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Meet Giuliano Cecchinelli, Barre's last Italian stone carver

An old man in a beret stands under a light in a dark workshop.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
The Italian sculptors who immigrated during Barre's granite boom have died, retired, or moved away. Giuliano Cecchinelli is the only one left.
Giuliano Cecchinelli is 79 years old, has a gray beard, a brown plaid shirt and a floppy beret, and is a classically trained sculptor. He's been carving stone since he was a boy in Italy.

“I know more than even the cemetery knows,” he says as he walks through Hope Cemetery in Barre. “You know, the family, the workers.”

An old man's hand points to detailed stonework on a tombstone.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano points out a detailed carving on a tombstone. He says that long ago, carvers were so skilled that they specialized; one man did the flowers, another the lettering.

He’s part of a long legacy of Italian stone carvers in Barre, craftsmen whose skill transformed an industry and made the small central Vermont town the “Granite Capital of the World.”

Hope Cemetery was established here at the turn of the 20th century, when the first Italian stone carvers moved to town. Many of them are buried here, under monuments they created.

“Those carvers way back then, they really had it,” Giuliano says while pointing at a tombstone. “They knew what the hell they were doing. Look at the ripples, they look much more realistic than the real thing!”

The stone carvers came from northern Italy, where there have been marble quarries for thousands of years. These craftsmen were the best in the world.

And in the late 1800s, some of them moved to southern Vermont, to work in the burgeoning marble industry in Proctor.

Then granite began to be quarried in Barre, and some of those sculptors moved again. The industry took off, and stonecutters, sculptors, and quarrymen flocked to Barre from all over Europe.

A hundred years ago, immigrants made up almost half of Barre’s population, and the majority of them were from Italy.

A cemetery monument with a sculpture of a sick man, slumped in a chair, a woman by his side.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Silicosis is caused by particles of stone dust that become lodged in the lungs. Before workplaces were properly ventilated, silicosis plagued Barre's stone carvers. This monument marks the grave of Louis Brusa, a master stone carver.

In Hope Cemetery, I ask Giuliano if there are any old tombstones he’s partial to.

“Oh sure,” he says, “a lot of them. Matter of fact [if] we walk there, we’ll see one of the most famous ones, you know, Elia Corti, the guy who got shot at the Labor Hall.”

Listen to oral histories of Barre from the Aldrich Public Library.

The Italian stone workers who came to Barre more than a century ago brought their families, their values, and their way of life. They built a neighborhood in the north end of town, made wine during Prohibition, established a mutual aid society and built the Socialist Labor Party Hall.

In 1903, a man named Elia Corti was shot there. Now he sits in Hope Cemetery on a block of granite, chin in his hand, with the tools of his trade nearby.

Giuliano points them out. “He was a sculptor,” he says. “Look at the pneumatic tool… a compass. That’s a caliper.”

In the early 20th century, Barre was a booming industry town. Thousands of workers spent their days making monuments. The railroad chugged into town to take them around the country. And stone dust filled the air: Back then, many of the sculptors developed silicosis, a disease caused by the particles that gathered in their lungs.

A stone cemetery monument shows a man sitting with his chin in his hand.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Elia Corti was a stone carver who died in a dispute between anarchists and socialists at the Barre Labor Hall in 1903. He's surrounded by the tools of his trade, and the broken column under his elbow represents a life cut short.

Giuliano points to another sculpture — it shows a man slumped back, with his eyes closed. A woman stands next to him, her hand on his chest.

“There’s the Brusa monument,” he says. “The guy is dying of silica.”

But all this happened a long time ago. Barre is no longer the bustling industry town it once was. The granite industry has modernized and consolidated. The flood of immigrants turned into a trickle, and eventually stopped. The Italian sculptors have died, or retired, or moved away. And Giuliano is the only one left.

Descended from 20 generations of stone carvers

Giuliano lives in a brown house north of Barre. Art covers the walls and statues line the shelves. The coffee table in his living room is covered with bouquets of dried flowers.

We sit down in the kitchen, and he shows me his hands.

“See, they’re all deformed, see each finger, they’re all different, there are calluses all over," he says. "But I mean what do you expect, you know?”

These hands have been carving stone for almost 70 years.

 A photo of a living room with a glass table covered in dried flowers, a couple couches and a wall full of framed images.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
The walls of Giuliano's house in Barre are covered with art, and there are small statues all over the place. The dining room table is covered with flowers, which Giuliano brings back from his walks. They remind him of his wife, who loved wildflowers.

He started as a boy in Carrara, Italy, a city on the Tuscan coast famous for its marble. Michelangelo himself used to source stone there. There are open quarries in the mountains there that make them look like they’re covered with snow.

“Whenever I go back, what I miss is — you ride in the car, and you see these great huge mountains, marble all over. You feel so overwhelmed, 'cause no matter where you go, you see it,” he says.

Many of the craftsmen who came to Barre around the turn of the century were from Carrara. The town is renowned for its stone carvers. Giuliano’s father worked in marble, and his grandfather before that.

“We go about 20 generations back or more,” Giuliano says.

At age 11, Giuliano went to art school. For his first assignment in sculpture, he was told to make a cube.

“They give you a rough piece of stone, so naturally you get two straight edges, and then you make a parallel," he says. "Then once you got one plane, you take a measurement, and you mark it, then you make a square. Make your surface, and then you understand the planes."

He says he had a natural ability to see these planes, the invisible grid that governs the laws of perspective, proportion, light and shadow.

“In art school, I had a professor and he said, ‘I wish I had your eyes,’” Giuliano says.

A black and white photo of two men. A finger points to one of them.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano points to a photo of his father, Alberto Cecchinelli.

Over the next few years, he learned the fundamentals of religious sculpture and the essentials of portraiture — the anatomy of a hand, the taper of a perfect column.

In 1959, when Giuliano was a teenager, his father was offered a job at the Vermont Marble Company. He took it, and two years later, Giuliano and his mother joined him. Just like the first Italian stone carvers almost 100 years before, they made the move from northern Italy to southern Vermont.

“I had no say, let’s put it this way, to come here," Giuliano says. "I just followed my family because I was underage, I was 17."

He left Carrara behind, and after eight seasick days on a ship called the Christopher Columbus, he found himself in the small Vermont town of Proctor.

He learned English, and spent the next few years going to high school. In the afternoons and over the summers, he worked alongside his dad at the Vermont Marble Company.

Giuliano graduated from Proctor high school in 1964. Next to his photo in the yearbook, he included a quote. It says: “The glory and good of art.”

'A genius, not just a sculptor'

When you walk into the warehouse at Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans in Barre, workers transform hunks of granite into headstones. They cut them to size, engrave them, lift them with harnesses and move them from place to place.

Past the production line, under the bright light of a floor lamp, is where you’ll find the last Italian stone carver in Barre.

Black and white photos of people in a scrapbook.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
A collection of photos from Giuliano's childhood. They show him as a boy in Italy (top right), at art school (center), and on the way to the United States (bottom left).

Giuliano is bent over a piece of stone, with a tool in his hand. He wields it like an extension of himself, and a face begins to emerge from the granite: a chin, a nose, two eyes. He’s carving a small bust, about 5 inches tall.

He usually works on commission, carving flowers, praying hands, and religious figures for tombstones. Sometimes, like today, he’ll come in just to tinker. The stone in front of him is a scrap piece of granite, leftover from a headstone.

“They’re making things, but me, I see the lines," he says. "I make it a whole different thing."

After Giuliano graduated from Proctor High School, he worked for a brief time at the Vermont Marble Company. But he says they asked him to do things below the skill level he’d shown them, so he quit.

“Me, I said, ‘forward yes, but backward never,'" Giuliano says. "So I called a friend of my father that lived in Barre, and I says, ‘Can you find a spot for me?’ He says, ‘Oh yeah, no problem.’”

Giuliano got a job at what was then called Buttura and Sons, and just like Vermont’s very first Italian stone carvers in the late 1800s, he and his father made the move from Proctor to Barre and from marble to granite.

A high school yearbook page with three black and white photographs.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano was in his early 20s when he graduated from Proctor High School in 1964.

When he first arrived here, Giuliano was 22, the youngest Italian stone carver in town.

“All the Italians, we used to gather… We used to go downtown, sit around, and talk,” he remembers. “Today, it doesn't work that way, because there isn't that many Italians any longer.”

By the time Giuliano moved here in the mid '60s, the Italian population in Barre was on the decline. It’s only dwindled further in the years since. And the granite industry has changed.

More from Vermont Public: 'Extremely Busy': Amid The Pandemic, Barre's Granite Industry Booms

Mark Gherardi owns the company where Giuliano works, and bought it in 2000.

“In the '70s, it was probably 35 or so manufacturers in the greater Barre area," he says. "And now there's, you know, about maybe a little more than half of that."

He says manufacturers have gotten bigger, and fulfill more orders. Automation and computers have reduced the amount of labor they need to run. Sculpture isn’t as popular as it used to be, and there aren’t many people left who know how to do it.

“We can do certain things on automated equipment, but we can't get that human element that a sculptor, a true good sculptor, can get," Gherardi says. "So we understand that we're going to lose an art unless we can find some younger people to come into it.”

A black and white photograph of a young man and a stone bust of an old man.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano with a bust he made of former president Lyndon B. Johnson.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do when Giuliano’s gone.

In the first few years Mark Gherardi worked with Giuliano, they got a commission for a monument for a young man who’d died. The family wanted a bust, and sent some photos to go by.

“He got done the portrait and we're all looking at it saying, ‘Wow, he did a super job.’ And we had the people fly in to look at it," Gherardi remembers. "And it was a mother and daughter, and they looked at it, and they were talking, and they're going back and forth, and we're wondering, 'Oh, what's going on here?' And he says, ‘Well, do you like it?’ And she said, ‘It's him. But my son had happy eyes, not sad eyes."

Gherardi says he wasn't sure that fix could be made. But: "Giuliano said, ‘Give me 20 minutes.’ And we all walked away for 20 minutes. And we came back, and he created happy eyes from sad eyes."

Gherardi adds: "That's when I really knew that this guy was a genius, not just a sculptor.”

The last Italian stone carver in Barre

When the landline in Giuliano’s kitchen rings, he answers.

“Matter of fact, I’m giving an interview now,” he tells the caller. He hangs up, and sits back down at the kitchen table. He resumes flipping through a three-ring binder of photographs and newspaper clippings.

One photo shows Giuliano in the '80s, with long hair and his signature beret, standing next to the model he made for the Italian-American stonecutter monument in downtown Barre.

Another shows him with his interpretation of Mr. Pickwick, the Charles Dickens character, which stands outside the library.

A granite sculpture of a man reading two books.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano was inspired to carve Mr. Pickwick while reading "The Pickwick Papers" in high school. The final sculpture stands outside the public library in downtown Barre.

Giuliano’s parents moved back to Italy decades ago, but he stayed here in Barre. He fell in love, got married, and had three children. He became well-known in town. His skill gained renown in the granite industry.

He says he sometimes misses the huge, marble-topped mountains of Carrara. And he wonders, sometimes, what he’s doing here, and what would have happened if he’d gone somewhere else. But, he stayed.

“I’m a person that takes whatever is in front of you," he says. "It isn't that you dream, or you want to be. You take things as they come along and you try to make the best of it."

Giuliano lives alone in this house, with the art on the walls, the statues on the shelves. His wife, Julia, died in 2015. His children have grown, and his health isn’t what it used to be. He could have quit working years ago.

“But what can I say. Carving or sculpting is everything to me," he says. "I don’t know — that’s it. If something happened [and] they stopped quarrying the granite, I mean what would I do?”

And as the decades passed, the youngest Italian stone carver in Barre became the last. There are others with Italian heritage working with granite, but as far as Giuliano knows, he's living in the final sentence of a story that began more than a century ago.

“I don't know how long I’ll still be doing it," he says. "As long as I get up in the morning, I go to work."

'I make the best of the happening'

Hope Cemetery is just down the road from Giuliano’s house. There are more than 10,000 monuments here, but just like you can identify someone’s handwriting, you can tell which sculptures are his.

“I got landscapes, I got portraitures, I got religious figures, I got about everything. It’s all the profession that I learned and now I put them to use,” he says.

He walks over to a rough-hewn stone, where a young man in an army uniform sits with a cigarette. The figure of a young woman emerges from its smoke. They are carved in perfect detail, from the gaze of their eyes to the folds of their clothes. And if it weren’t for the gray granite color of their skin, you might think they were alive.

A grey granite gravestone shows a carving of a man holding a cigarette. A young woman emerges from the smoke.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuseppe Donati came to Vermont with Giuliano's father to work at the Vermont Marble Company. Giuliano carved this stone for him, based on an image he saw on a postcard.

Giuliano made this for a stone worker named Giuseppe Donati.

“He came to this country with my father back in 1959," Giuliano says. "But you see how realistic? Just like, I got that certain eye for it, you know.”

He walks around, pointing out his other work. A granite biplane; a young woman in the arms of an angel; a giant pair of hands holding a bouquet of flowers.

He walks over to a stone that shows a man and a woman in long coats, standing pressed together. His arm is around her, and she’s leaning into him. It’s made from a piece of granite that was cut wrong, and would have been discarded.

“I believe this is the best tombstone that there is in the whole damn cemetery,” he says. “Because it’s an original thing. It’s a happening. And I make the best of the happening.”

He points out his own tombstone, which he made a few years ago. It’s unlike any of the others in Hope Cemetery. It’s rough-hewn, and shows his wife, Julia, as a little girl, seated barefoot next to Giuliano as a young man, who’s dragging a bundle of sticks.

“It’s my life, and her life also," he says. "Matter of fact, I got her ashes in the living room, that’s why I've got flowers all over the house.”

An old man in a plaid shirt stands next to a granite sculpture of a young man carrying a bundle of sticks, next to a little girl, holding a dog.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Giuliano's own tombstone is prominently displayed in Hope Cemetery. He says it tells the story of his life.

“Do you believe in God?” I ask him, this man who’s spent his life carving cemetery monuments.

“To tell you the truth, no," he says. "I’m God. You’re God. Everybody’s God. Try to explain who’s God. God. Piece of grass is God. A bush. A flower. It’s all created by nature, and nature is God.”

More from Vermont Public: 'I Don't Believe In An Afterlife': Why This TikTok-Famous Vermonter Cleans Graves

Giuliano hates it when people wash the tombstones here. He prefers the dirt and lichen that slowly come to cover them, and give depth to the carvings. If it’s left untouched, his own stone will darken with age and exposure. Maybe 100 years from now, a tour guide will point to it and say, "That was the last Italian stone carver in Barre."

But as far as Giuliano’s concerned, he doesn’t want to be remembered for anything. Like all the others before him, he’s left his mark.

“It’s all a story, just like what you’re doing, you’re making a story of me!" he says. "It’s a story, that’s all.” ■

For more local audio documentaries and special series, subscribe to Vermont Public Docs on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

From the archives

Vermont Public has been home to multiple programs that explore the past and present of Barre's granite industry.

In 1979, Vermont Public Radio produced "The Blood of Barre," an audio documentary about quarrying, socialist politics and the lives of stone carvers.

Full audio: "The Blood of Barre"

The 2008 documentary film "If Stone Could Speak," broadcast on Vermont PBS, follows artisans and their families from quarries, workshops and schools in Italy to granite carving sheds in New England.

If Stone Could Speak

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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