From the Seven Hills of Rome to Chestnut Hill: On the Trail of Boston College’s St. Michael Statue

By Michaela Brant, class of ‘23

Featured image by Éamon Laughlin, class of ’22

When awe-struck visitors and hustling students enter Gasson Hall, Boston College’s most iconic Gothic building, they pass through a rotunda adorned with oil paintings, and in the center stands a towering sculpture. St. Michael, triumphant in his struggle with Satan, raises his brass sword to smite the devil and send him to the underworld. The action-packed scene depicted by this statue would not be amiss  in a comic book. Motion is chiseled into the marble, transforming solid stone into fluid forms and lythe bodies straining against one another. The folds of Michael’s robe flowing behind him and the intricate decorations of Lucifer’s serpentine tail truly bring the marble to life. This important piece of Boston College and Gasson Hall history has a pathway that spans centuries and takes us from an artist’s studio in the heart of Rome to the parlors of Boston’s 19th-century elite, to right here in the Heights. 

Lucifer lays prone at Michael’s feet near vanquished, and he tries to raise himself upright, not yet defeated. You can almost hear Lucifer cry out a ferocious roar as he looks back at his assailant, face full of frustration and left fist clenched. He uses the other hand to steady himself as he prepares a retaliatory strike. Although a paradox, one cannot help but admire the demon for his stubbornness and refusal to stay down. The Archangel Michael stands victorious but takes no joy in his work. Their battle is not simple, but a civil war. Lucifer was once a powerful angel, and Michael casting him out represents a conflict between former allies and friends. The artist’s masterful carving inserts the emotion and gravitas of this conflict and forces the viewer to reckon with this struggle for the fate of heaven and earth. As one gazes down from the towering Michael to the foundation of the statue, the decorations forming the base are equally impressive. Three sides of the base feature intricately carved scenes of St. Michael. When he carries Moses’s body to heaven, drives away a demon from Moses’ dead body, and he meets and blesses the prophet Daniel in the Tigris River. After one stops and absorbs this majestic sight, it conjures more questions—who made this work? What inspired it? And how did it get here?

Scipione Tadolini

The iconography of St. Michael remains a constant in the Catholic tradition of statuary. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the statue’s creator, Scipione Tadolini, was commissioned to bring this favorite biblical story to life. Tadolini, a middle-class sculptor based in Rome, lived from 1822 until 1893 and came from a family of artists. His mother, Serafina Passamonti Tadolini, painted miniatures. His father, Adamo Tadolini, was also a sculptor and a favorite assistant of the great Neoclassical, Venetian-born artist Antonio Canova. Canova helped Adamo establish his own studio, where he trained his sons, and which Scipione took over upon Adamo’s death. Four generations of Tadolinis worked in this historic Rome street studio until it closed in the 1960s. The studio is now home to the Canova-Tadolini museum and café, where patrons can sip on chianti and dine on fresh-made pasta, all the while admiring beautiful marble sculptures. 

There is not much recorded information about the life of Tadolini himself, but what we have gathered focuses mainly on his art. From looking at his pieces over the years, it is clear that white marble was Tadolini’s material of choice. Tadolini studied at the Accademia in Rome and then gained recognition for his sculptures from prominent institutions in Italy and beyond. He created several portraits and ecclesiastical sculptures for Roman churches and sculpted an equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar for the city of Lima, Peru. He also was well known for his figure sculptures, and in the early 1850s, he gained notoriety for making several marble works from the same model, La schiava greca (The Greek Slave)

Photo courtesy of Richard Redding Antiques Ltd., richardreddingantiques.com 

The Statue’s Path

The life of Gardner Brewer, the statue’s patron, began in Boston in 1806. Brewer came to be one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston, following in the footsteps of his father, Thomas Brewer. He worked as a distiller and then became involved in the dry-goods trade, founding the house of Gardner Brewer & Co. Through this dry-goods business, Brewer accumulated a fortune estimated at several million dollars by the time of his death. With such a substantial fortune, the Brewers were eclectic collectors of art. They filled their home with American pottery, European decorative art, Etruscan gems, Japanese screens, oriental jade, and rare jewelry from France and India. The Brewer family bequeathed most of this collection of worldly art to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Additionally, shortly before Brewer passed away in 1874, he gifted a beautiful fountain to the city of Boston. The Brewer Fountain now stands in the Boston Common and has been running since June 3, 1868.

In 1865, Brewer contacted Tadolini and asked him to convert his vision of St. Michael overcoming Satan into stone. Brewer paid $28,000 for the statue and insisted that Tadolini accompany it on its journey to America. Tadolini, always a perfectionist, took four years to complete the statue, which was one of his largest and most ambitious works. In 1869, Tadolini accompanied the statue across the Atlantic to Boston, where Brewer had the statue installed in the great hall of his Beacon Street Home. The city of Boston has since torn down his house at 29 Beacon Street to build an extension of the Massachusetts State House.Unfortunately, Brewer only had five years to enjoy the statue. After Brewer’s death, the St. Michael statue passed into the hands of an art dealer. It remained in storage for many years until an anonymous benefactor purchased it for Boston College in 1909 in the name of Charles Lane, S.J., who was a prefect of the Church of Immaculate Conception and minister of Boston College High School. The acquisition was announced in April 1909, and the statue arrived at Boston College soon after.

Image courtesy of O’Neill Library, Boston College

Gasson Hall: Traditions and Contexts

Gasson Hall is both the center of and backdrop for many highlights of BC life. Several rooms in Gasson Hall bring students together for academic and extracurricular events. Gasson 305, the home of the Fulton Debate Society, is both a classroom and a mini auditorium. A list of debate winners since 1890 adorns one wall, and the spirit of both learning and performance continues outside of the classroom—the same room is the site of panel discussions and comedy shows. Closer to the St. Michael statue, Gasson 100, or “the Irish room,” hosts guest speakers, chamber music concerts, and student admissions programming.

Not only does Gasson Hall play host to a multitude of BC traditions, but the shaded Linden Lane that leads up to the hall is also one of the most Instagrammed locations in the country. Visitors and graduates pose for photographs framed by lush trees in front of the bronze eagle sculpture with Gasson’s gothic spires in the background. Students snap photos walking to and from class in sunshine and snow alike. Freshman process down Linden Lane for “first flight,” and seniors process the opposite way for commencement. Boston College students cherish Gasson Hall and the memories it gives to them. And the St. Michael statue stands just beyond the doors, a silent witness to it all. 

A Boston College Stylus article from April 1909 describes the newly acquired St. Michael statue as “a great gift to Boston College.” Since then, Boston College has undergone many changes—not the least of which are admitting women and people of color. The university continues to evolve academically, with adding an engineering department and the Schiller Institute of Integrated Science and Society, and socially, with students pushing for increased resources for marginalized communities. No matter how the school has changed, the beautiful art and architecture have made Boston College Boston College, one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses and a place that people associate with service and commitment to Jesuit values. Today, the St. Michael statue resides in a space that continues to give to Boston College students—memories, traditions, and hopefully, a place to call home. 

Acknowledgments

Thank you to all the student ambassadors at the McMullen Museum of Art who played a role in the process of writing and researching this article: Chris Rizzo, Ivana Wijedasa, Matthew DiBenedetto, Adrianna Zhao, Zoey Zheng, and Ethan Starr. Thank you also to Rachel Brody and Emily Coello for their guidance and editing.

References

The Answer Wall. “What Does the Gasson Hall Mean to BC Students?” Boston College Libraries, July 30, 2018. https://library.bc.edu/answerwall/2018/07/30/what-does-the-gasson-hall-mean-to-bc-students/. Accessed 3/7/2022.

Andreozzi, Brenna. “The Magnificent Site on Commonwealth Avenue: Father Gasson’s Bell Tower Brings Boston College to New Heights.” John J. Burns Library’s Blog, October 19, 2015. https://johnjburnslibrary.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/the-magnificent-site-on-commonwealth-avenue-father-gassons-bell-tower-brings-boston-college-to-new-heights/. Accessed 3/7/2022.

Nisbet, Gary. “Scipione Tadolini (1822-92).” Glasgow – City of Sculpture, see http://www.glasgowsculpture.com/pg_biography.php?sub=tadolini_s. Accessed 2/1/2022.

Christie’s. “The Opulent Eye – 19th Century Furniture, Sculpture, Works of Art, Ceramics & Carpets.” Live Auction 12029 [2016]. Scipione Tadolini (Italian 1822-1892/3) La schiava greca (The Greek Slave), see https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6001605. Accessed 2/1/2022.

Richard Redding Antiques Ltd. “Sold Objects.” A Classical Statue of The Greek Slave or La schiava greca by Scipione Tadolini, Rome, dated 1860,” see https://www.richardreddingantiques.com/sold/9527/. Accessed 2/1/2022.

Willard, Ashton Rollins. History of Modern Italian Art. United Kingdom: Longmans, Green, 1900. https://www.google.com/books/edition/History_of_Modern_Italian_Art/oZdGAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1. Accessed 3/7/2022.

“Changes Among Boston Jesuits” The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 59, Number 30. July 27, 1918. https://newspapers.bc.edu/?a=d&d=BOSTONSH19180727-01.2.11&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-. Accessed 3/7/2022.

YouFine Art and Sculpture. “Ornaments of Scipione Tadolini Outdoor Garden White Marble Life Size Statue for Sale-MOKK-231,” see https://www.cnstatue.com/ornaments-of-scipione-tadolini-outdoor-garden-white-marble-life-size-statue-for-sale-mokk-231.html. Accessed 3/7/2022.

Trainor, Tessa. “Gasson’s historical artwork under wraps.” The Heights, November 15, 2010. https://newspapers.bc.edu/?a=d&d=bcheights20101115-01.2.70&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——. Accessed 3/7/2022.

Kelly, Joseph E. “A great art gift to Boston College.” The Stylus. April 1909. https://newspapers.bc.edu/?a=d&d=stylus19090401-01.2.2&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-. Accessed 3/7/2022.

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