Topping the Dome

Other submissions by Richard F. Novak:
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An Uprising in Rome 1849 (Historical Fiction, Book Award 2023)
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Young America, lacking trained sculptors, imported Italians to work on the Capitol, but members of Congress wanted the art commissions awarded to Americans. To offset this artistic vacuum, Americans traveled to Rome, the destination of artists from throughout the world. Here, in 1835, Thomas Crawford began a career which led to creating more sculpture for America’s Capitol than any sculptor. In Rome, Crawford met his first patrons, George Washington Greene, American Consul in Rome, and Charles Sumner, a brilliant intellectual and staunch abolitionist. Both recognized the genius of Crawford and helped launch his American career. As Crawford’s career flourished, Sumner became a United States Senator. His scathing speeches opposing slavery helped magnify the differences between slaveholding and free states before the Civil War. While other sculptors were in Italy, Clark Mills, self-taught, worked in Washington. His extreme self-confidence and ability to cultivate important people in Washington, compensated for his lack of training, but kept him an outsider with the artistic elite. Thomas Crawford’s greatest patron, Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the supervisor of the Capitol construction, had little difficulty convincing his superior, Jefferson Davis, of the genius of Crawford. The work of Crawford and Mills would eventually merge at the Capitol in an unexpected manner. This story follows the progress of these men back and forth from the ancient Capitol of Rome to the newborn Capitol of America. The topping of the Capitol Dome with the Statue of Freedom took place on December 2, 1863, during the Civil War.
First 10 Pages

The Mentor and Two Patrons

Thomas Crawford’s first transatlantic trip had been as anticipated, difficult. A rough crossing kept him seasick for all twenty days from New York to Gibraltar. Crawford was twenty, strong, and accustomed to long hours of hard work carving stone, but he knew early in the trip he would not win his struggle with the rough ocean. He welcomed disembarking for three days in Gibraltar that gave him time to recuperate. From Gibraltar to Leghorn, his first stop in Italy, the calmer Mediterranean Sea allowed him to relax and enjoy the cool sea breeze. After a period of quarantine at Leghorn, an overnight sail took the ship along the western shore of Italy to the port of Civitavecchia.

The appearance of this port of entry to Rome could only be described as chaotic. Loud, rude harbor workers rushed about in every direction. Only the Italians aboard were at ease in the confusion on the dock. Crawford was the only American on the ship. The other foreigners were English. Getting to this point had been difficult and tiring, but if this was what he could expect in Rome, he worried that he would accomplish little.

When his trip began, [1]he had enough money to last a year, but already there had been unanticipated expenses. After a long wait, he found and identified his two trunks. A porter was soon at his side hovering over the trunks repeating in Italian, “Permesso, permesso.” With no other option apparent, he nodded, assuming this would get him to the customs house.

He was not yet free of the ship. A deckhand, who may or may not have carried the trunks off the ship, stepped in front of the bags. His facial expression, loud remarks in Italian, and uninhibited body gestures made it clear he felt entitled to payment for his dubious labor. Crawford had already left money with the purser and considered his gratuity obligations to the crew completed. Looking around, he noted the English passengers were in a similar situation and equally confounded. He gave the man a coin, received a scowl in return, and replied to the scowl by turning his back and began to deal with the next problem.

The porter attempted to move the first trunk, but it would not move easily. Crawford knew it must be the trunk which contained his metal sculpture tools. The porter decided to try the other trunk and, finding it lighter, placed it on the heavier trunk and set his handcart in place beneath the two. “ Andiamo, andiamo,” he said, and with an arm gesture, the porter motioned toward a building at the end of the dock. The English tourists were already moving in that direction and they followed.

Idlers were standing in front of the one and two-story stone buildings lining the dock or sitting on cargo scattered in no particular order. A few sat outside a trattoria sipping coffee assessing the newly arrived tourists. Barefooted children in ragged clothes thrust their hands forward, begging for a coin as the line of arrivals continued toward the customs house.

The day was sunny and clear. In spite of all the confusion, he enjoyed the cool crisp air of early fall and marveled at the sky with brilliant blue hues which he had never seen before. There were five ships docked either loading or unloading. Everyone was rushing. The mayhem on the dock and the anticipation of finally reaching Rome only increased the anxiety of the travelers.

The line slowed at a large building at the end of the dock with an official-looking coat of arms carved in stone above the wide doorway. Crawford followed the porter into a large room where the line split, each prong heading to a wooden table. The room lit by two small windows had dirty floors and bare walls. Behind each of the tables stood two uniformed customs officers with fancy gold-fringed hats in much better condition than their coats, trousers, and boots. Each had a sword on his belt. Beyond this, toward the rear of the room, were two desks with a customs officer behind each. Another door at the rear of the building was flanked by two soldiers with muskets at their sides.

Silence pervaded the room. The only sound was from barked orders. Crawford watched as each porter took the luggage and placed it on the table. When the trunks were opened for inspection a senior customs official would begin speaking rapid Italian in a harsh tone as he tossed the trunk contents about randomly, much to the consternation of the travelers. The officer would pick up something in the trunk, look at the traveler in a suspicious way and begin a tirade with an operatic tone while the second officer reviewed the passports and reported the payment due for the trunks. The traveler would pay the fee and extend his hand to accept the customs’ documents, but they were not forthcoming. The documents would not be stamped until the traveler realized it might be a good idea to give the officer additional money. If this was done, the other officer’s tirade and inspection suddenly ceased; the documents would be stamped, and the traveler could move to the next station.

Crawford now understood the procedure, and after tipping the first customs officer, his trunks were cleared. He moved to the next station to obtain a visa for the Pontifical State of Rome and again, there was a fee plus the unspoken fee. Crawford’s visa was obtained without delay compared to some of the English travelers. Later, he was told by the American Consul in Rome this was no accident or luck, since America and Americans were new friends of Italy. There were no historical disagreements between the two countries. England and Italy had a history and English travelers, a terrible reputation. Now, already late in the afternoon he had his passport stamped by an official of the Papal States: 10 Settembre 1835.

Just beyond the exit of the customs house he was stopped by a local policeman who reviewed his passport and customs clearance. This superficial review, of course, required another payment, after which he indicated Crawford was free to continue. There were several inns across the street and to the right, a group of carriages. Rome was still hours away. An overnight stay before continuing would be another expense; money was disappearing at a rapid pace in Civitavecchia. At one of the carriages he noticed two Englishmen he recognized from the boat negotiating with a driver. Perhaps this was his chance. Three in a carriage should be cheaper than two, and he could get away from Civitavecchia.

As he approached the three it was difficult to tell who was the rudest. Negotiation with the carriage driver did not seem the proper word for this disagreeable discussion. He pulled one of the Englishmen aside and explained his desire to get to Rome that night. The Englishman agreed it was a good idea. His friend agreed and a new dimension was added to the shouting. Eventually a price was decided, and the Englishmen assured him it was the best they could do. They could leave after the trunks were loaded and be in Rome before midnight.

The porter, who had been with him all afternoon, had to be paid. This was a difficult decision. He calculated several amounts in his head, chose the one in the middle and handed the money to the porter. He was prepared for a scowl or perhaps worse, but there was only a semi-scowl and a “Grazie.” This made him think he had given the porter too much. Crawford had not eaten all day. He bought bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine at a nearby trattoria. The price seemed reasonable, but because this was Civitavecchia, he could only believe he overpaid.

After more confusion and shouting during the loading of the trunks, the carriage at last began to move. Crawford sat back, took a sip of wine, and tried to relax and think of Rome. Difficult as the day had been, he was certain the introductory letter he carried to the sculpture studio of Bertel Thorvaldsen would also introduce him to a studio assistant who could help him find affordable accommodations. An intermediary fluent in Italian would be essential. The little Italian he had learned before the trip was, so far, of little help. Everyone spoke rapidly, and words blended incomprehensibly one into another.

Crawford thought he could now put this unpleasant experience behind him, but Civitavecchia had one more surprise for him. The carriage was stopped at the city gate, the door opened, and a policeman made it clear a fee must be paid by all leaving the city. The Englishmen protested to no avail. A fee was paid by all, and only then could the carriage leave Civitavecchia.


Gazing out the coach window at the countryside of the Campagna Crawford sipped his wine. In America, wine was a drink of the wealthy. His experience with it was limited. The taste was pleasant enough, possibly any drink would have been welcome as he tried to relax. The English companions, weary of the turmoil’s of the day, dozed.

He thought of America and his friends Robert Launitz and John Frazee, who taught him marble carving. Before working for them, he spent two years as an apprentice woodcarver where his natural artistic talent was ignited. Launitz recognized his talent and for five years taught him the basics of working with stone. If he had continued working with Launitz, his future would have been financially secure, but carving fireplace mantels and gravestones did not satisfy him. Detecting a restlessness and clear signs of a passion for art in the talented young man, Launitz surprised him. In fact, caught him completely off guard when he offered Crawford a small stipend to study in Rome with Bertel Thorvaldsen, Launitz’s former mentor.

As a youth, Crawford enjoyed sketching. After work he attended drawing classes at the National Academy of Art and spent hours in its library looking at engravings of works of art, particularly sculpture. Two of the drawing instructors had studied in Rome. They constantly lamented the fact their classes were limited to working with plaster casts of Ancient Greek and Roman figures and reliefs. In Rome they drew from nude live models, from all angles and poses, an impossibility when studying art in puritan America. Apart from woodcarving, sculpture was rare in America. There were many painters, excellent woodcarvers, but few Americans working as sculptors. Frazee’s portrait busts were the closest thing to sculpture Crawford ever saw. Launitz told him many tales of working in Rome and Crawford knew he had to be more than a carver. That came naturally to him. It was time to become a sculptor and study in Rome.

After stopping only once midway to rest the horses, a fog began covering the countryside and by the time they reached the outer walls of Rome about ten in the evening, it was quite dense. They entered at the Porta Cavalleggierri where another fee had to be paid.

The darkness and fog made it difficult to see anything. Crossing a bridge, he knew it must be the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, but he could barely make out the outlines of sculptures along the balustrade. Rome was all around him, but not visible in the darkness and fog. The Englishmen, now awake, told Crawford they had instructed the driver to go directly to their hotel near the Piazza di Spagna, an area where foreigners stayed. The promise of a bed on stable ground sounded perfect. So, after the commotion of unloading, paying the driver, and getting into his room, Crawford fell into bed and a sound sleep.

On his first day in Rome, he awoke to the noise and activity in the narrow street below. His large clean room cost more than he could continue to pay. After dressing, he went downstairs expecting to find a dining room. To his surprise, there was none and was told guests took their morning meal in their rooms ordered from a trattoria down the street. A pleasant surprise, the staff of the hotel understood and spoke English, but this was the tourist area of Rome. Breakfast, consisted coffee, and bread. The tiny cup gave no warning of the potent bitter taste of the coffee.

He needed directions to Thorvaldsen’s studio. The proprietor suggested sending a young boy with him to help find it. He agreed, and letter in hand, he began his Rome adventure. Everyone on the street seemed to be in a hurry, most were delivering food and young boys balanced baskets of bread on their heads. The stone buildings were three to four stories high and many upper floor windows were open on this warm September morning. Washed clothes hung from windows and shop owners were opening their doors. The boy moved quickly and as they approached a wider street, Crawford noted the name of the hotel street carved into a stone above the first floor of the corner building, Via dei Condotti.

Directly in front of him, at the end of Via dei Condotti, he was startled by the massive staircase, the Spanish Steps. He motioned for the boy to stop. The engravings he had studied in America had not done the stairs justice. They were much wider. At the bottom of the stairs was a fountain, an odd-shaped boat filled with flowing water. He could not remember the name, but he did remember it was by Bernini. Tourists strolled on and below the stairs studded with vendors. Beggars moved among the tourists.

The top of the stairs framed a view of a large church with two bell towers, Trinita dei Monti. Crawford had never seen anything like this and stood staring. The combination of architecture and sculpture took his breath away. It took a while for him to regain his composure and continue.

The boy motioned to the right and they started down the street. At the next intersection with one of the narrow streets, he noticed the street name, Via Sistina. His eyes were moving every which way, attempting to take in as much as possible, causing him to stumble on the uneven stone streets or bump into others. This slowed their progress. He also noted the clothes of the Italian men. People only had to look at Crawford’s boots, coat, or hat to know he was a foreigner, making him feel self-conscious.

They came to a large Piazza with a fountain in its center, a Triton surrounded by dolphins. The Triton blew water through a large conch shell. Now, somewhat calmer, he remembered, this would be the Fontana del Triton, again by Bernini. Adjusting to these sharp contrasts of dirtyt streets intermixed with dazzling fountains and piazzas would take time. As they moved farther from the Piazza di Spagna no English could be heard. He sensed he was easing into a different world.

They walked across the Piazza and stopped in front of three large buildings. To his right was a larger and grander building, and he wondered if this is was what they meant by a Pallazo (he would soon learn it was the Palazzo Barberini on the Piazza Barberini). They walked to the end of the Palazzo to a building across the street, stopped at a door, where the boy pointed and said, “Ecco.” A number on the door was the only identifying feature. Crawford stood, not knowing what to do next. The boy walked to the side of the door, pulled a string set in the wall, and a bell could be heard ringing inside.


After a few minutes the door opened and a young woman greeted him with “Buon giorno.” Flustered by the situation and his lack of experience speaking the little Italian he knew, Crawford mumbled a few incoherent words, then defensively pulled the letter from Launitz out of his pocket. He pushed it toward the young woman, and said, “Is maestro Thorvaldsen here?” The woman looked him over, took the letter, and replied “Prego,” motioning for him to enter. He looked back and the boy was already gone. Pointing to a chair she said, “Momento,” turned, opened a door to another room, and left.

The room contained two small marble female figures on pedestals. Running his fingers over the surfaces of the figures sparked a moment of anxiety. The finale of this journey had been reached; would he be welcome? He did not lack confidence, but from what he had seen so far during the short walk through Rome and in this room, expectations would be high. He had worked on portrait busts and copied a relief of Thorvaldsen’s from an engraving, but he had never carved a full figure.

The inner door opened, and a man of about fifty entered, greeting Crawford with, “Buongiorno. Welcome to Rome, I have not read the letter, but my guess is that you are not from this country. Perhaps America? I am the foreman, Vincenzo. Maestro Thorvaldsen is here and working. Please look around the studio and I’ll will give him the letter.” Opening the door wider, Vincenzo led him into the next room.

Leaving Crawford to himself he hurried off. This room contained at least ten completed pieces, varying in size. They were stunning. Marble, yet appearing soft. He moved from piece to piece first standing back to take in the whole figure, then moving closer to check the details. He was impressed by the depths of the under cuts. The surfaces were smooth, no unevenness, always flowing correctly. Work like this did not exist in New York.

The next room was larger. He took a quick step back, stunned by the sight. The light from the windows, reflecting on at least fifty white plasterworks scattered throughout the room, shocked the eye. So, these were the bozzette or models Launitz talked about with the tiny holes scattered over the surfaces that guided the carvers. The variety and size of subjects was impressive. Half hidden in the corners, were forgotten works covered with a thick layer of dust, often with broken fingers or chips. Spider webs that extended to the wall were covered with dirty plaster dust.

Mold making and plaster casting were taking place in the next area. A group of men worked together applying plaster over a clay model crisscrossed with multiple small strips of thin metal used to delineate the different segments of a future mold. They paid no attention to his presence.

As he moved on the noise and the number of workers increased. Carvers were at work ahead. Crawford marveled at how effortlessly they worked each marble block.

Entering a larger room, he found a group of men working on an equestrian sculpture. One man directed the others and he assumed it was Thorvaldsen since he held a letter in his hand. He was a large man, about the same size as Crawford with deep blue eyes and flowing yellow gray hair resting on broad shoulders. The bones of the face, cheeks and jaw were prominent. As he came closer, Crawford noticed the large hands. Smiling warmly the man introduced himself, “I’m Bertel Thorvaldsen, welcome to Rome.” his English was poor and had a Scandinavian accent. Since the death of Canova, he was Rome’s leading sculptor. “Your friend Launitz recommends you highly. I remember Launitz well. So, you wish to work in my studio?”

“Yes, yes,” replied Crawford. “I would be honored to work here. I’ve been carving marble and studying drawing for the past five years and felt it was time to come to Italy and learn from the master.”

“Another American, Greenough, stayed in Rome briefly but went on to Florence to work. Do you plan to stay in Rome or are you also planning to go north?” asked Thorvaldsen.

Crawford quickly answered, “No, I was given money to study here and intend to do so.”

“Fine, then with this excellent recommendation, I would be pleased to have you study here. You realize there will be no salary and you will have to find your own housing. We may not have enough for you to learn in one year,” Thorvaldsen said with a laugh. “Vincenzo can show you around and introduce you.” He turned to his foreman and said, “Vincenzo, be certain Mr. Crawford meets our other young student.” Turning back to the assistants, he resumed pointing out areas on the horse which needed reworking.


Vincenzo motioned for Crawford to follow him. Leaving the building, they passed through a courtyard with raw marble blocks stacked in one corner. Entering another building, they came to a small room where a young man was modeling a clay figure copying a plaster reproduction of an ancient Roman Sculpture. Vincenzo interrupted him, “Paolo, this is a new student from America. uh, uh....”

“Thomas,” interjected Crawford, extending his hand to Paolo who clumsily tried to wipe the clay from his hands with his apron.

“Piacere,” replied Paolo, “America, America, io non conosco... I niente... never know American.”

Paolo obviously spoke as little English as Crawford spoke Italian, but the expression on his face said welcome. He was smaller, Italian small, had a handsome Roman face, dark, dark black hair and looked younger. Vincenzo left the two, each happy to meet a fellow student, but unable, or at least hesitant to begin a conversation.

Crawford moved to the clay, inspected it from all sides, and introduced his Italian, “Bene, bene, qui..qui... fecit...who did the clay?” He knew his Italian was incorrect, but he had to begin sometime. The clay was good, very good. Seeing this sophisticated work by a fellow student made it clear he had much to learn, and this was the place. Rome, the studio, the sculptures he saw, everything so far excited him.

Then Thorvaldsen walked in and studied Paolo’s clay. Speaking in Italian to Paolo, with his hands and a simple wooden tool he subtly reshaped the clay. The critique involved all sides and areas Crawford had thought were good. The small changes made by the master resulted in dramatic improvements and gave the piece a new look. His constructive and non-intimidating manner suggested the master was a gentle giant. A welcome relief to Crawford. As quickly as he came Thorvaldsen left, leaving the two to review the changes. In silence they now understood each other perfectly as they studied the changes. These critiques continued on a daily basis the entire time Crawford was with Thorvaldsen.

Crawford studied the room. Empty sculpture stands and high stools were scattered about and Paolo seemed to be the only one working here. The light was sufficient, but not the best. He noted a large covered bin against the wall and assumed it contained clay. Soft gray dust covered the floor and windows. Paolo, looked around the room, spread his arms wide and broke the silence, “Per noi,.....for us.” Crawford grinned as he began to feel welcome in Rome.

Without tools and too excited to begin working, he decided to continue his exploration of the atelier. Adjacent rooms contained more workers. As he walked around the Italian studio system became clearer.

From what he could tell, the sculptor, after completing his drawings, prepared a clay model less than a meter high. A beginning no different from New York. Mold makers took over, first making a thin plaster waste mold over the clay, which when dry, easily separated from the moist clay. Into this mold, they poured plaster and then chipped the outer plaster mold away (‘waste mold’) giving the sculptor a plaster casting of his clay model. This plaster cast could be revised further by the sculptor. These were things he had done before at home. From this point forward, he noted a difference.

The plaster sculpture or model could be left the same size, enlarged, or even reduced in size by the craftsmen. Before beginning the carving, a wooden frame was built around both the plaster model and the marble block. The top of each frame was divided into the identical number of marks. With the plaster model as a point of reference, the carvers used a system similar to navigating by sighting stars, and with calipers used the points in the plaster where nails had been inserted as a reference to the marks on the two frames.