If Stone Could Speakby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
If you have ever wondered at the magnificent stonework at the St Paul Cathedral, local documentary filmmaker Randy Croce (has a story for you.
Croce made a documentary about the remarkable group of Italian stone cutters who shaped many of the country's great monuments and buildings.
St. Paul, Minn. — Randy Croce says has been thinking about doing a film about Italian artisans for 30 years, but other projects kept getting in the way.
Then he took a class on Italian history from Rudi Vecoli at the Immigration History Research Center the University of Minnesota. One session centered on Italian stonecutters, or scalpellini as they called themselves. Croce says he was transfixed.
"It brought together my interest in art, in my own Italian heritage, and in politics and labor into one story," said Croce. "And I literally went up to him after the class and asked if anyone had done a documentary, and he said no, and I said 'I'm going to do one.'"
The stone cutters learned their skills in the famed marble quarries of northern Italy. In the early 20th century many moved to the U.S. in search of better wages and to escape political persecution.
Croce says the sculpture quality granite in Barre Vermont acted like a magnet for the scalpellini. At its peak there were something like 10,000 sculptors all working in long wooden sheds in the same small town.
"They were making monuments for cemeteries, but they were also producing public monuments and carvings for churches and other public buildings and private buildings, too," he said.
The scalpellini were chisels for hire. They'd carve anything in stone if someone was ready to foot the bill.
In addition to their artistic skills, the stone-carvers brought their traditions too. They learned English but maintained their regional Italian dialects. Being Italian there was a huge emphasis put on food, and wine - despite the restrictions of Prohibition.
"(In Italy) the scalpellini in particular were given wine as part of their job," said Croce. "They got money, bread and wine, and it was thought to make them stronger and to enhance their endurance. And it was just part of their culture. And to come to a country where you weren't supposed to drink any wine, I think seemed absurd to them."
It was legal to make wine for personal use, but many stone cutters didn't have the time. In his film Croce tells the story of a widow who fell afoul of the law when she used the local priests name to buy supplies for wine which she made and sold to make ends meet. Local law enforcement decided there was no way the priest could drink that much and arrested her.
Croce says the scalpellini maintained another tradition in America.
"The stone cutters in Italy were traditionally itinerant. Once you finished a cathedral in a town there's not a lot of other work to do, so they were accustomed to traveling," he says.
Some of them ended up in Minnesota.
"They would go to work on the Cathedral in St Paul for a number of years and then move on to the next job."
But there was trouble back in Vermont, and this is where Randy Croce's interest as a labor historian kicks in. The carving sheds were filled with silica dust. More and more of the carvers began developing silicosis, a fatal lung disease.
"The irony was that in creating this beauty and creating memorials for other people, the dust generated by that process was killing them, and many of them died in their 40s and it was rare to live past 50," said Croce.
The carvers tried to organize around the issue, but it was only after the National labor relations act passed in the 1930s that they succeeded in unionizing. They then negotiated a new contract.
"They took a dollar a day less pay in exchange for getting this ventilation equipment, this suction equipment installed in all the sheds. And it's a really remarkable reversal because no stonecutters in Vermont who started after 1938 contracted silicosis," said Croce.
Randy Croce's documentary "If Stone Could Speak" will air on TPT 2 on Sunday at 3 p.m. and at 8 p.m. on Labor Day on Channel 17. Most of the stone cutters in Croce's film are long gone, but their legacy remains in plain sight in the buildings and cemeteries across America.