The North End is a place full of history and — nowadays — restaurants, but upon closer examination it is also a neighborhood full of art and culture. Anyone who has ever glanced up to take in the bronze statues or plaques that adorn one of the country’s finest Little Italies will have encountered the skillful hand of Richard Aliberti, an artist that has been in and out of the neighborhood for the past three decades, but who has left a lasting impression on it.“I wasn’t expecting to make a living off of art,” he explains as he thinks back to the early 1990s, when he moved his gallery from Chinatown to the North End. “The first gallery I opened was in 1988, and it was in Chinatown. It was in a very big space and I was experimenting with industrial forms … rough stuff.” But the move to 165 Salem Street proved to be the right one for Aliberti and his career as an artist. “I moved there in 1992,” he recalls. “I’d go to Boschetto Bakery across the street to get a bag of rolls in the middle of the night. I was having fun.”
But the 55-year-old Medford native wasn’t just having fun. Big commissions started coming in, and Aliberti was soon putting his name on the artistic map of Boston. In 1995, he was asked to create the bronze plaque that greets visitors to St. John Parish on North Square. “It was a big deal at the time,” says Aliberti. “The commission came from the Scalabrini Fathers, who are huge in the Catholic tradition. It also helped me pay rent for about a year for my ‘piccola bottega.’”
The following year proved to be a challenging one, though, as Aliberti embarked on another ambitious project. The Dante Alighieri Society in Cambridge needed a statue of the Florentine poet to be placed at the front of its building on Hampshire Street. A private donor approached Aliberti with the idea. “To be honest, it was a nightmare,” Aliberti says. “I got really excited and poured in a lot of effort. The face came out perfect, and the body has a very stoic appearance.” Dipping into his experimental side, Aliberti combined stone and bronze to form the statue. “Dante’s work is so important, I wanted to represent it through stone, as a symbol of eternity.” What ended up seeming eternal, though, was the project itself, which took over a year. It resulted in a love-hate relationship between the artist and the statue. “By the end, I was going to destroy the statue,” Aliberti says with a faint smile. “I actually showed up at the presentation with a hammer. There’s a dent in it still today. Friends had to hold me back.”
The statue was welcomed by the community, and Aliberti soon received more work. “I soon met Al Natale, who wanted me to make a bronze plaque for St. Leonard’s. That took six months of carving.” The artist started spending more time in the North End, doing interior work for many restaurants and cafès. Still today, one can admire his hand while sipping a coffee inside Caffè Paradiso on Hanover Street.
As successful as Aliberti was, he admits his inability to run the business side of things led to the 1999 closing of his gallery. “I was worn out from wearing too many hats,” he says. “I was designing furniture, installations, sending my work to galleries in Miami, Maine, Virginia.” By this time, Aliberti had made a name for himself, and he was soon commissioned a statue of John F. Kennedy, Jr., for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Now working out of Vermont, Aliberti says his passion has never waned. “I try to educate myself every day. I try to learn to be like Leonardo, like Raffaello, even though it’s hard.”