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Finding Fidardo Landi: A court decision shows how he gained recognition in the US

June 25, 2012

I always wondered how my great grandfather’s work as a sculpture earned recognition here in the United States. Fidardo Landi was an Italian sculptor whose work in Italy and the United States was just beginning to recognized prominently when he passed away on January 1, 1918. Now a 110-year-old court document that I’ve uncovered casts light on how other fine artists came to view his work.

He arrived in the United States alone in 1900 with a commission to design a bas-relief of President William McKinley, the 25th president. Unfortunately the president’s untimely death withdrew the commission and Landi found himself in a new country, barely able to speak English. His work, however, spoke volumes for him.

Landi adopted this country as his own and began to build a new life here.  In Italy, he had worked for a period of time for a company in Carrara that designed and built statuary for parks, churches and cemeteries. Landi managed an entire division of sculptors who fulfilled orders across the globe to be chiseled in Italian marble. He also worked on his own sculptural designs. Based on my research, the company must have been the Wal-Mart of the day, churning out dozens of statuary each month that were shipped abroad. The company bought cast-off designs from notable sculptors in Europe and recreated them for the commercial market. It also produced custom design work. Needless to say, the company’s volume of work output drew the ire of fine artists with great derision and recalcitrance.

Fidardo Landi

When the company was challenged on its importing practices in the late 1890’s, declaring commercial grade product as original art to avoid significant import taxes, the art world in the United States got a first hand look at the craftsmanship of Fidardo Landi.  At issue was how to properly appraise and assess duties chargeable on imported merchandise, particularly artwork.  Original artwork was to be taxed for customs at a lower rate than commercial merchandise. The definition of original artwork was greatly debated in court testimony. Established U.S.-based artists took issue with Landi’s company, churning out what they considered second-rate sculptures by teams of workers using second-hand designs. They downplayed in their testimony the fact that Landi was a Prix de Rome winner for sculpture or that he mentored under Alessandro Biggi, dean of the Carrara School of Art and mayor of the city. There were casual compliments to his skills, but they pointed out that his studio was a ramshackle little office overlooking the marble quarry with one desk, a chair and a sculpting corner, as if one could not possibly produce great artwork without more space.

Another challenge in the court testimony was the issue of control over design: how much and how frequently is a sculptor obligated to work on an original design in order to claim it his own. One artist challenged that Landi stole a design of his and claimed it as his own, but could never prove that he had any involvement into the design built process. That artist claimed to have sketched a design of a table-top statue and sent it to Carrara to be carved, but never touched it in the process, not even the fine tuning of finishing phase.  Later he challenged that an eight-foot statue built by Landi was his own work.  The court dismissed that charge, basically telling the protestor that he has a professional obligation to be responsible for his own work. Sculptors control every phase of the process, the court told him. It was also not possible, they determined, to proportion a table-top sketch into an eight-foot model in marble with the same depth of detail that the finished work required. As such, it could not be considered the protestor’s design, based on the evidence presented.

A lower court decision ruled in favor of the Collector of Customs in New York and stayed the decision to tax imported commercial artwork at 20 percent. On appeal (Ferdinand Bing vs. Collector of Customs) the upper court reversed the decision in 1902 and ordered the Board of Appraisers in New York to reappraise works of art imported at 15 percent, rather than 20 percent, dating back to July 18, 1900.

In its decision the court declared that all statuary, which is cut, carved or otherwise made by hand from a solid block of marble, alabaster, or other materials to be design built by a professional, school-trained sculptor to be a work of art.

“Works of art can not be narrowed down to the production of a few men who are at the head of their profession,” the court ruled. “If a sculptor of recognized ability should copy Venus of Milo and send it to the United States, it would be regarded as a work of art, notwithstanding that the original work was made centuries ago.”

Several of the witnesses who testified against Landi’s Italian employer in that court challenge were privately impressed with Landi’s work. Ironically, one company later sponsored him to come to the country and design the bas-relief of McKinley. Several others became close friends and offered him subcontracting work until he could establish himself here in the United States. They include Daniel Chester French, and Charles Henry Niehaus.

Landi became friends with Niehaus around the time Niehaus married noted horticulturist Regina Armstrong and moved to New Rochelle, New York in 1900. He did subcontracting work for French and often consulted on the choices of white Italian marble for other sculptors. Family folklore has it that he consulted on the choice of white Carrara marble used by another sculptor for a piece that now sits in the White House. (I have not verified that, yet.)

After the court decision, Landi was refunded a significant amount of customs taxes, petitioned for citizenship and sent for his family to join him in 1905. That’s where his U.S. story begins.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Vicki permalink
    February 1, 2013 9:57 pm

    I have a Landi sculpter that i received from my famous Uncle Robert Goodman. My
    bronze is dated 1917….

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