Serbaroli (1881-1951) directly to recreate and restore ancient ceilings and sculptures. Completed between 1924-1927, his work demonstrates his extensive knowledge of European detailing from his experience creating original ornamental art in churches and other buildings.

    Observed Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature, University of California at San Diego Pasquale Verdicchio:

    “The treasury of Italian artists in California is quite extensive. While some are quite well-known, many more await to be acknowledged. Whether native to California, here from other parts of the U.S., or having come directly from Italy, the breadth and depth of their styles and skills are wide-ranging.”

    This modest account honors only a few of the 20th century artists we have found working in Northern California. Future accounts will be more expansive and generous. We promise.

    It is no secret that Italians brought their art and craftsmanship to California. What’s astounding is how many there were and are. Far too many for this mere peek at them.

    “Like California's landscape shaped by Italian agriculture, and California’s cities shaped by Italianate architecture, California’s art has a noticeable Italian accent. From the folk-art towers of Sabato Rodia, to the murals of Gottardo Piazzoni, to the sculptures of Bufano and diSuvero, to the canvases of Rinaldo Cuneo and Jerry Carniglia, Italian Americans have shaped both the look of California, and the way Californians look at their world,” observed Lawrence DiStasi, author and Italian American historian.

    The work of these artisti and artigiani -- as clustered around the San Francisco Bay Area -- can be seen among the works the Hearst Castle in San Simeon (built between 1919 and 1947) and the effulgence of the Works Progress Administration, (in force 1935 to 1943). Yet many worked independently also for their clients.

    Italifornians© of a certain age will remember Benny (Beniamino) Bufano (1890-1970) for his madcap behavior in San Francisco but much more for his extraordinary, cylindrical and vertical sculptures. Bufano is known especially for numerous sculptures of the Madonna, of several named Peace and renowned interpretations of St. Francis of Assisi. 

    St. Francis of the Guns, made of melted artillery, displays a mosaic of the children of the world on its torso. It currently resides at San Francisco City College. His depiction of Sun-Yat Sen dominates St. Mary’s Park in Chinatown.

    His vast mosaic mural embellished the walls of Moar’s Cafeteria (33 Powell Street) for several years.