The People

Federici, Gaetano

b. 1880
d. 1964

 Gaetano Federici was born in the mountain village of Castelgrande on the slopes of the southern Italian Apennines. When he migrated to the U.S.--and straight to Paterson--at the age of seven, it was so he and his mother could join father Antonio Federici in the life he had already established for himself as mason and builder in this boomtime industrial town. As if to reclaim a little of their native Castelgrande, they settled on the steeply grade heights, first, of West Broadway and then (as the family grew) of Oxford Street. The parish they joined with other Italian families in creating became St. Michael's , on what was then Cross Street, and for the next generation the Federici's continued to live in sight of the twin belltowers built to the specification of that redoubtable parish priest and fellow Castelgrandese, Father Carlo Cianci.

These village characteristics of landscape and "campanillsmo" were not the only gestures of Italian tradition the Federicis preserved. There was also food and work and lifestyle, family and opera and art, each nurtured with a zeal and dedication that had deep personal and cultural roots. Antonio had dreams of a family business in construction, assisted by his four sons, with his firstborn leading the way. It was difficult for him to accept, at first, that his eldest son's genius was for embellishing buildings, not for constructing them.

Still, encouraged by his mother, Teresa, and always eager for his father's approval, Gaetano left Paterson to study with such major bronzemakers as Giuseppe Moretti and Charles Henry Niehaus. It was the heyday of the grand sculpture studio, the great ear of civic monument-making and of the artistic carving essential to Beaux-Arts architectural design. Gaetano learned his craft at the feet of the masters. He traveled with Moretti to Alabama to mount the gigantic "Vulcan" and to Havana, Cuba to decorate the massive Centro Gallego. He received some recognition for his skills at World's Fairs and Exhibitions and stood on the threshold of a career that might perhaps have made his name recognizable in the larger art world.

But Gaetano Federici was drawn back to Paterson, captivated surely by... whatever it is that has always captivated Paterson's artists. We may guess that then, too, just after the turn of the century, he was drawn to to the magnet of the city's stupendous swagger and optimism, its buoyant will to survive fire and flood. Drawn also by a certain sniff of promise that out of its own pride-- and deep pocket-- it could give him fame enough, fortune enough, without depriving him of the dearness of the familiar, of his family, of the belltowers of St. Michael's, of everything that was his own, so inseparable and nourishing a piece of his identity as both man and sculptor-- and as son, for it is in a sense true to say that he came back to his father's business. He hung the period's standard framed dramatic photograph of the Great Falls on the wall of his studio. He chose that city of Paterson to be an artist in.

And the city of Paterson chose him. At first he faced the challenge of grandiose competitions, and lost some big ones, like the tribute to Vice President Garret Hobart, to more major distinguished sculptors, with more idealizing styles. His first major Commission was to give the city back its late Congressman John Stewart, a man who thrusting rhetorical arm would doubtless be forgotten now but for the fact that he continues to thrust it in front of the County Courthouse. The Stewart unveiling put Federici's own sweet and distingue Italian face on the front page of the Paterson News, and virtually from then on he was Paterson's darling. He became a favorite of two newspapermen, George Burke and Harry B. Haines, who respected and nurtured his talent and were in a position to make the most of it. The day in 1924 that they unveiled Federici's formidable touching tribute to Dean McNulty, founder of St. John's Cathedral and the city's legendary Catholic force, the city threw a party, and the image of the wiry parish priest with the vulnerable little boy within his sheltering arm became a local icon. From that time the commissions became easier and easier to win. The Nathan Barnert followed, Paterson's first bronze monument to a living celebrity. It----he took his place, paunch and all, in City Hall Plaza, alongside Garret Hobart.

That day also marked the real test of Federici's genius, because his signature skill was in an unflintching realism that could be both kind and true, but never so kind as to blink the truth. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Gaetano Federici went on to complete no less that forty commissioned public monuments within a two-mile radius of Paterson's City Hall, some fifteen of them within a radius of two or three blocks. Whether statures or plaques or lunette carvings (like that of the Archangel stomping Lucifer atop St. Michael's door), they all have that distinctive mark of telling it like it is.

Federici himself wrote, "the artists' work that will survive are true likenesses of people, things, and events." I have called him "the artist as historian." It is a tag I think he would have appreciated.

But it is also a tribute to the city, the city that chose him. Federici's day was Paterson's day too. It was city with an attitude. But as its love affair with photography attest, Paterson has always like its "true likeness" more than any prettified version of it, and encouraged its artist to tell the truth.

And it still does.

Flavia Alaya - 10/27/93


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