“…procure for the service of the United States, in the erection of public buildings in this City, especially of the Capitol, one or two good sculptors…”.
Trained in Germany and England, Latrobe came to Virginia in 1796, where he became friends with Bushrod Washington, Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe was visiting Philadelphia in March 1798 when he met the Bank of Pennsylvania president, Samuel L. Fox and suggested a design for a new bank building. Months later,...
Trained in Germany and England, Latrobe came to Virginia in 1796, where he became friends with Bushrod Washington, Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe was visiting Philadelphia in March 1798 when he met the Bank of Pennsylvania president, Samuel L. Fox and suggested a design for a new bank building. Months later, Latrobe was commissioned to design the new bank building, which was the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. This commission is what convinced him to set up his practice in Philadelphia, where he developed his reputation. In the United States, he soon achieved eminence as the first professional architect working in the country. He likely influenced his friend Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia.
Physical construction of the U.S. Capitol Building began in 1793, but by the time of Jefferson’s presidency, the project had stalled several times. In order to resume building, Congress allocated $50,000 for construction of the Capitol’s south wing on March 3, 1803. Three days later, Jefferson chose Latrobe to oversee this monumental project, offering him the position of Surveyor of The Public Buildings of the United States, which was known as “the most important architectural position in the country.”
Latrobe began work on the Capitol, with plans designed by William Thornton and construction work already underway. Some things were finished. The walls of one wing were standing. Latrobe undertook as his first project the completion of the Hall of Representatives. Here he introduced an influence of Roman architecture. He designed an ambitious plan that would require skilled Italian sculptors, which he could not find the US.
Phillip Mazzei was an Italian physician and horticulturalist and a good friend of Jefferson, who took a personal interest in the decoration of the Capitol. When Latrobe considered adding sculptural ornamentation, Jefferson recommended he contact Mazzei through the U.S. Consul in Livorno, Italy, in the hopes that the government could procure skilled Italian sculptors. Latrobe did so with this letter.
Autograph Letter Signed, Washington, March 6, 1805, to Consul Thomas Appleton, who was himself an avid art enthusiast, sending European art to America and contributing to the advancement of art in the U.S.
“The enclosed letter to Mr. Philip Mazzei contains a request that he will endeavor to procure for the service of the United States, in the erection of public buildings in this City, especially of the Capitol, one or two good sculptors, with whom he will make the proper agreements, and enter into the necessary articles, which should, I think, be attested before you. In order to accomplish this object, it may be required that an advance of money be made, to enable a man of merit in his profession, to settle his affairs, and procure his passage hither. At the last session of Congress, a considerable sum was appropriated to the use of the public buildings, and there is therefore an ample fund out of which to pay any draft which may be made upon us for that purpose. By direction of the President of the United States, I have now to request that you will have the goodness to forward the enclosed letter to Mr. Mazzei and give to him such assistance as may be necessary in sending the persons whom he may engage to this country, drawing for all charges and commissions which may accrue, on the Secretary of the Treasury, who is instructed to honor your drafts for this purpose. Mr. Mazzei has full instructions as to the nature and amount of advance to be made, and whatever he may require, will on your draft be readily paid. I am with due respect, yours faithfully….”
Mazzei responded to Jefferson, “I have received Latrobe’s letter. I thank you for it with all my heart, for I know that it is through you that I have the honor and privilege of being placed in a position to do something for my dear adopted fatherland. He asks for a ‘first rate sculptor in the particular branch of architectural decoration… I must go to Rome and pass through Florence… I have written to Mr. Appleton advising him not to let anyone know about it.”
Mazzei found and sent over two young sculptors, Giuseppe Franzoni and Giovanni Andrei. Both men were at work in Washington by the first week of April 1806. Latrobe would write “Franzoni and Andrei have arrived… Mazzei says that Franzoni is the most excellent sculptor… and that Andrei excels more in decoration.” They would fashion some of the finest works of art in America to that time. One work, the eagle that sat above the House Speaker’s chair, was described by Latrobe as the finest and most majestic work he had ever seen, a unique blend of the Italian style and American imagery.
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