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Moretti or forgetti it? An unidentified artwork wants to know

December 12, 2013
Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

Marble head taken from the Elyton Cemetery circa 1978.

There exist only a few remaining landmarks that precede the establishment of the Magic City. One often neglected one is the Elyton Cemetery. Being the oldest cemetery in Birmingham, it holds much history. But, for some, the question lingers, did it also hold a priceless work from the most famous artist to work in Birmingham?

Late this summer a visitor arrived at the History Center, carrying something heavy in a flannel bag with a drawstring. He said he had a story to tell, and wasn’t sure if he was in the right place. It all happened 35 years ago, when he was riding his bike with friends in the Elyton community in West Birmingham, not far from the Arlington House. He ran across an overgrown cemetery, later identified as Elyton Cemetery, which was in ruins at the time and still is, he said. With that, the visitor pulled open the drawstring and carefully lifted out a marble head. As he explained, the head was all that remained of a statue of a young girl he had found broken and scattered in that cemetery all those years ago. He had decided to “rescue” it and, given the further decline of the cemetery, had no misgivings about that decision. Now, late in his 50s, he wanted to know what he had always suspected, Was this head possibly the work of Guiseppe Moretti, sculptor of Vulcan who worked in marble and fashioned the prized “Head of Christ?”

The History Center turned that question over to intern Michelle Mandarino, a Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school student assigned here fall semester.  And here is what she found out.       

The story of the Elyton Cemetery begins in 1821, 50 years before the city of Birmingham was officially established. This was the year the federal government granted a tract of land in Alabama to the American Asylum for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, located in Connecticut. This tract–located in what is now west Birmingham but known then as “Frog Level”–, was to be sold off and the profits used for the asylum to expand the education of the deaf at its Connecticut campus.  William H. Ely, a federal land agent and attorney for the asylum,  negotiated the land sale to Alabama speculator Col. John Dupuy and donated a separate parcel to Frog Level’s citizens for a courthouse, with the requirement that the new community be named after himself. Thus, 1821 was the year that the city of Elyton was founded. Col. Dupuy, who purchased 40 acres of the tract, later established the Elyton Cemetery on one of those acres,  most likely in 1834. And, though most of the gravestones are indecipherable with age, the oldest marked grave, that of Mrs. Nancy E. Scott, is from that same year.  

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today.

The 1950s-era postcard, left, shows the meticulously kept cemetery, with the Laughing Girl statue intact. On the right, the cemetery as it stands today. (Click for larger image of postcard.)

However, even in its early years the cemetery quickly fell into disrepair, and in 1891 a group raised $450 for a cleanup effort. From then to 1965, there would be three more major cleanup efforts, which were never effective in the long term. Perhaps the one bright spot in the overgrown plot was the Laughing Girl – an elegant marble figure of a young girl, mouth open in perpetual laughter, delicate curls tucked behind her ear. In 1974 the figure was still whole, according to newspaper articles. But by the late 1970s, she was falling apart and being used as a base for a neighborhood baseball lot. While her smile remained wide, the rest of the figure bore signs of abuse – a piece of gum stuck to her forehead, both arms now missing, dress crumbling apart. The Laughing Girl didn’t have much of a reason to laugh anymore.

The Moretti connection

The story of Giuseppe Moretti begins in 1857, the year of his birth, in Siena, Italy, more than five thousand miles away from the one-acre

Guiseppe Moretti Birmingham Public Library archives

Guiseppe Moretti
Birmingham Public Library archives

Birmingham cemetery. From a young age, Moretti knew that he wanted to be a sculptor, and that Florence was the art capital of Italy. At age 15, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence under the tutelage of Giovanni Dupre. He was schooled in the style of Beaux-Arts, a style inspired by the elegance and symmetry of French and Italian Renaissance art. Moretti went on to work in Carrara, Italy, and in Budapest, where he was given several distinguished commissions before he moved to New York City. There, he opened a studio with artist, Carl Bitter. He spent a few years in the city, working on some notable commissions, including a few for members of the prestigious Vanderbilt family. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1895, which he described as a “the fine home for the artist–strong, mighty, rugged-so!”

In 1903, Moretti caught the attention of James A. MacKnight, the secretary of Birmingham’s Commercial Club (the city’s first “chamber of commerce”). MacKnight had been tasked to hire a sculptor to design an iron rendering of mythological Vulcan for the St. Louis Exposition. Moretti was competing against three other sculptors for the commission and beat them by offering to do it for $6,000–half the amount the others were quoting, and for agreeing to complete it within the 40-day time frame the Commercial Club desired.  

Upon completing the sculpture, he discovered a marble quarry in Sylacauga–just thirty miles from Birmingham–and became fascinated with it. He was amazed by its quality, so much like that of his native Carrara, and sought to develop a quarry company there. It was this marble that would lead to the creation of his most cherished work, “The Head of Christ.”

In 1905, Moretti would marry Dorothea Long, a young Boston socialite 12 years his junior. Two years later, he would take on a young, gifted Alabama sculptress, Geneva Mercer, as his apprentice and the three of them would travel and live together for nearly three decades until Giuseppe’s death in 1935 in San Remo, Italy.

Laughing Girl in the ruins

These two historic subjects meet in the form of a now-crumbling and dismembered statue – the Laughing Girl. Today, the cemetery lies barren and unkept. The Laughing Girl no longer exists – at least, not in one piece. The last burial took place in 1919, and the cemetery is surrounded by abandoned buildings and a variety of “gentlemen’s clubs.” Although still in one piece as late as 1974, the statue would be broken apart and its parts scattered just a few years later; the cemetery itself would be found in worse shape than it is today, having become essentially a playground for the neighborhood children. This was the scene in 1978, around the time Demedicis rode his bike past the cemetery and decided to rescue the head while it was still in one piece. In her prime, the Laughing Girl stood in a brick courtyard in the center of the Elyton Cemetery, arms stretched out, mouth slightly opened in a smile, eyes focused on the scenery. Still pristine in the 1950s, she was featured on a postcard from an Arlington Antebellum Tour series, which included a stop at the Elyton Cemetery when it was still a meticulously maintained historic resting place for the city’s first residents.

Moretti’s work or someone else’s?

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.]

Could the same artist who rendered the Head of Christ, left, and Miss Alabama, center, have created Laughing Girl? [The Christ bust is at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery; Miss Alabama is at the Comer Museum in Sylacauga.] Click image for larger version.

During the time Moretti was in Birmingham — roughly 1904 to 1916–the cemetery would be recovering from its latest big cleanup effort in 1891. Could the statue possibly be his? He was, after all, varied in his sculptures, and completed at least 14 documented cemetery memorials. Moretti was also known for his fascination with Alabama marble, and the Laughing Girl was sculpted from some sort of marble, although the source isn’t obvious. Also, she is sculpted in the same Beaux-Arts style that Moretti used.

However, while it is tempting to think it is an undiscovered Moretti, there remain questions to be answered. The cemetery was likely in poor condition during Moretti’s tenure in Birmingham. There are style questions, too.  The Laughing Girl’s mouth, for example–which is open in a laugh with the teeth and tongue clearly visible–doesn’t match the mouths of other busts and sculptures of Moretti, which have always been closed, showing only lips. In addition to this, Moretti’s apprentice, Geneva Mercer, kept a scrapbook throughout her life with the sculptor. It is with this scrapbook that historians are able to identify Moretti’s works, and while it shows most of his works either in progress or completed, there is no sign of the Laughing Girl, or anything that might resemble her. Neither is there any entry that seems to fit her n all the records kept of his works. Finally, most of the burials date back long before Moretti came to Alabama in about 1904. Would he have been commissioned to sculpt a piece for a cemetery that, although historic, was small and relatively obscure?

Regardless of whether the Laughing Girl was really the work of the esteemed Moretti, there remains the bigger issue that has been cause for concern for over a hundred years, the same that troubled the concerned citizens of 1965. The Elyton Cemetery is one of the last remaining relics in Birmingham that predates its 1871 founding. While the Laughing Girl was ultimately broken apart, its body pieces scattered, it is not too late for the cemetery itself to be restored. As one citizen was quoted in the 1956, “we have so little of the past generation left in Birmingham, we ought to do what we can to preserve it.”

Postscript: The starting point for Michelle Mandarino’s work began after BHC consulted with Birmingham Museum of Art professionals, who said the statue was done in the Italianate style, but was unlikely the work of Moretti himself. Ms. Mandarino found dozens of newspaper references in her research on the piece. She also relied on the scrapbook of Geneva Mercer. The physical scrapbook documenting all of Moretti’s works is at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, but a digital copy was available at the Birmingham Public Library.  If anyone reading this knows information about the Laughing Girl, please contact us in a reply, by email bjhm@bham.rr.com, or by calling 205-202-4146.

The head remains in the possession of the finder, David Demedicis.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Rolonda R Mayer permalink
    March 23, 2016 10:16 pm

    Hi there,
    I have a piece that I always assumed was from a category of collectibles known as Blacksiana. But in researching it, I think it might depict Huck Finn. It definitely appears to be after a piece from the decorative sculpture collection by Guiseppe Moretti, thought I cannot find a match for this small piece in my internet research.
    This decorative piece appears to depict a very happy looking, handsome young man or boy, possibly an African American. He is wearing rustic country farm clothing, suspenders, a fluffy scarf in his chest pocket, and a conical floppy hat. He is very animated and turned in a 3/4 pose on a round pedestal in a classic bust format. There is a twinkle in his eyes, and he has a big toothy grin. If you google Huck Finn, many of the images closely resemble this sculpture.
    The piece is marked “copyrighted by G. Moretti (?) (the name is really hard to read), with a date that looks like 1898 (also hard to read) pressed deeply inot the body of the material it is made from. This piece is made of a hard, heavy composite material such as chalk ware, para-stone or resin, not sure which.
    I recall running into similar pieces at a Magazine St antique shop in New Orleans, La. decades ago before I ever received this piece. The pieces there were face relief plaques much smaller and meant to hang on the wall, but appeared to be the same maker. The shop is now closed and long gone.
    This piece does appear to be pretty old. It is 13-14 inches tall at the crown of the hat and 9-10 inches wide at the shoulder. It appears to have all original coloring, mostly dark browns, and dark golds, depicting the person and clothing, with a bit of red about the mouth and white around the eyes and teeth giving it a lively air, sort of like Huckleberry Finn.
    It does have a few chips and dings consistent with its age and wear. It has not been cleaned as that is the condition that many collectors seem to prefer. It is as found when it came out of an attic in the old Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans. It is very sturdy and also very heavy.
    This piece may be rare as I cannot find it, or anything like it by the same maker, in a broad general internet search. Or perhaps these small pieces simply don’t have enough value to be worth bothering about.
    This piece came to me through an estate I helped to settle and does not fit very well into my own collections. I want to know a bit more about it and also to pass it on to someone who appreciates it. If you know anything about it, would you share your info with me?
    As I do plan to sell it, I also ask that you let me know if you might be interested or if you know of someone who would like it for their collection. This happy looking fellow deserves a happy home.
    Send an email with “Bust Info” and I will get back in touch with you.
    I would be happy to include some photos if you can tell me how to do that.
    Thank you!

    Like

  2. Mary Lew Renninger permalink
    November 1, 2014 8:19 pm

    I have a signed Moretti Bust (Moat) which I want to seel…from the 1940’s…on Ebay now

    Like

  3. Anne Jemison Heppenstall permalink
    December 20, 2013 10:13 am

    Des- Very fascinating information. FYI- I married a Pittsburgh native. His Uncle, who now lives in Denver, owns a large bronze Moretti sculpture of an Indian on a horse. The name is Guyasuta. We arranged for it to come to the BHam Museum of Art/ Vulcan re opening on temporary loan a few years ago. My husband Rest’s Uncle is willing to sell this piece to someone who will appreciate it’s value and history; preferably someone in Birmingham. It has never been advertised on the public market for sale, and it is hoped this transaction could take place soon as the owner is elderly. For more info and pictures, please email my husband, Rest: mrhepp01@gmail.com.

    Like

  4. December 13, 2013 10:39 am

    Great article folks! We have several pieces of Mr. Moretti’s work at the Isabel Comer Museum, here in Sylacauga, AL.

    Like

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