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From Ore to God:
Giuseppe Moretti’s
Sculptures and the
Italian Migrant
Experience in the
Birmingham District
Exhibition
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
Religion(s) and Cultural Production(s)
of the Italian Diaspora(s)
Utrecht University, 19-20 May 2017
At the beginning of the
twentieth century, the state of
Alabama, the so called Heart of
Dixie, hosted the second
largest Italian community in
the American South outside of
New Orleans, Louisiana.
First settled in Mobile, where
they were employed mainly in
the cotton industry, most
Italians were attracted by a
rapidly growing city, whose
economy was based
on ore mining and
would soon become
the Steel City of the South.
Birmingham, Alabama, saw its
population rise to 132.000 in
1910, and became the main
economic and financial hub of
the state, thus earning itself
the nickname of Magic City. 
Michael Toumey, The first
geological map of Alabama, 1849.
In addition to the coal and iron
ore found in central Alabama,
this map depicts resources such
as Sylacauga marble,
petroleum and natural gas,
and even a few gold mines.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a small community of Italians settled
in Birmingham. Their integration was not easy. The state of Alabama was
geographically at the hearth of the seven confederate states that believed in
slavery as common social and work practice. In this context, the very first Italian
settlers of the area were often excluded from the migrants of "desirable white
race" and were confined to shantytowns located nearby the main mining sites,
such as Bessemer, Ensley, and Thomas.
Most of these workers were sent to the mines owned by Tennessee Coal &
Iron Company (TCI), while some others were employed by the Republic Iron
and Steel Co. In the mines, had to endure backbreaking shifts of 10-12 hours
per day, being paid around 15 cents per hour. The women took care of the
household and would enter the economic frame only at a later stage, once
their families open a shop or a grocery store.
Furnace of the Tennessee Coal,
Iron, and Railroad Company,
Ensley, Alabama, 1906.
Miners waiting to start their shift
in West Blocton, Alabama,
circa 1906.
A rather large Italian community settled around the mining site of West Blocton at
the turn of the century. Most of these people moved to Birmingham around 1922
once the pits were closed. A few years before, a Little Italy had been established in
The Hollow, a small stripe of hillside land situated right next to the iron ore mines.
The members of this community had to endure numerous acts of open hostility
both from the whites and the African Americans. The sound of the word dago soon
became eerily familiar for the Italian immigrants.
Picture of West
Blocton, AL,
early twentieth
century.
The suburb is
often referred
to as Dago Town
in coeval
newspapers.
The poor hygienic
conditions in which
Italian immigrants
were forced to live
are documented by
State surveys.
Entrance to workers' accommodation. West Blocton, Alabama, circa 1910.
Sleeping quarters. West Blocton, Alabama, circa 1910.
Even though they represented only less than 1% of the total population of
the state of Alabama (2.160), the Italians of the Birmingham District thus
prospered and gained a relevant role within the social fabrics of Magic City,
now commonly called, after the exponential growth of its steel industry, as
the Pittsburgh of the South. 
Ensley, Alabama, 1937.
In order to leave the tiring life of the mines, the Italians of Birmingham
started to work as fruit peddlers and vendors. They purchased property and
most of them subsequently established very successful family run
businesses, especially grocery stores (known as "Mom and Pop" stores). The
lack of racial prejudices against African Americans allowed the Italians of the
Birmingham District to climb the social ladder: offering credit to fellow
discriminated people, who were often not allowed to buy goods in other
white stores, Italian families could count on a steady and significant income.
A notable Italian arrived in Birmingham from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1923.
Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti (1857-1935) had moved to the industrial hub
of the Northeast in 1895 and resided there for almost thirty years.
Giuseppe Moretti's home and
studio on Bigelow Avenue in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1916.
Moretti’s passion for marble, his favorite
medium, started at the age of 9 in Siena
and was life-long. Looking for an
American substitute for the Carrara
marble he was used to import at the
beginning of his career in the US, Moretti
visited the marble quarries around
Sylacauga, Alabama, and when he saw
the marble outcroppings of Talladega
County, he immediately sought backing
to purchase the land. Over a period of
twenty years, Moretti invested in at least
ten different marble companies to
quarry and promote Alabama marble.
The Talladega Marble Company,
Moretti’s first venture capital marble
business founded in 1905, was perhaps
his most elaborate marble complex.
Interior of Giuseppe Moretti's studio
in Talladega, Alabama, 1920s.
Giuseppe Moretti,
Black and white
portrait, 1912.
Geneva Mercer (1889 – 1984), a young
Alabama artist, came into Moretti
household in 1907, never to leave
again until the death of both Giuseppe
and Dorothea Moretti. Her letters and
descriptions of their work and travels
reveal a literary gift and the eye of an
artist who sees every detail.
Moretti and Mercer worked together
as a creative unit. He did the designs in
small sketches and Geneva would
check the measurements and help
translate them into
large versions in clay or wax.
Giuseppe Moretti with his wife
Dorothea and his student
and associate Geneva Mercer.
Mercer stands on the viewer's right.
Giuseppe Moretti's house in Sylacauga, Alabama, late 1920s.
Throughout his life, Moretti's love for classicism found its natural output in
marble sculptures of religious theme. First in Siena, under the guidance of
Tito Serocchi, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, Moretti
learned to carve the marble directly with hammer and chisel, working from
sketch so to have an "intimacy with the stone". He would then use this
technique when carving his Head of Christ in Birmingham, in 1904.
G. Moretti, Head of Christ, 1904. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department.
Moretti considered this to be his personal magnum opus and carved the bust by hand from Alabama
marble. It is now on display at Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
G. Moretti, I Am the Way, the
Truth and the Life, 1930s.
Courtesy of Alabama Public
Library, Archives Department.
G. Moretti, Madonna
Enthroned, 1920s.
Courtesy of Alabama
Public Library,
Archives Department.
Moretti carved a few angels and
angel-like figures throughout his life.
One of these would later be adorning
his tombstone in Sanremo, Italy.
G. Moretti, Angel, date unknown.
Courtesy of Alabama Public Library,
Archives Department.
G. Moretti, Benedicite, 1920s. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department.
At the start of the twentieth century, Birmingham was a booming New South
industrial center. With the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair approaching, journalist
and promoter James MacKnight had the idea for an exhibit that could
represent the Birmingham District’s industrial might – a giant man of iron.
Giuseppe Moretti
with a clay model of
what would become 
Vulcan statue.
Armed with the support of the
Commercial Club (today’s
Chamber of Commerce),
MacKnight went looking for an
artist to help realize his vision
and found inspired Italian-born
sculptor Giuseppe Moretti,
who accepted the challenge to
create a 56-foot statue of iron
in a few short months. This
would make Moretti's Vulcan
the largest cast-iron statue in
the world. A record that is still
extant.
After Moretti’s design was approved he moved ahead quickly, building a
full-sized clay model in upper and lower halves from which plaster casts were
created. He shipped the plaster pieces from New Jersey to Birmingham by
rail and then traveled to Birmingham to oversee the casting. Due to the vast
scale, short schedule and intricate detail, the casting process was one of the
most challenging ever undertaken in the city.
Vulcan was cast from Sloss pig iron at Birmingham Steel and Iron Company. Foundry
workers spent weeks on elaborate preparations, which included digging an enormous
hole in the middle of the foundry floor to accommodate the large pieces. Around
each piece, foundry workers built molds out of brick and loam (a sticky mixture of clay
and sand). Then they baked the molds to harden them and finally assembled every
piece around a core. The space in between was then filled with molten iron.
Vulcan statue's full-size
plaster cast in Giuseppe
Moretti's studio.
Workers posing with the
 full-scale Vulcan clay cast.
Hardworking
Birminghamians cast the
statue’s parts in less than
three months, working long
hours every day and
spending the nights at the
factory in order to complete
the job on time for the fair.
After the fair, Vulcan returned to Birmingham, and in October 1906, it was temporarily
assembled at the Alabama State Fair Grounds with his arm on backwards, where he
stood for the next thirty years. Moretti would later express his unhappiness for the
disrespect shown to the statue, for he did not feel that it did justice to the model he had
made. Moretti did not live to see his work put in a place of honor on Red Mountain
overlooking Birmingham at Vulcan Park, which opened May 13, 1939.
Vulcan statue at the Alabama State Fair Grounds, Birmingham, Alabama, 1906.
Vulcan's leg being raised to the top of the pedestal at the newly built Vulcan
Park atop of Red Mountain Park, Birmingham, Alabama.
In October 1999, a badly weathered Vulcan was removed from its pedestal
to undergo an extensive restoration. By October 2001, the Vulcan Park
Foundation had raised a sufficient amount of funds to start the project. The
whole of Vulcan Park, once created with the vital contribution of Italian
stone-cutters and masons, also underwent a major overhaul in 2002.
Vulcan as it looked like before
being dismantled and
renovated in 2001.
The old tower on which the
statue stood was also
demolished in the process.
The statue was reinstated in 2003. In accordance to Giuseppe Moretti’s
original artistic intent it was positioned about 15 degrees east, so that the
anvil and the base of the pedestal would be closer to his left side rather than
behind him. A new hammer and a spearpoint were also cast. On June 23,
2003, about one year before his 100th birthday, the Roman god of fire and
forge once again pointed to the horizon over Birmingham, a memento of the
city's past and present economic strength, and a southern homage to the
colossus's Italian "father".
The entrance to the
newly built sandstone
Vulcan tower.

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  • 1. From Ore to God: Giuseppe Moretti’s Sculptures and the Italian Migrant Experience in the Birmingham District Exhibition INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE Religion(s) and Cultural Production(s) of the Italian Diaspora(s) Utrecht University, 19-20 May 2017
  • 2. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the state of Alabama, the so called Heart of Dixie, hosted the second largest Italian community in the American South outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. First settled in Mobile, where they were employed mainly in the cotton industry, most Italians were attracted by a rapidly growing city, whose economy was based on ore mining and would soon become the Steel City of the South. Birmingham, Alabama, saw its population rise to 132.000 in 1910, and became the main economic and financial hub of the state, thus earning itself the nickname of Magic City.  Michael Toumey, The first geological map of Alabama, 1849. In addition to the coal and iron ore found in central Alabama, this map depicts resources such as Sylacauga marble, petroleum and natural gas, and even a few gold mines.
  • 3. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a small community of Italians settled in Birmingham. Their integration was not easy. The state of Alabama was geographically at the hearth of the seven confederate states that believed in slavery as common social and work practice. In this context, the very first Italian settlers of the area were often excluded from the migrants of "desirable white race" and were confined to shantytowns located nearby the main mining sites, such as Bessemer, Ensley, and Thomas. Most of these workers were sent to the mines owned by Tennessee Coal & Iron Company (TCI), while some others were employed by the Republic Iron and Steel Co. In the mines, had to endure backbreaking shifts of 10-12 hours per day, being paid around 15 cents per hour. The women took care of the household and would enter the economic frame only at a later stage, once their families open a shop or a grocery store. Furnace of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, Ensley, Alabama, 1906. Miners waiting to start their shift in West Blocton, Alabama, circa 1906.
  • 4. A rather large Italian community settled around the mining site of West Blocton at the turn of the century. Most of these people moved to Birmingham around 1922 once the pits were closed. A few years before, a Little Italy had been established in The Hollow, a small stripe of hillside land situated right next to the iron ore mines. The members of this community had to endure numerous acts of open hostility both from the whites and the African Americans. The sound of the word dago soon became eerily familiar for the Italian immigrants. Picture of West Blocton, AL, early twentieth century. The suburb is often referred to as Dago Town in coeval newspapers. The poor hygienic conditions in which Italian immigrants were forced to live are documented by State surveys.
  • 5. Entrance to workers' accommodation. West Blocton, Alabama, circa 1910. Sleeping quarters. West Blocton, Alabama, circa 1910.
  • 6. Even though they represented only less than 1% of the total population of the state of Alabama (2.160), the Italians of the Birmingham District thus prospered and gained a relevant role within the social fabrics of Magic City, now commonly called, after the exponential growth of its steel industry, as the Pittsburgh of the South.  Ensley, Alabama, 1937. In order to leave the tiring life of the mines, the Italians of Birmingham started to work as fruit peddlers and vendors. They purchased property and most of them subsequently established very successful family run businesses, especially grocery stores (known as "Mom and Pop" stores). The lack of racial prejudices against African Americans allowed the Italians of the Birmingham District to climb the social ladder: offering credit to fellow discriminated people, who were often not allowed to buy goods in other white stores, Italian families could count on a steady and significant income.
  • 7. A notable Italian arrived in Birmingham from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1923. Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti (1857-1935) had moved to the industrial hub of the Northeast in 1895 and resided there for almost thirty years. Giuseppe Moretti's home and studio on Bigelow Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1916. Moretti’s passion for marble, his favorite medium, started at the age of 9 in Siena and was life-long. Looking for an American substitute for the Carrara marble he was used to import at the beginning of his career in the US, Moretti visited the marble quarries around Sylacauga, Alabama, and when he saw the marble outcroppings of Talladega County, he immediately sought backing to purchase the land. Over a period of twenty years, Moretti invested in at least ten different marble companies to quarry and promote Alabama marble. The Talladega Marble Company, Moretti’s first venture capital marble business founded in 1905, was perhaps his most elaborate marble complex. Interior of Giuseppe Moretti's studio in Talladega, Alabama, 1920s. Giuseppe Moretti, Black and white portrait, 1912.
  • 8. Geneva Mercer (1889 – 1984), a young Alabama artist, came into Moretti household in 1907, never to leave again until the death of both Giuseppe and Dorothea Moretti. Her letters and descriptions of their work and travels reveal a literary gift and the eye of an artist who sees every detail. Moretti and Mercer worked together as a creative unit. He did the designs in small sketches and Geneva would check the measurements and help translate them into large versions in clay or wax. Giuseppe Moretti with his wife Dorothea and his student and associate Geneva Mercer. Mercer stands on the viewer's right. Giuseppe Moretti's house in Sylacauga, Alabama, late 1920s.
  • 9. Throughout his life, Moretti's love for classicism found its natural output in marble sculptures of religious theme. First in Siena, under the guidance of Tito Serocchi, and later at the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence, Moretti learned to carve the marble directly with hammer and chisel, working from sketch so to have an "intimacy with the stone". He would then use this technique when carving his Head of Christ in Birmingham, in 1904. G. Moretti, Head of Christ, 1904. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department. Moretti considered this to be his personal magnum opus and carved the bust by hand from Alabama marble. It is now on display at Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
  • 10. G. Moretti, I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life, 1930s. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department. G. Moretti, Madonna Enthroned, 1920s. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department.
  • 11. Moretti carved a few angels and angel-like figures throughout his life. One of these would later be adorning his tombstone in Sanremo, Italy. G. Moretti, Angel, date unknown. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department.
  • 12. G. Moretti, Benedicite, 1920s. Courtesy of Alabama Public Library, Archives Department.
  • 13. At the start of the twentieth century, Birmingham was a booming New South industrial center. With the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair approaching, journalist and promoter James MacKnight had the idea for an exhibit that could represent the Birmingham District’s industrial might – a giant man of iron. Giuseppe Moretti with a clay model of what would become  Vulcan statue. Armed with the support of the Commercial Club (today’s Chamber of Commerce), MacKnight went looking for an artist to help realize his vision and found inspired Italian-born sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who accepted the challenge to create a 56-foot statue of iron in a few short months. This would make Moretti's Vulcan the largest cast-iron statue in the world. A record that is still extant. After Moretti’s design was approved he moved ahead quickly, building a full-sized clay model in upper and lower halves from which plaster casts were created. He shipped the plaster pieces from New Jersey to Birmingham by rail and then traveled to Birmingham to oversee the casting. Due to the vast scale, short schedule and intricate detail, the casting process was one of the most challenging ever undertaken in the city.
  • 14. Vulcan was cast from Sloss pig iron at Birmingham Steel and Iron Company. Foundry workers spent weeks on elaborate preparations, which included digging an enormous hole in the middle of the foundry floor to accommodate the large pieces. Around each piece, foundry workers built molds out of brick and loam (a sticky mixture of clay and sand). Then they baked the molds to harden them and finally assembled every piece around a core. The space in between was then filled with molten iron. Vulcan statue's full-size plaster cast in Giuseppe Moretti's studio. Workers posing with the  full-scale Vulcan clay cast. Hardworking Birminghamians cast the statue’s parts in less than three months, working long hours every day and spending the nights at the factory in order to complete the job on time for the fair.
  • 15. After the fair, Vulcan returned to Birmingham, and in October 1906, it was temporarily assembled at the Alabama State Fair Grounds with his arm on backwards, where he stood for the next thirty years. Moretti would later express his unhappiness for the disrespect shown to the statue, for he did not feel that it did justice to the model he had made. Moretti did not live to see his work put in a place of honor on Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham at Vulcan Park, which opened May 13, 1939. Vulcan statue at the Alabama State Fair Grounds, Birmingham, Alabama, 1906. Vulcan's leg being raised to the top of the pedestal at the newly built Vulcan Park atop of Red Mountain Park, Birmingham, Alabama.
  • 16. In October 1999, a badly weathered Vulcan was removed from its pedestal to undergo an extensive restoration. By October 2001, the Vulcan Park Foundation had raised a sufficient amount of funds to start the project. The whole of Vulcan Park, once created with the vital contribution of Italian stone-cutters and masons, also underwent a major overhaul in 2002. Vulcan as it looked like before being dismantled and renovated in 2001. The old tower on which the statue stood was also demolished in the process. The statue was reinstated in 2003. In accordance to Giuseppe Moretti’s original artistic intent it was positioned about 15 degrees east, so that the anvil and the base of the pedestal would be closer to his left side rather than behind him. A new hammer and a spearpoint were also cast. On June 23, 2003, about one year before his 100th birthday, the Roman god of fire and forge once again pointed to the horizon over Birmingham, a memento of the city's past and present economic strength, and a southern homage to the colossus's Italian "father". The entrance to the newly built sandstone Vulcan tower.