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Carved in Stone: Newly discovered artifacts from an Italian stonecutter's life put a human face on the Vermont Granite Museum 

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A small, leather-bound Bible caught Adele Dienno’s attention while she was browsing in a local second-hand shop three weeks ago. It had been published in 1889, the text was in Italian and Catholic Mass cards were inserted here and there. Then she noticed a lock of dark brown human hair pressed between two pages.

“This is what got me all excited,” Dienno says, thumbing through the old religious tome while seated in her Burlington living room. “It’s very personal.”

The Bible was among related consignment items at Retrowearhouse on Pine Street, including the sepia-toned image of a mustachioed young man in a hat leaning against an enormous block of stone carved in a decorative pattern. This was somebody special, Dienno thought. A little detective work revealed that the handsome fellow in the photograph was the late Ettore Bonazzi, a Montpelier granite sculptor and painter in the early 1900s.

Dienno also learned there were boxes of additional Bonazzi family heirlooms at the home of Al and Evelyn Trono. The Queen City couple was hoping to sell everything on behalf of the late artist’s son-in-law, now 94 and living in Florida.

Dienno, who is vice-president of the Vermont Italian Cultural Association, began to envision all the Bonazzi drawings, paintings, sculptures, tools, photographs, documents, suitcases, clothing and knick-knacks as disparate pieces of a puzzle. Once assembled, it might constitute a time capsule representing an ethnic community that helped shape Vermont a century ago — when European immigrants flocked to the Barre-Montpelier area to work in the granite industry. She quickly realized that if the items were sold separately, a heritage would be lost.

“I grew up with similar stuff,” explains Dienno, a Philadelphia native who has been in Vermont for three decades. “My family came over to the United States in the same time period as Bonazzi.”

As for finding his “stuff” at Retrowearhouse, Dienno believes “it was meant to be.” It didn’t take her long to convince the Italian association to purchase the entire collection and donate it to the Vermont Granite Museum of Barre. After some negotiations, she bought the Bonazzi treasure trove for $1500.

The museum’s executive director, Marcia Davis, appreciated the significance of the gift: Bonazzi was the artist who created “Little Margaret,” the legendary granite statue of a Victorian girl that can still be seen over her grave in Montpelier’s Green Mountain Cemetery.

“This a great addition to the museum,” Davis enthuses about the collection, which includes school books, sketch pads, tools, pastels, charcoals, models and bas reliefs. “Work-related items are particularly important to us,” she says. “I’m so glad the family took care of these things and that Adele stumbled upon them. To have somebody recognize the meaning and make the connection that this is something to be preserved — it’s a great synchronicity, a wonderful turn of events.”

The museum, scheduled to open in phases starting in August, will house exhibits that trace the state’s granite industry back to its origins in the 1700s. The history of Vermont’s quarries and stone-carving operations is entwined with the influx of immigrants to the region, and the Bonazzi legacy is but one of their stories. “Barre Gray” granite was world-famous. In fact, its reputation convinced Ettore Bonazzi, an educated and accomplished “statue cutter,” to try his luck on this side of the Atlantic.

Bonazzi grew up in the northern Italian village of Baveno, and later studied sculpture for eight years at Milan’s prestigious Reale Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera. He worked in his homeland for two years, and for another year in Spain.

“There’s always a demand for good carvers in both Italy and Spain, not only for memorials but for buildings,” Bonazzi told Mari Tomasi, a Montpelier novelist who received a federal Works Progress Admini-stration grant to document immigrant biographies in 1940. “The architecture in those countries is more ornate than here in the States. That’s why talented young men who could afford it trained at good art academies. The schools emphasized fine, delicate carving.”

Accustomed to writing fiction, Tomasi regularly assigned pseudonyms to the real people she interviewed, according to Dienno. Bonazzi was dubbed Tognazzi, but the specific details of his life are unmistakable in Tomasi’s anthropological account, which can be found on a WPA Internet site. Her extraordinary fieldwork incorporates so much oral history that the voice of the long-dead “granite man” seems almost audible.

Lured by the beauty of Barre Gray in 1900, Bonazzi was about 22 when he sailed from a French port on a boat headed for the New World. Traveling through central Vermont by way of New York City, he relished the view of Barre from his train window: “My first impression was not unlike that of several small industrial communities in Italy, France and Spain,” he told Tomasi. “Small stores, backyard washing, a town that was very much lived in. Not of the size or grandeur of Milan… but a live, thriving town in the center of hills, like my hometown.”

When Bonazzi arrived at the station, his brother “Justi” — who had come to Vermont two years earlier — was there to greet him. But Ettore only had eyes for the pretty girl standing next to his sibling. “I must have stared at her like a country fool,” he reported 40 years later. “She mumbled a goodbye to my brother and hurried away. My brother was eager to hear the news from the old country… I’m afraid I answered him briefly. I was interested in the girl. Who was she?”

She was Rose Calcagni, a 16-year-old Barre resident who worked in a millinery shop on Main Street. “For a week, I made it my business to pass that milliner’s store every day,” Bonazzi recalled. “I saw her, she saw me. She wouldn’t even smile. I didn’t have the courage to speak to her. I finally persuaded my brother to introduce us. We were married the following year.”

Much later, their daughter Evelyn — an only child — suggested to her parents that their romance had been “like a story in a book,” Bonazzi confided to Tomasi.

His love life assured, he concentrated on career. “I didn’t start operating a granite shed of my own right away, although I could have,” Bonazzi explained. “I wanted to learn more of this country and the way sheds did business. I did carving for a shed in Barre the first year. The second year I went out to our Western granite states. I could compare the two localities then, and the granite. I found you could do better, more delicate work with the hard Barre stone.”

Ettore and Justi launched a granite shed business, Bonazzi & Bonazzi. In the collection now awaiting display at the museum, a company receipt bears a slogan intimating that good deals were available to thrift-minded clients: “I’ll take that discount.”

In 1940, a 61-year-old Ettore Bonazzi looked back wistfully at the endeavor. “We’ve had our ups and downs, as every business has, but we’ve made money and we’ve put out plenty of memorials that we’re proud of,” he mused, later mentioning that a statue in Chicago called “Christ the Shepherd” had long been one of his favorite accomplishments. He also was commissioned to craft a monument for the James Bridger Portrait Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Bonazzi remembered that “Little Margaret” — a child of about 9 or 10, depicted leaning on a railing with her chin cupped in one hand — caused some consternation when presented to her parents. “Her family had produced a full-length picture of her and asked me to make the statue identical in clothing, posture and so forth. I said it would be difficult, since the picture was a poor one, and faint, but I’d do my best… The mother cried and said it looked real. But in spite of their satisfaction, they hated to pay the price agreed upon. I admit it was a steep price, but it was good work, and hard, and they could afford it.”

Margaret’s father complained that Bonazzi had failed to precisely duplicate the photo of his daughter, as promised. The life-sized memorial depicts one shoe with a missing button, which he claimed was not the case in the picture.

“It made me mad,” Bonazzi said. “They were old-fashioned, high-buttoned shoes the girls wore at that time, and since the picture was so dim, I’d been careful to make sure of each detail. ‘They are identical,’ I told him. I held a magnifying glass over the picture and, sure enough, it showed one button missing on the shoe. Well, the short of it is, the man stopped quibbling and paid the price I’d asked.”

Bonazzi’s creative drive was apparently prodigious. While making statues, monuments and architectural details for his granite company, he also sculpted smaller pieces, designed plaster bas reliefs covered with silk or velvet, and painted in oil and other mediums. His sketchbooks reveal a man with talent to spare. “He was quite good and versatile, able to do pastels, charcoal, pen and ink and watercolor in addition to clay and stone,” acknowledges the museum’s Marcia Davis. “I think this is very unique compared to the other sculptors and carvers I know of.”

Justi died in the late 1920s from “stonecutters’ tuberculosis,” as Bonazzi called it. He was probably referring to silicosis, a lung disease commonly brought on by inhaling fine granite dust.

Evelyn Bonazzi was educated locally before enrolling at what her father described as “a finishing school on the Hudson” in New York State. “She’s married to an Irish boy from Barre. He’s here with us now, learning the granite business,” Bonazzi said of Danny Sullivan — that 94-year-old living in Florida is the only surviving member of the family.

Bonazzi built a duplex on River Street in Montpelier so that Danny and Evelyn could live next door to him after their 1932 wedding. The younger couple never had children.

“I was like a daughter to them,” says Evelyn Trono, who was named after Evelyn Bonazzi. Now Trono is the museum’s link to understanding the genealogy associated with the Bonazzi estate. “My grandmother was close to Rose and Ettore, who was very tall, very handsome. Danny still calls him ‘Mr. Bonazzi’ to this day.”

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Sullivan took over the granite shed when his father-in-law died in 1947 at age 68. He sold Bonazzi & Bonazzi 26 years later, and retired. His wife Evelyn predeceased him in 1984.

Early next month, the Tronos plan to visit Sullivan and record his answers to a list of Bonazzi-related questions prepared by Davis. The tape, or a transcript, might be incorporated into the museum’s exhibit. The Tronos put the Bonazzi belongings up for sale before they knew there was a granite museum. The items were in storage for about 20 years at Evelyn Trono’s family home in Montpelier.

“If these trunks could talk,” Davis quips, when she spots the weathered suitcases — one with colorful foreign travel stickers pasted on its sides — temporarily stacked in Dienno’s living room.

Gazing appreciatively at a box of Art Deco compacts that were once part of her namesake’s makeup kit, Evelyn Trono notes: “She was elegant.”

Dienno is charmed by four tiny cellulose “Kewpie” dolls and a handmade nightgown with a crocheted collar. “I remember the Italian women at my grandmother’s house tatting, crocheting, knitting. They never just sat and talked,” she says, adding that a small black change purse in the collection reminds her of how the old folks would pronounce it: “A change-a purse-a.”

A pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses causes a stir when everyone agrees that they must have been worn by the aging Ettore. He appears to be sporting the same spectacles in an undated photograph.

Two of Bonazzi’s canvasses show idyllic scenes: a 1931 pastel of a quaint house by a stream where swans gracefully glide, and an undated oil of sailboats in a tranquil harbor. While some of his work reflects religious themes, nudes were not a no-no for a European man with a worldly outlook. A bas relief covered in pale blue-green silk reveals a scantily clad female form with veils. Al Trono found “On the Waves,” a signed plaster-of-Paris statue of a reclining woman, stored inside a metal breadbox.

An Italian-English dictionary is inscribed with the name Giuseppe Bonazzi — perhaps Ettore’s father. “To me,” Dienno observes, “it shows the transition from Italy to Vermont.”

Coming-to-America stories like Bonazzi’s are a vital part of the Vermont Granite Museum of Barre, which will be situated in the sprawling 30,000-square-foot complex on the 12-acre site of the Jones Brothers Company, a commercial enterprise in Barre from the 1890s until 1975.

But the museum will also chronicle the geology, technology and history of the igneous rock formation from Native American days through the Colonial era and Industrial Age to present times. Interactive exhibits will challenge visitors — estimated at potentially 90,000 a year — to identify “mystery minerals.” An in-house school for stone arts will allow novices to learn the tricks of the trade.

Mid-way through a $15 million capital campaign, Davis dreams of resurrecting the once-high profile of a town known as “the granite capital of the world.” Although Barre earned that title, Montpelier had a transportation advantage when it came to moving large quantities of the ubiquitous stone.

“Barre was closer to the quarries,” Davis explains. “Montpelier was closer to the railroad. Now, there are two or three functioning granite companies in Montpelier and more than 30 in Barre. There are $100 million in annual granite sales from the state.”

Davis points out that, even after three centuries of steady quarrying, the area still contains a 4500-year supply of Barre Gray.

Those figures would have been music to Ettore Bonazzi’s ears, even though he lamented certain changes during his 1940 session with Tomasi: “There isn’t the profit there used to be. In the old days, a roof over the head, a good carver and good granite were about all that were necessary. Now there’s too much overhead. Three or four taxes a year, machinery and all that expensive dust-removing equipment.”

Bonazzi also expressed what sounds like regret about the direction his life had taken. “Of late I haven’t done much carving,” he said. “I have enough to do taking care of the business end of the shed.”

But the Bonazzi bonanza recently unearthed by Dienno is a testament to his artistry as well as to his business acumen. “Once all of these things have found their way into the museum,” she surmises, “there will be such a happy ending.”

Founded in 1983, the Vermont Italian Cultural Association has about 150 members who gather for trips, lectures and culinary events throughout the year. Its annual Masked “Carnevale” Ball takes place at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington on Saturday, February 9. Call 658-5720 for reservations.

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Susan Green

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