Chester Martin Remembers Stefano Giuliano

Saturday, April 16, 2016

He was Italian from the Old Country, although he had lived in the U.S. for most of his life. He was a master craftsman in the truest sense of the word - and whose craft was a Fine Art in itself.

It would be fair to say that Stefano Giuliano was easily one of the most highly skilled ornamental plaster workers in the country - a distinction he held for many years. Born in rural Italy where every small village is known for some specialty or other, he grew up around people whose families had worked with ornamental plaster, perhaps for centuries.

In Italy, before coming to America, he had executed many sculptures which are now an integral part of Vatican interiors. I have seen his photo albums which prove that point. (He always appears in those photos wearing the simple little folded newspaper caps worn by all Italian sculptors and plasterworkers - Michelangelo may have worn a similar one himself!)

Working with plaster can be a very interesting and rewarding experience - if you know how; but if you don't know how, then you are in for trouble and great disappointment. He and his wife lived near the top of the hill on North Market Street, in a house that fronted on that street, but on a lot that sloped sharply down hill to the west. This allowed ample space for a well-lighted basement studio where he kept all manner of equipment from previous plaster jobs, and where he could hand-make his own templates for any new job. The templates used for encouraging wet plaster into beautiful round and oval shapes require a lot of time to make, as the tiniest "nick" or flaw in the metal template will be magnified in the plaster when it is dry. Mr. Giuliano knew exactly how to proceed in his work, making small circular shapes in plaster, and combining them with larger shapes, which, when pieced together, created a very elaborate and beautiful "modillion" from which an elegant crystal chandelier could be hung. Plaster when modeled by the hands of an expert is as transluscent as alabaster!

He made many such modillions plus many other types of decoration for purposes beside church interiors. At some point in the 1950's he had a sculpture business on East Third Street, not far from Erlanger Hospital, called, "Chattanooga Statuary Company". There was a work building with an adjacent sculpture garden, where he could display some of his weather-proofed plaster statuary. In his younger years he had manufactured large numbers of plaster animals as prizes for shooting galleries at state fairs, circuses, etc.  Perhaps his single most popular item of home decoration, however, was small one-foot-high plaster horses. These horses were anatomically accurate, and skilfully done to please the eye. Most were white, although he also did a few black ones. I had the pleasure of repairing one of the blackies for a friend a few years ago, and we were discussing how popular Mr. Giulianio's work had been at one time. Maybe you should go and check your grandmother's old china cabinet to see if there might not be one of those horses lurking somewhere inside. (The black ones especially were much sought-after).

An Italian friend - a sculptor - came to Chattanooga with me once from Philadelphia and we were warmly greeted by both Mr. and Mrs. Giuliano. My friend was first-generation American and his family had forbidden him to speak Italian at home, but he and Mr. Giuliano soon made great friends. They talked about the old arts and crafts of Italy - and Mrs. Giuliano brought up the fact that she and Stefano had lived for a time in Philly, remembering places like Palumbo's famous Italian night-club there. Mr. Giuliano was about 90 years old when we paid him that visit, although he was still agile and could move about easily. He bragged to us about his age, telling us that he was born in the last days of the year 1899, and if he could only live until 1 January 2000 he would be a THREE CENTURY MAN! That was his goal.

But sadly, his wife died and he had a serious fall which put him into a nursing home. There he continued with his hope to be one of those very rare people to actually have lived in three centuries. Someone told me that, near the end of his life he started telling his friends in the nursing home that he WAS 100, and everyone wanted to believe it for his sake. He was 100 in his own mind, although he did not quite make it until 1 January 2000.

Anyway, one more thing about the character of Stefano Giuliano: each time he decorated a church interior, he always donated some outstanding example of the plaster-workers' art to that church. He was Roman Catholic, and yet without any discrimination he made a free gift of his talents to the Evangelicals, the Baptists, the Presbyterians: it did not matter. There is an absolutely stunning piece of his work around the corner from me - at Brainerd Baptist Church - an ornate modillion from which is suspended a beautiful chandelier.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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