In the fall of 1823, Thomas Jefferson placed an order for Corinthian capitals for the Rotunda, to be carved from marble in Carrara, Italy. Some months later, he received a reply from Thomas Appleton, his agent there, detailing the many complexities of producing capitals of such immense size and weight, including the fact that the sculptors would have to contend with the “many short days” of winter.
Destroyed in the 1895 fire, the original Carrara capitals were replaced in the Stanford White reconstruction with domestic marble, which has since deteriorated. The current renovation calls for returning to the Italian marble; however, even with the benefits of modern lighting and technology, working with this material is a complex process. Craftsmen from the Pedrini Sculpture Studio in Carrara made laser scans of the remnants of the originals last fall to help re-create Jefferson’s design. But, noted Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, the remnants don’t give the whole picture. “No intact upper half of an original capital exists,” he said, “so what we’re trying to do is replicate the intention of Jefferson’s design.”
Hogg and representatives of the architectural consultants and general contractor gathered in Carrara this past March to view Pedrini’s initial model and work on finalizing design details.
“It was a great collaboration,” Hogg said, “with lots of discussion and tweaking of the design.” Based on the group’s decisions, the Pedrini craftsmen are presenting a second model this spring and, once that is approved, will produce the first full replacement capital in June.
Hogg said that scans will be used to machine carve most of the capitals, but the final details will be hand carved. “We don’t want the finish to be machine driven,” he explained. Each capital will require about 30 days of handwork before completion — a timetable not so different from the one in 1823.