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When 23rd & Chestnut Streets had a There There

The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org) – 2nd

A handsome pair of facades at the northeast corner of 23rd and Chestnut Streets. Reading from the left: a cluster of bold, brick arches up, down and across an otherwise modest, two-story structure. Gilt letters and what must be a red cross on the glass doors announce the occupant. Here’s the Philadelphia School for Nurses, founded seventeen years earlier and formerly in rented space on Walnut Street, east of Broad. The nurses bought this site only five years before this 1911 view, bringing architect Clyde Smith Adams in to design a training school, dormitories and dispensary. A practical design, with a flourish in a first-floor window taken from a Florentine Renaissance palazzo.

Perhaps architect Adams meant this as a playful reference to the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale? Or a snappy rejoinder to “Florentine Art Plaster Co. Art Gallery” next door? Or possibly both?

Nearly falling off the edge of the image, a bit further to the right (east), we see a fragment of a one-story building offering up the barest of clues. “Stephen…Stone Carv…” it reads. A quick Google search turns up an issue of a journal titled Rock Products published in Louisville, Kentucky in 1906. We’re at the studio of Stephen Cazzulo, sculptor, who, we learn, “is busy getting out models for the large Lafayette Building” at Fifth and Chestnut Streets. Cazzulo “is an expert in his line and has done work on nearly all the skyscrapers and important structures erected during the last twenty years.”

A nice payoff for a minimum investment in keystrokes. We don’t always get so lucky.

Detail. The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org)

What might we learn about the Florentine Art Plaster Company? Once again, the web provides! The Smithsonian Libraries has in its vast collections a 140-page, illustrated catalogue. Even better, this publication was scanned and mounted online only a few years ago. We like to think that  Plaster Casts: Reproductions from Antique, Renaissance and Modern Sculpture has been residing in digital purgatory awaiting its fifteen minutes of social media attention. Now, reading the catalogue and perusing the illustrations of more than 2,700 items as we study the archival photograph, we feel an alignment of the research stars.

At left in the storefront window is a copy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne on a fancy pedestal. The 4’9” pair is listed in the catalogue for $25, the equivalent of $630 today. On the right is Cupid and Psyche (not the erotic Antonio Canova version, which is tucked away inside, at the back of the shop) on an identical pedestal. Between the two, with dusky patina, is a bust of Christopher Columbus on a lion-head base. Connecting the dots, we realize the photograph was taken in mid-October, only a few days after Columbus Day. When did this become an official holiday? In Pennsylvania, only two years before.

The catalogue enables us to virtually transport ourselves through the plate glass of the storefront and into the main aisle of the showroom.

View of the main aisle of the showroom of the Florentine Art Plaster Co. Philadelphia, ca. 1914 (Smithsonian Libraries and Archive.org)

On the left we see a row of works starting with a life-size, kneeling Joan of Arc by Henri Chapu, listed for $60. Way back in the rear, there’s the unmistakable Nike, or Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the largest items in the showroom. It’s a copy of an original in the Louvre, in a place of honor atop the main stairs. This one is 5’ 3” and is listed for $100, $2,500 in today’s dollars. But you can take home a 3’ version for $15, or a 2’4” version for $9, or even a modest priced and sized (7 inch) Victory of Samothrace for $1, which amounts to $25 today.

How about a 20” by 30” copy of Andrea Della Robbia’s terracotta bas-relief of the Madonna and Child? That’ll be $5. Or Michelangelo’s Moses? You can choose a 3’ version for $25 or something half that size for a fifth as much.  Among other Michelangelo items are his Slave, 3’ 9” at $12 and a 2′ 6″ David for $8.

Interested in Alexander the Great? Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 22-panel opus, The Triumph of Alexander into Babylon made in honor of Napoleon’s visit to Rome in 1812 is a whopping $190.

The array of European Who’s Who, from Byron to Hayden, Chopin to Hugo, Galileo to Faust, Savonarola to Shakespeare, Voltaire to Marie Antoinette—was impressive. That’s not to say a constellation of Americans weren’t represented. One could choose from a half dozen versions of Washington, Franklin or Lincoln ranging from $.25 to $20. Or Stephen Girard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And on a local level there was Thomas Eakins’ Anatomy of Horse, 23” by 30” for $5 and his more modest Skeleton of a Horse for $2.50.

From its start in 1900, the Florentine Art Plaster Company assured customers “faithful reproductions of classic subjects.” The “connoisseur of art” or the student or the teachers would not see any “cheap tawdry ornaments.”

Detail. The Florentine Art Plaster Company, 2217-2219 Chestnut Street, October 17, 1911 (PhillyHistory.org)

The talent behind the operation? Joseph Mazzoni, who, according to his obituary in 1948, “first came here from Italy as an advance agent for the Royal Italian Marine Band and settled here in 1900” to open a studio of sculptural reproductions.

And now, more than a century later, pausing to look even closer at the storefront, we see a man—whycould it be the proprietor himself? He’s looking at us from over Christopher Columbus’ left shoulder. (What a pleasant surprise.)

Here’s looking [back] at you, Mr.Mazzoni.

[Sources: “From Our Own Correspondents, Philadelphia,” Rock Products, vol. 5, no. 1;  Plaster Casts reproduced from Antique, Renaissance and Modern Sculpture … made and sold by The Florentine Art Plaster Co., Philadelphia, Pa. (The Company, 1914.); “The Latest News in Real Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1906; [Obituary] Joseph Mazzoni, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1948.]

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