Archimedes Aristides Michael Giacomantonio was born in Jersey City, just across the river from the gleaming metropolis that was Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century.
A child prodigy, he was first trained as a musician. His father, a music critic and a close friend of Giacomo Puccini, traveled with the composer from Italy to America to review the premiere of La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera (the cast included Caruso as Dick Johnson.) Many of the great singers and composers of the age were family friends of the Giacomantonios, and the youngster was steeped in the the rich culture and lore of America’s tightly-knit, Italo-American community.
The young Archimedes sang in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus as a child. All his brothers and sisters had been trained as musicians, and he was fully expecting to follow suit. However, his sculptural talent manifested itself at an early age, and destiny decided otherwise. After casually fashioning an effigy of Caruso in soap, the tenor (who was a brilliant draftsman and caricaturist in his own right) noticed it, and offered to pay for the youngster’s studies. Unfortunately, Caruso died before he could make good on his promise. By the time Giacomantonio was seventeen years of age, he had a scholarship to study in Italy, at the Royal Academy of Art in Rome, where he remained for six years and where he received a degree in 1929. His childhood memories and his beginnings as a sculptor are recounted in the lively interview with Fritz Cleary.*.
In resumé: Giacomantonio traveled to Italy with his uncle. He was introduced to Gemito at a social gathering. The master permitted the young man to realize his portrait, promising that if he liked the result, he would accept him as his pupil.
Gemito sat for Giacomantonio in a Roman hotel, and the young artist set busily to work. The extraordinary bust illustrated here is the result of the challenge. Given its force, penetrating psychological insight, maturity of conception and admirable sculptural qualities, Archimedes was accepted with open arms.
Giacomantonio lived with Gemito for nearly two years. During that time, he had occasion to absorb every aspect of sculptural art, including that of casting, since Gemito had his own working foundry on the ground floor of his house. Giacomantonio became almost a son to the aging artist, and when he died, Gemito’s daughter accorded Giacomantonio the singular honor of realizing his death mask, saying that her father would not have wished it otherwise.
Upon returning to America, Giacomantonio established a considerable reputation, enjoying a busy career in public sculpture. He realized several monuments, notably, one of Columbus, and another, called Lincoln, the Rail-splitter.
His talent as a portraitist was recognized, and he realized busts of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Harry S.Truman and Martin Luther King, among many others.
Last, but not least, Giacomantonio was the founder and director of the Cellini Foundry, one of the major producers of American art bronzes.
In executing his portrait, the young Giacomantonio, perhaps at Gemito’s behest, appears to have drawn inspiration for his pose from the artist’s self-portrait plaquette in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, or perhaps both works were sculpted concurrently, with the plaque serving as a model for instructional purposes. However, while the parallels are striking, Giacomantonio’s bust, with its extravagant treatment of the sitter’s hair and beard (features that bring Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance to mind) is certainly more idealized and flattering.
Giacomantonio’s bust was cast in bronze (presumably in Gemito’s own foundry), and the example entered into the collection of the Museo di Arte Moderna di Roma. Other works by Giacomantonio are conserved in Italian museums as well: a mask of his grandmother, Nonna, in the Royal Palace, Rome, and Mediterranean Flower in the Museum of Modern Art, Valle Giulia, Rome.
In 1980, shortly before his death, the sculptor received the honor of Accademico from the Italian State. Equivalent to an honorary doctorate, it is the highest award that can be bestowed by the country upon a practitioner of Music, Dance or the Fine Arts, and it is rarely accorded to an American artist.
*Lincoln Financial Foundation / Indiana State Museum: Sculpture Review. Summer 1. JHS. Vol. XXXV, N°2. Young Sculptor Series. “Gemito – Crazy Like a Genius.” Archimedes Giacomantonio’s Interview with Fritz Cleary. 1985. Illustration: Photograph / Gemito posing for the young Giacomantonio.