Molfetta is a city of sun-scorched stone. Anyone visiting for the first time will quickly notice that the buildings, streets, and sidewalks gleam bright under the Adriatic sky. For centuries, an elite class of skilled craftsmen sculpted, chipped and carved both the ornate and mundane face of the city. By carving itself out of stone, Molfetta has ensured its existence for more than 1000 years. It’s past, faith and populace encased in rock and preserved for perpetuity.
Carving is a progression of trades. In the Molfetta of the past, it started at the quarry. Where cazzapéiete (stonebreakers) and petraràule (quarrymen) tore and split the rock from the earth. Then muratori or frabecatòere (stonemasons) used the stone to build walls, while scarpellìne (stonecutters) and ornatisti (stone carvers) added the details. The grand master of them all was Giulio Cozzoli, whose major work, the Diposizione, or “Disposition of Christ” depicts a crucified Jesus being lowered from the cross by the Madonna, St. John, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene. Several of Cozzoli’s works are on display at the Fabrica di San Domenico in Molfetta.
The art of stone carving came to the U.S. with skilled Italian immigrants that literally left their mark on American architecture. One of the most notable was Vincent Palumbo, a fifth generation stone carver who worked alongside his father, Paolo, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Master Palumbo was featured in The Stone Carvers, an academy-award winning short film from 1984 that highlighted some of the last remaining stone carvers still working in Washington, DC. In the film, the camaraderie amongst the carvers is clearly evident, as is the distinctive sound of limestone as it is struck with precision.
On May 14, 2011, members of the Molfetta Heritage Club were lucky enough to visit with two contemporary links to the Molfettesi tradition of stone carving. Franco Minervini, who worked with Vincent Palumbo at the National Cathedral and Michele Colonna, a 90 year-old master granite carver, who only recently stopped working in his mid-80s. The meeting took place at Master Minervini’s studio where the group discussed stone carving, the importance of art, our shared bond of Molfetta, and many other facets of life and learning. Franco’s studio appears exactly as one would imagine a stone carver’s domain to look. Ivy covered walls on the outside with various kinds of tools and machinery within the workspace. In each corner, stone inhabitants in the shapes of cherubs, grotesques, gargoyles, maidens, and various other creatures gaze upon those who enter. A snapshot of a medieval world in the middle of central Jersey.
The day ended with a visit to Master Minervini’s current capolavoro, a giant Bald Eagle created to commemorate the 147 residents of Monmouth County that perished on Sept. 11, 2001. Located on the Mount Mitchell Scenic Overlook in the Atlantic Highlands, NJ, the entire park chronicles the tragic events of the day. The memorial culminates at Master’s Minervini’s limestone Eagle, which grasps in its talons an actual piece of mangled steel retrieved from the fallen twin towers. This eagle, a quintessential symbol of America, ascends to the heavens with the memory of the fallen. Carved in stone, their memory will be preserved for perpetuity.
All Photos: Lou La Forgia & Robert Gigante