A fictionalized account of how two American sculptors from vastly different backgrounds came to adorn the U.S. Capitol in an era of national strife.
Novak, a sculptor with 40 years of experience, brings the magic of marble carving to life in plain but engaging prose in this debut historical novel. When British troops burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814, from the ashes rose an opportunity for American artists. Previously passed over in favor of skilled Italians, Americans were invited to train in Rome and return to rebuild the Capitol building. Foremost among these homegrown sculptors is Thomas Crawford, a 20-year-old who develops into one of Rome’s premier sculptors, attracting the attention of well-placed Americans George Washington Greene and Charles Sumner. Yet years pass without Crawford garnering a single commission from Washington. Ironically, self-taught sculptor Clark Mills is profiting through his political contacts, receiving only the second commission from Congress awarded to an American sculptor. Not until the Capitol’s expansion in 1852 does Crawford’s luck change. In quick succession, he is awarded commissions for panels, doors, and his dome-crowning glory, Freedom. But success is bittersweet: He is diagnosed with an inoperable tumor behind his left eye. As Crawford’s health worsens, Mills is brought in to complete Freedom, thus marrying Crawford’s Old World training with Mills’ New World entrepreneurial savvy. This microcosm of America’s artistic history plays out against the increasingly volatile congressional battle over slavery. One could argue that Crawford’s difficulties in landing commissions may be traced not only to his long residence in Rome, but to his friendship with Charles Sumner, a powerful abolitionist, whose scathing speeches dot the book’s second half. Mills, on the other hand, could not have risen far without the skilled help of his slaves—in particular, a craftsman named Philip Reid. The white mountaintops of Carrara, the seductive textures of artists’ materials, and the majesty of Roman art all shine in spite of a tendency toward expository dialogue and misplaced punctuation. The result here is less novelesque than nonfiction with dialogue, full of technical and historical detail, but also underdeveloped characters and unevenly executed subplots. That said, neither art enthusiasts nor American-history buffs should mind, as the compelling story unfolds amid the world of classical art before shifting to the realm of political machinations.
A well-researched narrative of how the U.S. Capitol became a showcase for the nation’s finest neoclassical artwork.