Mystery Solved!

It is always exciting to solve a mystery that you have been working on for years. So it was recently with this question: who was the sculptor of one of Green-Wood’s most interesting sculptures, the Romaine family bronze, what I usually refer to as “The Exhausted Angel?” Years ago, in searching the surface of this wonderful piece, looking for a sculptor’s signature, I discovered what looked to me like one. But, try as I might, using several techniques, including manipulating photographs of it in a photo editing program, I could not begin to figure out what it said.

That all changed just a few weeks ago—and quite by chance. Courtesy of a little bit of rain. In preparing for Green-Wood’s annual Open Doors Tour—which I have been organizing since 2006—it occurred to me that, because we had had so many volunteers step up to help this year, we would be able to add some stops at gravesites along the route in order to share with visitors some of the less-frequently seen, but fascinating stories, at Green-Wood. One of those that I decided to add to the offerings was The Exhausted Angel:

The Romaine–or “Exhausted”–Angel.
Looking from the side at the Romaine Angel, it becomes apparent why it is sometimes referred to as “The Exhausted Angel.” The angel looks tired, worn out from exertion. Note that this angel holds a sculptor’s mallet in its right hand and a sculptor’s chisel in its left. Curious.

This bronze sculpture has long impressed me–for the beauty of its folds, the sweep of its wings, and the rather peculiar depiction of a sculptor/angel in a cemetery–certainly not as common a symbol as an obelisk, urn, or shroud. Why would this be?

My plan for Open Doors was to have a volunteer stationed along nearby Sycamore Avenue, pointing out this bronze, visible at a distance of about 50 feet, and explaining that try as we might we had been unable to figure out the sculptor’s signature. The volunteer, holding an 8 x 10″ photograph of the cryptic signature, would invite visitors to take a closer look to see if they might help us figure the inscription out.

The view from Sycamore Avenue, where I had planned to station a volunteer during the Open Doors Tour. The Romaine Angel is towards top left, to the right of the large dark granite monument and to the left of the large tree in the middle distance.

In preparation for the tour, I needed to take a photograph of the signature, print it for the volunteer, and have her share it with visitors, asking if anyone could decipher what is said. So, a week or so before the Open Doors Tour, I went out to get that photograph. It had been drizzling a bit that morning, and as I positioned myself to capture the image, much to my surprise it seemed to me that I could see it more clearly, with the water on it, than I had ever seen it before. I could actually make out a few letters. This was exciting!

The difficult-to-read signature of the sculptor. It is near the end of the angel wing that swoops behind the angel. It appears to have been gilded–note the gold that still sits in some of the inscribed letters.

I took a variety of photographs—looking straight down from above, at a low angle, and much in between. I then examined them on my laptop and started to think that I could make out a name. Carefully looking them over, I began to think that I could read  “Romanelli” and “Florence.” Now I was getting somewhere! So I searched the Internet for that combination—and lo and behold up popped a website of a sculpture studio in Florence, Italy, describing generations of Romanelli sculptors there:

Five generations of Romanelli sculptors have passed through the wooden doors of the Studio: Pasquale Romanelli, his son Raffaello, followed by his son Romano, then Folco and currently brothers Raffaello and Vincenzo Romanelli. The gallery is based in the Oltrarno district in Florence, the artistic and artisinal heart of the city. The first of this building’s function was a church in the early XVI century and transformed became Lorenzo Bartolini’s sculpture studio in 1829. Bartolini took advantage of the large arches and high ceilings of the building to work on his greatest monuments. Some of the original tools still remain here: in the middle of the room lies the rotating square wooden pedestal where the largest monuments have been sculpted. Up above are two rams heads facing each other on the north and south walls, used to lift heavy sculptures. There are hundreds of original plaster moulds spread throughout the building which belong to the family collection and can be reproduced in plaster, resin, bronze and marble.
I also found this biography for Raffaello Rominelli, who I was beginning to think was the likely candidate to have been the sculptor. It is noted in this biography that he worked in bronze, did a substantial amount of sculpting for the American market, and his work era seems to fit for the period of the Romaine Angel.
Sculptor Raffaello Romanelli.

Unfortunately, Mo Shockey, the volunteer who I had assigned to the Romaine Angel at Open Doors, and was very much looking forward to telling this tale, had to cancel. I did not have a volunteer to replace her–so this angel did not wind up a part of that event. However, before she cancelled, we excitedly exchanged emails on this discovery. After I shared my initial findings, Mo did some research and “found a very similar angel on the tomb of Romanelli’s father, with the backswept wing and all!”

Though I am a cemetery historian, and do love visiting cemeteries, I must admit that, on two extended trips to Italy, visiting mostly Rome, Florence, and Venice, I have only spent a good deal of time in one cemetery–the one on the hill above Florence–the Cimitere delle Porte Sante. I have been to Florence twice–and both times I visited that amazing cemetery. High above the city, across the river from the heart of Florence, it is not to be missed. As I looked at the photograph that Mo had sent me, I thought that the building in the background looked familiar.  Quickly checking my photographs from my 2014 visit to Florence, I found this:

This is one of my photographs from my 2014 visit to Italy.
This stone slab lies flush with the ground in front of the Romanelli Angel. It memorializes Pasquale Romanelli, described here as a sculptor and professor. He was Raffaello’s father. The curious fact that this angel holds a mallet and chisel is explained by it at first being a memorial to this sculptor.

So, in fact I had been sufficiently impressed with this memorial in Florence–at the Cimitere delle Porte Sante–that I had take several photographs of it. That building in the background, which I recognized in the photograph Mo sent me, is the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte–also quite memorable. I must admit, when I photographed this wonderful angel in Florence, it had not occurred to me that it was the same as–and the source for–the Romaine Angel at Green-Wood.

Returning to the inscription on the Romaine Angel, I have puzzled it out, and I think it is this:

Prof R. Romanelli
Borgo S[an] Frediano
“Prof” is included in the inscription because, in 1892, Raffaello Romanelli was named a professor of the Florence Academy of Fine Arts. His studio was in the Borgo San Frediano section of Florence, in a decommissioned church.
A thrilling discovery! Mystery solved!!!

18 thoughts on “Mystery Solved!”

    • Wonderful story, history on the one and only R. ROMANELLI. Being a sculptor, especially appreciate the connection to the Florence Academy oof Art. Amazing!

  1. Wonderful story! it is amazing the connections that can be made with the right circumstances. Research and persistence paid off.thanks for sharing.

  2. What a great story! This is my favorite angel at Green-Wood! The wings are so expressive and the angel so exhausted or dejected. Thanks for the background on the sculptor and the original sculpture!

  3. I’m so impressed and happy to read this – I can’t wait until I can travel again – Florence is so much fun anyway – now I have yet another reason to visit.

  4. Could there be a family connection between Romaine and Romanelli? Many people anglicized their names to seem more American, so maybe the Romaine family was originally Romanelli?

    • That is a very interesting possibility. I don’t know the answer–but if I have some free time in the not too distant future . . .

    • I agree with you. I wonder if this person was a relation of the Romanelli family, trained as a sculptor in the family business. The angel is holding the same tools as the sculptor’s grave angel in Florence. The next mystery to be solved!!!

  5. I stumbled upon (and photographed) this sculpture back in April during a solitary walk to alleviate Covid-induced cabin fever. It seemed to capture the feeling of the moment, and have returned to it since. Thanks for the background history Jeff – so happy to know more about this!

  6. Thank you Jeff for bringing these great Green-Wood stories to light and sharing them with the world. Your dedication to uncovering the thousands of stories that make the cemetery a cultural and historical gem is greatly appreciated and will ensure that the cemetery will always be valued and cared for.


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