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Bringing Life to Rushmore
Jun 29, 2011
Every year, millions of people gaze upon the four faces at Mount Rushmore. Most visitors could tell you that Gutzon Borglum designed them. But almost nobody knows the Italian immigrant who gave them life.
Luigi Del Bianco was Mount Rushmore’s chief carver from 1933 to 1940, but his role in creating the monument was nearly forgotten. When his son Caesar read Rex Alan Smith’s 1994 book The Carving of Mount Rushmore, he was shocked that his father’s name was nowhere to be found.
“That frustrated my uncle and myself so much that we went to the Library of Congress to look through Gutzon Borglum’s papers,” says Lou Del Bianco, Luigi’s grandson and Caesar’s nephew. “We found correspondence from Borglum about my grandfather’s importance, and how he couldn’t find anyone else in America to do this work. Whenever he quit the monument because of problems with wages, all work would have to stop. That’s how important he was. He was really the artist who brought the faces to life. The workers did a wonderful job roughing them out, but you need an artist to bring out the emotion in the faces, and that’s what my grandfather did.”
Lou Del Bianco has been an actor and storyteller for 25 years. He created a one-man show and a website to tell his grandfather’s story, and will present it inside Borglum’s studio at Mount Rushmore on Sunday, July 3.
Lou learned about his grandfather’s work in second grade, when he found a tattered Mount Rushmore brochure. “From then on, it’s been a dream of mine to find out what he did and get him more recognition,” he says. “I feel like my entire career has led me up to this moment.”
Luigi Del Bianco studied stone carving in his native Italy. He settled in Port Chester, N.Y., after World War I, and began working in Borglum’s Connecticut studio. They worked together for the next 20 years, a remarkable stretch considering Borglum’s proclivity for firing people at the drop of a hat. “They argued quite a bit, but it was part of their relationship,” Lou says. “They had great mutual respect for one another, and in the end they loved each other.”
When Borglum made Del Bianco chief carver at Mount Rushmore, he said Luigi was “the only stone carver on the work who understands the language of the sculptor. He is worth any three men I could find in America.”
Del Bianco saved Jefferson’s face by almost seamlessly patching a crack one foot wide in his lip, and made Lincoln’s eyes come alive. “I could only see from this far what I was doing, but the eye of Lincoln had to look just right from many miles distant,” Luigi told an interviewer in 1966. “I know every line and ridge, each small bump and all the details of that head so well.”
After Mount Rushmore’s completion, Del Bianco returned to Port Chester, where he carved tombstones and set statues. He rarely discussed his work in South Dakota, but his craftsmanship on a Black Hills mountain will exist for generations.