Mt. Rushmore, one of the most universally known monumental embodiments of American nationhood and democracy, instantly evokes images of epic size, majesty and grandeur that complement the historical reputations of the heroes it commemorates: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Yet what impression would it make if there was nothing more to it, if the figures were as cold and geometrical as a pyramid, or the artwork of totalitarian states? The fact that the giant heads ultimately leave one with an almost intimate sense of noble, idealistic, and pensive humanity is the effect of one man’s artistry: Luigi Del Bianco, the Friulan-born Chief Carver of the mountain whose critical role is only now emerging from the shadows of the monument. His legacy was the focus of this year’s annual Italian American Heritage Ceremony and Luncheon at the Italian Center in Poughkeespsie, New York on Saturday, September 30th, where his grandson Lou Del Bianco was the Special Guest Speaker. “He had the most important job on the mountain – refinement of expression,” the younger Del Bianco, who was instrumental in having a plaque dedicated to the sculptor at Mt. Rushmore in September and has just published a book, Out Of Rushmore’s Shadow: The Luigi Del Bianco Story, told the rapt gathering. “The humanity coming out of those faces, that is the work of my grandfather.”
With so much negativity swirling lately around the intemperate demands that Christopher Columbus’ monuments should be taken down around the country and Columbus Day abolished, the heritage celebration, which began with the solemn placing of a wreath before the statue of the great navigator that stands in front of the Italian Center, naturally featured a strident defense of the Italians’ vanguard role in the New World from the beginning. Ernest Bruno, the Center’s president, hailed the “great Renaissance explorer” as the initiator of “cultural exchange between Europe and America” and exhorted his listeners to “not let them take our holiday away from us.” Dutchess County legislator Joseph Incoronato asked rhetorically, “Do we go to Mt. Rushmore and erase Washington because he had slaves?” and encouraged people to “fight through your legislators” to preserve their history. The very choice of subject for the gathering was an affirmation that some things — and very great things – are indeed set in stone, and never so permanently than when Italians have carved them there. Rosemarie Calista of the Centers’ Ladies’ Auxilliary, who was instrumental in bringing Lou Del Bianco to the event, introduced the man who had that strong message to deliver. Dressed in 1930’s-style golfing knickers in emulation of his forebear, the actor, singer and storyteller proceeded to articulate just what his grandfather had helped to set on that mountain. “Mt. Rushmore – You’ve seen it all your life,” he began. “Washington, who started democracy during the Revolution. Jefferson, who expanded democracy via the Louisiana Purchase. Roosevelt, who conserved democracy in our national parks. Lincoln, who saved democracy by abolishing slavery and preserving the Union. The vision of embodying these turning points in stone was the fruit of the genius of Gutzon Borglum, the man who figured out how to carve sixty foot figures out of a mountain, and whom my grandfather always called ‘Il mio maestro.’ The execution of the forms fell to the 400 workers who labored for fourteen years, from 1927 to 1941, to make it a reality. But apart from Borglum, there was only one classically trained artist on Mt. Rushmore – the man whom the maestro always simply called “Bianco.”
Born on a ship sailing off Le Havre, France in 1892, as his parents returned from an unsuccessful effort to establish themselves in America, Luigi Del Bianco’s family hailed from near the village of Meduno in the province of Pordenone, Friuli, where he grew up knowing Primo Carnera, the future heavyweight champion of the world and a lifelong friend. When he showed an early aptitude for carving in wood, he was apprenticed to master stone carvers in both Austria and Venice. Immigrating to the United States in 1908, he returned to serve in the Italian Army after Italy entered World War I in 1915. It was only after his permanent establishment in Port Chester, New York in 1920 that he was introduced through a friend to Borglum, who was taking on massive projects ranging from freestanding group sculptures such as the Wars of America in Newark, New Jersey to the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia. Although their partnership was often interrupted, art history was definitively made when in 1933 Il maestro summoned “Bianco” to take “complete charge of the practical ways and means of dealing with the finesse of carving and instructing the other carvers.” “It was a task that left no room for mistakes,” Lou Del Bianco assured his hearers. “Pointing – the transferal of exact proportions from model to the stone. Blasting – the use of dynamite to remove huge quantities of rocks. Drilling – getting to the basic forms. Honeycombing — drilling a series of smaller holes that allow the final shape to emerge. Finishing — getting the final subtle nuances right, and making the finished product as
smooth as a baby’s face. And knowing amidst all this what was possible and what was impossible; the faces that are so familiar are all carved out of granite, while lower down on the mountain pegmatite stone prevailed. It was much more difficult to work with, and is one of the reasons the figures were never brought down to waist level, as had been Borglum’s original design. That and the fact that Borglum died unexpectedly in 1941, to my grandfather’s great grief and the termination of the project.” Yet despite the enormity, the danger, and the difficulty of the work, there was one grief that Il maestro and Bianco never had to deal with: “Nobody died carving Mt. Rushmore,” Lou Del Bianco proudly relates.
Out of Rushmore’s Shadow details the long effort to give Luigi Del Bianco the credit he deserved for his special role, which is fully documented in Borglum’s professional and personal correspondence, and culminated in the unveiling of a grand plaque at Mt. Rushmore on September 16, 2017, over 75 years after work on the mountain ended. The presentation fairly gushed with personal details about Luigi Del Bianco, some from family lore and some from Lou himself, who was only six years old when his grandfather died aged 77 in 1969: his personal warmth, devotion to family, excellent relations with the Lakota Sioux Indians who inhabit the Black Hills where Mt. Rushmore is located, how his wife Nicoletta taught the Lakota women how to cook everything from macaroni to tomato sauce to polenta, but above all his fierce pride. “Of all the artists in America, Mr. Borglum chose me to do this work,” the Chief Carver would often say in his later years. “If this is not the American dream,” his grandson concludes, I don’t know what is.”