Putney hopes to reawaken legacy
of important Vermont granite sculptor © July 16, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications
One of the finest stonecutters in Central Vermont has been virtually forgotten, according to Paul Putney.
Harry Bertoli, who ran two granite sheds from 1890 to 1911, may have been the first Italian sculptor to veer away from the established industry in Barre—a town famed for its contribution to granite carving—to work in the capital city of Montpelier. This may be part of the reason for the scarcity of research and awareness of the man, said Putney, a Norwich University student who has made this enigma the focus of a summer research project.
It may also be simply a general decline in recognition of the industry’s place in local heritage.
“Really, no one’s been researching the granite sculptors from Barre and Montpelier,” he said. “Particularly from Montpelier.”
Putney, a third-year political science student at the country’s oldest private military college, is now combing local historical archives and cemeteries looking for clues about Bertoli. Norwich, located in nearby Northfield, provided a 10-week research grant for the project.
One glorious July day, Putney spent part of the afternoon strolling from one statue to the next at Montpelier’s Green Mount Cemetery, shooting a detailed collection of photographs of the artist’s work. Shouldering his camera, he moved to a new monument and began to tell its story.
This memorial, called “Little Margaret,” depicts a young girl leaning against a fence. Her story is modestly famous and controversial, he said. The family of Margaret Pitkin, who died in 1899 at the age of seven from spinal meningitis, noticed a button had been left off one of her shoes on the statue. They refused to pay the carver—reputed to be Bertoli—until he produced the photograph of Margaret they had provided him to work from, proving his statue was accurate. That is what the family believes, he said, and he’s trying to prove it.
By talking to descendants of Bertoli, Putney also learned they believe the sculptor used his own daughter as a model to complete “Little Margaret.”
I’m hoping that someone sees this and realizes it’s something that needs to be paid attention to.
~ Paul Putney,
on the region’s granite heritage
There are at least six other Bertoli sculptures in the cemetery, and Putney hoped to verify others. Each displayed examples of incredibly detailed work characteristic of the artisan. Pulling up to another monument, an original design of an angel believed to be Gabriel, Putney pointed out some of Bertoli’s characteristic minutia. The hem of the angel’s robes was decorated with tiny patterns of lace, and fell across the figure’s body realistically. All of this, he added, was accomplished with the most primitive of pneumatic tools.
“Most of the sculptors working today don’t have the talent to do the things he did,” he said.
Putney’s advisor for the project was Norwich history Prof. Gary Lord, who agreed that Bertoli was an important sculptor from a period when monument carving was at its zenith. Yet, he seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
“While I’d seen some of his work, I didn’t recognize it as his,” said Lord. “I was not aware of Bertoli.”
The previous summer, Lord guided Putney through an independent study of Green Mount Cemetery in which he dug up the history and cataloged the range of techniques, materials and artists. Bertoli caught his attention, Putney said, partly because he was responsible for many prominent statues, such as the Civil War memorial in Burlington, Vt., and the statue of Revolutionary War hero Col. Seth Warner in Bennington. Bertoli stood out, also, because no one—even proprietors of cemeteries—seemed to know who carved these monuments.
“Everywhere I go, no one can ever answer that question,” said Putney, who spends much of his time comparing reputed Bertoli statues with old photographs from his sheds and pictures and notices from period trade journals for verification. He will travel to New York City for a more comprehensive collection of journals, as none exists in Vermont.
“It’s a lot of detective work,” said Lord.
A civilian-lifestyle student who spent eight years in the Army before college, Putney was drawn to this project because of his family history. A native of Barre, his ancestors came from France, Ireland, Italy and Scotland.
“They all moved here for the granite industry,” he said, adding that his cousins still work for stone companies.
Family ties give the subject a personal urgency, and Putney hopes he is successful in reviving the name of Harry Bertoli. Through people he has met during the research, Putney has been asked to speak at the library in Montpelier later in the summer, and hopes to publish an article in the Vermont Historical Society’s magazine, Vermont History.
“I’m hoping that someone sees this and realizes it’s something that needs to be paid attention to,” he said.