Many people in Washington are working on Y2K projects, but Vincent Palumbo's is probably the only project that looks ahead to Y3K and beyond.
Palumbo, 63, is the last remaining stone carver working on Washington National Cathedral, a k a the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which presides over the skyline of the nation's capital just as Pierre L'Enfant, the city's planner, suggested it might. In a city and an era seemingly wedded to the disposable and the temporary, Palumbo shapes his visions for all time.
The Gothic cathedral, sixth largest in the world and 83 years in the building, was officially finished Sept. 29, 1990, but "even though it's finished, it's not yet complete," Palumbo says.
He estimates that there's another century's worth of carving still to do--saints, angels, cherubs, flowers and the like, as well as a galaxy of often whimsical gargoyles depicting the world both sacred and profane: all the rococo bric-a-brac adornment that Palumbo describes as "the Bible in three dimensions."
Yesterday, as a chill November wind whistled among the cathedral's soaring spires and sun-splashed flying buttresses, the burly mustachioed native of Molfetta, Italy, led a phalanx of reporters around the vast cathedral on which he has labored more than half his life. The occasion was publication of a lavishly illustrated, 189-page book called "The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral," by Marjorie Hunt, a folklorist at the Smithsonian Institution.
Hunt was co-producer and co-director of an Academy Award-winning documentary on the cathedral stone carvers in 1985--a project that so endeared her to them that they immortalized her in granite atop the cathedral's north tower. She is the one angel among 320 in the heavenly choir holding an Oscar instead of a musical instrument. Her book was an outgrowth of the film but is obviously a labor of love as much as scholarship. Among its first and most impressive photographs is one of a cherubic Vincent Palumbo at age 3 dressed in a monk's robe as Saint Anthony.
What attracted her to Palumbo and to the late Roger Morigi, the book's other major focus, she said, was their love for their craft, their pride in their heritage and their commitment to artistic excellence.
The Italian stone-carving tradition goes back not just generations, but centuries. Palumbo is the fifth generation "born to the stone." His father chiseled adornments into the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court before taking up his hammer at the cathedral. Palumbo apprenticed under him from age 9, learning a delicacy of touch that can wrest from rock everything from an eight-foot statue of Saint Paul to the leaf veins in a marble lily.
"Nowadays if you whack your kid, they arrest you," he said, tugging his mustache. "My father hit me so much that many times my nose kissed the stone. But now I bless those spankings. He knew me so well; he knew what I was capable of."
Palumbo joined his father at the cathedral after emigrating from Italy in 1961, spending his evenings for four years at the Corcoran Gallery of Art studying sculpture. He has carved thousands of ornaments since his first, a bird chiseled atop an arch in the south transept.
It took him two years to craft sculptor Frederick Hart's stunning image of "The Creation" into the west facade. It was the last major carving on the building. "I ended up where God began," Palumbo said.
Major works, such as "The Creation," were designed and approved by committee before being cast in plaster by sculptors and handed over to carvers like Palumbo.
The relationship of the sculptor to the carver, he said, is like that of the composer to the performer. "The sculptor creates it, but we give it life. . . . We say the original design is like the creation, the plaster model is the death. When we carve it in stone, that is the resurrection."
Palumbo's heart and pride lie most with the cathedral's major statues (Saint Paul is his favorite), rather than its many gargoyles, because the latter "are ugly and anyone can do that."
But just as they are on the great European cathedrals, the hundreds of gargoyles and grotesques in Washington's cathedral form a granite snapshot album of the craftsmen and the era in which they labored. They immortalize everyone from a sign-waving hippie of the 1960s to a lawyer with a briefcase to the mischievous grandchild of a cathedral contributor, pictured with a fractured halo and a hand in a cookie jar. One praying angel, on close examination, holds a pair of dice showing a seven.
While many pieces were carved to design, the stone carvers were often turned loose to chisel whatever came to mind. In his earlier days, Palumbo used to whistle from his lofty scaffolding at pretty girls touring the cathedral. He was caught once and reproved by then-Dean Francis Sayre. A whistling gargoyle and a shocked angel with a halo memorialize the incident today.
At the west end of the nave, beneath a balcony, Palumbo's boss, Morigi, once told him to carve a row of two-inch-high decorations, "whatever I want," Palumbo remembered. "So I carved flowers, I carved birds, I carved all these other things, I carved a pumpkin, and then I ran out of ideas.
"Then I remembered in a book on cathedral carvings [from the Middle Ages] there was some really dirty stuff. So I carved this man squatting with his pants down. . . . And Dean Sayre was looking up on the scaffold by me, and he said, 'That's nice, that's nice work, that's nice . . . what is that?' And I told him . . . and he said, 'Not in this church.' So I changed it into a sunflower. You can see where the leaves are, those were the legs."
In many ways, the cathedral has become more than his life, Palumbo said. He sees his late father's spirit in hundreds of carvings throughout the great building, and in jokes and spats and memories frozen playfully in stone.
"We carve these jokes to pass the time and speed the work," he said. "Morigi had a big temper. We carve him with a mushroom cloud coming out his head. We shout all the time at each other. You see, we both Italian."
Another sort of record stands atop a high shelf in his workshop just north of the building. It's a row of 38 wine bottles marking the years from 1961 to the present. "At the end of the year I arrive, they opened the first bottle to welcome me and celebrate the end of the year. But Dean Sayre arrives and says, 'What's this?' and we tell him and he says, 'Never again.' And we think we not supposed to be drinking here and he says, 'Never. Unless you invite me.' So each year we invite him."
And each year, a list of all the stone carvers who have worked on the cathedral that year goes into the bottle. This year, apparently, there'll be just one name. "I'm the last of the Mohicans." He has apprenticed many assistants but has no idea who will succeed him.
Hunt's book says the carvers' "sense of intimacy and connection with the Cathedral is powerfully illustrated by a traditional legend, commonly told among stone carvers and masons, about a carver who had worked on the Cathedral for many years. When his wife died, he asked permission to have her interred in the Cathedral."
Hunt said she heard several versions of that story and what happened next and, as a folklorist, assumed it was apocryphal: more important for what it implied than what it actually said. But Sayre, reached by phone in retirement on Martha's Vineyard, said the story is absolutely true.
"The stone carver was a wonderful worker," he said. "I can't remember his name, but he lived in Baltimore." When the man's wife died in the early 1950s, "I went up there to tell him how sorry we were. I didn't know the woman because she had stayed in Baltimore, but I remember he asked me then if she couldn't be buried in the cathedral.
"I came back and asked the bishop, but we had specific rules about who could be buried there and the bishop told him no. But it bothered me, and about a week later when I was up on the scaffold I found the man and told him how sorry I was about what had happened in his family, and even more sorry that we couldn't fulfill his request about his wife. And he told me, 'Don't worry about that, Dean. It's been taken care of.' "
The stone carvers had mixed her ashes into the day's mortar.
Sayre said the woman now holds together several stones atop the south transept, another stone-carving legacy poured into the cathedral. There for the ages.
Hunt and Palumbo will tell their stories for the public at noon Saturday at Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues NW.