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Hiding in plain sight: Remembering Sacco and Vanzetti in the heart of Boston

August 23 marks an important anniversary in the history of Massachusetts. It was on this day, in 1927, that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed after being convicted for the death of two people during an armed robbery in South Braintree. I’m not bringing up this symbolic date to shine a light on the history of what happened. Many have done so before, and the story is so complex we would need a book to explain it all.

What I do want to focus on, though, is what is left in our modern day metropolis to commemorate what happened 88 years ago. The idea for this article came after meeting with longtime subscriber Guy Carbone, an attorney in downtown Boston who gave me a call one day. “Nicola, you need to come see this bronze sculpture right in the heart of Boston,” he told me, hinting at the presence of a Sacco and Vanzetti part of the sculpture. The phone call piqued my interest, and a few days later I was standing in the main entrance of the McCormack Building, just across the street from Suffolk University and a few steps away from the State Capitol. The building was completed in the early ’70s – Carbone was the project’s head engineer – and is home to Massachusetts State offices. Hundreds of employees walk in front of the bronze sculpture every day.

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first-person1-modMade by local Italian American sculptor Alfred Duca, the sculpture represents the names and historic episodes that made Massachusetts the state it is today. Towards the very top of this 12-foot-tall structure is a light-colored bronze plaque, with the names Nicola and Bartolo inscribed in it. What makes the inclusion of Sacco and Vanzetti more astounding is the fact that the artist chose to spell out only three names throughout the entire sculpture. The other spelled out name is Samuel, which I suppose refers to Samuel Adams, one of the country’s founding fathers.

Once back home, I tried to find out more about the sculpture and the artist behind it. Unfortunately, Duca passed away in his Gloucester home in 1997, and we don’t have much on record as to the symbolism behind many of the plaques and figures represented. I did however find out that the work of art is titled “Massachusetts Artifact.” In Marty Carlock’s 1988 book “A Guide to Public Art in Boston,” I found a reference to the sculpture, along with a brief description. What Carbone told me is that Duca wanted absolute freedom. The artist worked behind a veil for nearly two years. No one expected the two names to appear at the top of the sculpture.

This experience got me thinking about the other visual elements in the city commemorating Sacco and Vanzetti. In the North End, at 256 Hanover Street, there is a plaque outside the building where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee gathered for years, trying to prove the two men’s innocence. A few hundred feet away, where Hanover intersects the Rose Kennedy Parkway, is a timeline of important dates in the history of Boston. There is a plaque for 1927, dedicated to the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Perhaps the most astonishing work of art associated to the two Italian immigrants is the one sitting in an unassuming room on the third floor of the Boston Public Library.

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Made by Gutzom Borglum — the designer of Mt. Rushmore —, this work received some media attention lately, including a Boston Globe article talking about former Mayor Tom Menino being the first Boston mayor to muster the courage to accept the controversial work of art. The plaster mold made by Borglum never got to become a bronze plaque, due to a myriad of controversies. Instead, the plaster went from one owner to the other, until Menino finally decided to accept the memorial in 1997, announcing at the same time a new bronze casting. Funds for this enterprise are still lacking, and so the plaster sits idly in the BPL’s Copley Square branch.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.