Moretti or forgetti it? An unidentified artwork wants to know
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.
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
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?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 email@example.com, or by calling 205-202-4146.
The head remains in the possession of the finder, David Demedicis.