The Lions of Forest Hills Cemetery
On the crest of Milton Hill, the highest drumlin in Forest Hills Cemetery, lie two recumbent stone lions shaded by upright Japanese yews, part of a monument honoring the artisan Pietro Caproni.
Milton Hill was acquired by Forest Hills Cemetery in October 1890 from the estate of William H Milton. The 132-foot drumlin extends over about eighteen acres on the Morton Street boundary of the cemetery. In 1892, a bridge built of Roxbury conglomerate ("puddingstone") and granite, designed by William G. Preston, was built connecting Consecration Hill with the new land, but roads were not built until 1911 when Hillside and Summit avenues were graded. In 1913, 7½ acres of the hillside were opened for the sale of lots, and over time some of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery were built on Milton Hill.
On November 2, 1928, the widow of Pietro Caproni bought a 950-square-foot lot on Summit Avenue for $3795. Years before his death at age 63 on October 1, 1928, Caproni, who had spent a lifetime modeling ancient works of art, planned a permanent work of art among the trees on Milton Hill.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the finest museums in the United States held collections of plaster casts painstakingly modeled from original sculptures of antiquity. The Boston Athenaeum was among the earliest art museums in the city, and its gallery items (which eventually became part of the Museum of Fine Arts), included plaster casts. Four of them, casts of Roman statues, remain in the collections. The Italian master Pietro Caproni was among the best artisans in the craft of making models and reproductions in various sizes from original works from Greece, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, and other nations. He was born in Barga, Tuscany, on November 18, 1862. Barga is nestled in the amphitheater of the Apuan Alps, the source of Carrara marble prized by Michelangelo. From the town, the mountains appear covered with snow, in reality, vast veins of white marble. Caproni was no doubt a stonecutter, or part of a family associated with the industry.
He emigrated to the United States about the age of seventeen. He is first listed in the Boston Directory of 1879 as an “image maker” living at a boarding house at 212 Friend Street. He was apprenticed to Paul Garey, whose plaster cast company, established in 1834, was among the foremost in the U.S. Caproni returned to Italy in 1880 where he remained four years collecting casts for Garey, and in 1892 he bought Garey’s business at 12 Province Court with his brother Emilio. In 1895 Pietro bought a brick mercantile building at 10 Newcomb Street, just off Washington Street, for a larger studio to make casts of an increasingly growing collection of ancient statuary for museums, art schools, theaters, and private homes. In October 1896 he bought two adjacent townhouses at 1918-1920 Washington Street, built as tenements in 1892. In 1900 he connected the buildings with a wide gallery space. An enclosed bridge connected the buildings to the Newcomb Street studios.
Emilio and Pietro Caproni were at the zenith of their career, operating as P.P. Caproni and Brother, a Boston company which lasted another two decades. When the magnificent Boston Symphony Hall opened, concert-goers admired sixteen large casts of Greek and Roman statuary, set into niches around the auditorium, the gift of 200 BSO subscribers and made by the Caproni brothers.
The first Caproni catalogue of cast fine art was printed in 1894 and was illustrated with line drawings. The 1901, 1905, and subsequent catalogues were illustrated with photographs. The 1905 catalogue offered casts from the Parthenon frieze and Assyrian bas-reliefs at the British Museum. In 1915, by special collaboration with the sculptor Cyrus Dallin, Caproni offered a three-foot high model of the Paul Revere statue for $50 (this was 30 years before the full-size bronze was erected in the North End). The year 1915 was the last year Caproni could offer new molds. His catalogue went into special detail on fine-art sculpture casts for schools as subjects for drawing. He toured Europe in 1914 and had more casts shipped to Boston, but Europe was soon engulfed in the First World War, and Caproni could no longer travel there. Emilio returned to Italy in 1925, and the business became Caproni Galleries, the name it continued under until 1960.
The writer remembers well, as a student at Massachusetts College of Art, making drawings from plaster Caproni casts of Roman statuary and taking anatomy exams in 1965 using Caproni casts in which the muscles and tendons were exposed.
By the 1920s the popularity of plaster casts was waning. Three years before the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1924, a group of trustees commissioned a copy of the 1893 Milmore Memorial at Forest Hills Cemetery by Daniel Chester French. Rather than have a cast made, the original of which was (and still is) at French’s studio in Stockbridge, they asked Attilio Piccarilli and his brothers to carve a marble copy. (The Piccarrilis carved all of French’s work.) Cut from Carrara marble, it took five years and was installed in 1926.
After Pietro died in 1928, his widow Gertrude kept both his memory and his gallery alive until her death on March 3, 1959. Pietro Caproni desired for his monument copies of the lions from the tomb of Pope Clement XIII at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova between 1787 and 1792 carved this huge work, set in a niche in the largest Christian church in the world. It is believed Pietro obtained full-sized molds for the Canova lions on his trip to Italy in 1880-1885. The 1907 catalogue had photographs of the Canova lions for sale in a much-reduced size.
The tomb is an enormous work of white Carrara marble, 26 feet high and 20 feet wide. The composition is triangular with the kneeling, praying Pope at the apex and the allegorical figures of Religion holding a cross and the Genius of Death holding an inverted torch on the sides, standing over the two lions, one awake and watching, the other asleep. Very famous in their day and throughout the nineteenth century, the lions were the only ones ever carved by Canova. The public was attracted to these two marble beasts and they were frequently copied. In June 1992, Sotheby’s offered marble copies of the lions, four feet long and estimated to be a century old, for $20,000. The writer owns a carefully made, ten-by-five-inch plaster cast of the sleeping lion bought at a London shop in 1995.
In 1929, Gertrude Caproni asked Ralph Adams Cram, one of America’s preeminent ecclesiastic architects, to design the monument over Pietro’s grave with the placement of the lions. No doubt Cram had used Caproni casts for the interiors of his churches and public libraries. Cram submitted the final design for the monument on January 18, 1929. It was a simple, elegantly-carved block of granite, three feet wide and six feet long. This block rested on a low base which was five feet wide and eleven feet, 8 inches long, on which the two lions were placed, one on each side of the block, with the watching lion on the left facing Caproni’s grave a few feet in front of the monument. To obtain the best viewpoint of the monument, Cram set it back twenty-five feet from Summit Avenue, at the edge of the lot. There are no headstones, only two stone slabs flush to the ground for Pietro and Gertrude. The visitor contemplates only the exquisite lions and the solid block of stone that simply reads “CAPRONI.”
Andrew Dresselly, who had worked on the figures at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, was the sculptor for the monument. Incidentally, Ralph Adams Cram was hired in 1911 to complete the cathedral, begun in 1892 (and which is still incomplete). By mid-February, Dresselly had a model completed from the plaster mold at the Caproni Gallery. Dresselly also assisted in the carving from a block of Dummerston granite at the Brattleboro, Vermont quarry. The lions, which measure five feet, six inches long, were placed on the monument on September 8, 1929, the twentieth wedding anniversary of Pietro and Gertrude Caproni. The total cost was $7600. In July 1935, Gertrude Caproni had Cram's name cut into the base below the sleeping lion.
Mrs. Caproni was buried next to her husband on April 1, 1959. On June 20, 1960, the Caproni gallery and buildings were sold to Robert Danthine, a Belgian interior decorator. After Danthine returned to Belgium, his friend Lino Giust of Roslindale bought the buildings with the remaining plaster molds on February 2, 1971, and for the next twenty-four years resurrected the Caproni name and art as the Giust-Caproni gallery. The writer met Lino in 1976 when the Nasrudin Gallery at 261 Newbury Street held an exhibition of the Giust-Caproni plaster casts. The writer owns several Giust-Caproni casts; over his mantel is a Giust–made Caproni cast of the Assyrian King Asurbanipal, which Pietro Caproni brought back from the British Museum (which holds the original) about 1905. Lino retired in 1995 (he is now 90 years old). In 1993 the sculptor Robert Shure purchased the whole Caproni collection of casts and the business rights and continues the Caproni tradition from his Woburn studio.
Editorial assistance provided by Kathy Griffin.