By Peter Finney Jr.
Sculptor Franco Alessandrini, an only child, was born in 1944 in the Tuscan region of Italy. In the final months of WWII, he lost both parents, was raised temporarily by his grandmother and then lived in an orphanage until he was 21, displaying an artistic proficiency that set him apart from his friends and classmates.
“All the kids tell you how good you are, and then you realize how terrible you are,” Alessandrini, now 73, said, laughing. “I always loved to draw pictures of people.”
In 1967, Alessandrini, who had trained in fresco and sculpture at the Art Institute of Florence, found his way to New Orleans, and the young sculptor became so enthralled by the city’s music and art that he established his new home here. For the last 50 years, he’s lived and fashioned artwork with one foot in the Mississippi and the other in Tuscany.
“Florence was the renaissance in art,” Alessandrini said. “When I came to New Orleans, it was the renaissance in music – jazz. It was my inspiration. I’ve been painting and sculpting musicians ever since. This is my home. When I am in Italy, after awhile, I start to miss things and think, ‘It would be nice to have a po-boy.’ And when I am here, I say, ‘It would be nice to have a nice pasta with truffles.’ It’s nice to be in both places.”
Recounting 1987 papal visit
Alessandrini was in New Orleans in 1987 when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to St. Louis Cathedral. Last year, as he began to read more about the City of New Orleans’ Tricentennial celebration in 2018, he was struck that the pope’s visit (Sept. 11-13, 1987) was so important that it had to be memorialized with a statue outside the cathedral.
Alessandrini initially discussed his idea with Frank Maselli, chairman of the American Italian Cultural Center, and Maselli then approached Archbishop Gregory Aymond about the possibility.
“I said, ‘Look, I’ll raise the money,” Maselli said. “Once I said I’d raise the money, then it was easy. This will be the church’s gift to the City of New Orleans for the Tricentennial.”
Using clay, Alessandrini fashioned an 18-inch model of St. John Paul II with his arms embracing two children – a boy of Creole heritage looking up to offer the pope a magnolia blossom, a symbol of Louisiana and the South, and a girl with her hands clasped in prayer.
“He was the pope of the young people,” Alessandrini said. “He liked to surround himself with children.”
When Archbishop Aymond saw the mock-up, Maselli said the archbishop was elated and “immediately loved it. He told me, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Strong local support
Within weeks, the American Italian Renaissance Foundation raised much of the estimated $100,000 needed for the project – a six-foot statue of pristine white Carrara marble that Alessandrini will begin sculpting next week and take two months to complete. The foundation is continuing its fundraising campaign to defray other expenses. Maselli said the statue may be transported to Rome before it leaves for New Orleans so that Pope Francis can bless it.
The statue will rest on a 20-inch base near the cathedral’s front entrance, where a historical plaque commemorates the papal visit of Sept. 11-13, 1987. The existing plaque will be raised to a position above the statue, which will rest behind a wrought-iron fence.
“The plan is the fence will have a gate that can be opened during the day so that people can see the statue up close and take pictures with it,” Maselli said.
During the fundraising phase, Alessandrini returned to Italy to complete a four-foot scale model of the statue in clay and also visited a marble quarry in Carrara to pick out the eight-foot block from which the six-foot statue will emerge.
Statue will emerge
Assistants in his studio in Italy have trimmed the block so that it is ready for Alessandrini’s chisels. The original block, weighing about 8,000 pounds, will result in a statue weighing about 5,000 pounds.
Alessandrini said Carrara marble, which Michelangelo used to create the Pieta for St. Peter’s Basilica, is prized throughout the world for its pure white consistency.
“Most marble has some kind of grain, some kind of gray,” Alessandrini said. “It’s very hard to find a white piece of marble. Every country has marble. In Greece, there is an absolute black, which is very expensive marble. In Portugal, they’ve got a pink marble, which is very precious. India has a blue marble. In Italy, you go to Carrara, which is the marble Michelangelo used himself. The Pieta comes from a quarry that has been closed now for 75 years. If you saw the Pieta, it is almost translucent. It is something beautiful. All the white marble comes from this small, 50-mile region.”
Asked what would happen if he made a mistake with his chisel, Alessandrini smiled and said: “Well, you would have to get another block of marble. You cannot patch it up.”
“People think when you start out you just pound away with a big hammer,” Alessandrini said. “But the closer you go, the lighter the tool is. You take away less and less. At the end, you are working with a rasp (a small file). Then at the end you can polish it. You can take pumice and water and highlight different places. Some places will have a texture.”
Alessandrini has produced many locally known works of art, including the Monument to the Immigrants in Woldenberg Park on the Mississippi River; bronze sculptures of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos at the Seelos Center in the Irish Channel; six life-sized marble statues of New Orleans religious figures in the back garden of the Old Ursuline Convent; and a Byzantine Mosaic titled “New Orleans” at the Morial Convention Center.
A personal connection
From someone who was orphaned at the age of 1, Alessandrini said the statue of St. John Paul II, who lost his mother, brother and father by the time he was 20 years old, is special to him.
“When I found out there were all these celebrations for the 300 years of New Orleans, I thought it would be a great idea to celebrate the visit of the pope in 1987,” Alessandrini said. “Sometimes you have an idea that you think is great but it doesn’t go anywhere. When the bishop was so excited, it was great.
“I think the wonderful thing is the two children who are on the side of the pope. They are the young generation that the church needs to bring back to get closer to something more spiritual. The pope himself is the symbol of the church.”
Archbishop Aymond will bless the statue on Jan. 7, 2018, at the end of an 11 a.m. Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, the archdiocese’s official opening of the Tricentennial Year. Tax-deductible donations for the statue and its transportation are still being accepted. Contact Stephanie Rios of the American Italian Renaissance Foundation at 522-7294 or Stephanie@AmericanItalian CulturalCenter.com.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.