A Dream Realized: Marywood's Rotunda
by Leo Manglaviti, S.J., Ph.D.
In this 100th anniversary year of the founding of Marywood University, it seems fitting to reflect once again on a campus artistic treasure that quietly observed its 75th anniversary in 2012–the magnificent murals of the renowned Liberal Arts Center Rotunda. The domed Rotunda of the landmark building is a daily crossroads for the entire campus community as well as visitors, who look up at the elaborate decoration–or even not notice the murals at all, taking them for granted–and busily pass on. While their beauty is often quite overwhelming, their significance and how they came to be remain, to most, a mystery receding into the “tradition” that an alma mater is prone to gather.
The artist had been widely acclaimed locally for his execution of murals in the 1934 renovation of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton. When he died in 1959, at age 84, the New York Times obituary noted that he had decorated over 100 churches on three continents, and had been honored for his work by Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII, and by the kings of Italy, Spain, and Belgium.
Raggi, of East Orange, New Jersey, with studios in New York City, enthusiastically plunged into the commission, much like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel – and with results not unworthy of comparison with the Renaissance master. Working with the New York architectural firm of Anthony J. Pace and with Scranton’s Nay Aug Lumber Co. as carpenters, Raggi supervised the Rotunda’s marbleized column facings, cornices, balustrade railings on the second level, and Italian marble door frames and wainscoting of each floor and vestibule.
A blocked Tennessee marble floor solidly anchors the huge Rotunda dome, which at seventy-two feet in diameter is only eight feet less than the dome of the U.S. Capitol. No less a marvel was the total cost of the vast project – a little over $63,000 – considering the aesthetic quality and enduring craftsmanship of the result.
When the work was unveiled in 1937, a handsome commemorative book, entitled Rotunda Murals, was issued. The project was called the fulfillment of an “unrealized dream” –one pondered since the Liberal Arts Center opened thirteen years before. The murals themselves were also a personal fulfillment for Gonippo Raggi, who told Mother Josepha early in 1935 that he envisioned, after much study, a “vast subject” that would “harmonize with the principles of your institution, to illustrate and put in evidence work of education based mostly on civil and religious instruction.” He also stressed the “religious and moral value” of the murals in comparison with the modern trend away from those ideals. His summary of the plan, occasionally modified, but essentially intact, became the splendor beheld today: “This subject could be entitled the progress or the triumph of Arts and Science through the light and guide of religion and faith.”
The descriptions of the twenty murals, eight portraits, and accompanying adornments in the Marywood Rotunda are an attempt to synthesize personal observations, discussions with authorities, archival material, and printed sources. The objective is to make Raggi’s “vast subject” more accessible to the average observer. The murals must obviously be experienced in person, not just read about, to appreciate the serene architectural setting and the theme in full panoply, as well as to savor the extraordinarily fine talent of the artist. In retrospect, it was an understatement for Raggi to assure Mother Josepha: “I execute only first-class work.”
The visitor may also discern Raggi’s Roman heritage and schooling in that tradition. The Rotunda decoration parallels similar ceiling adornments in Italian Baroque churches of the 17th century, including the female personification of virtues and merger of classical and Christian images. Raggi also employed stylized figures and scenes, but the cumulative result is uniquely Marywood in character and with few peers locally, except perhaps for Raggi’s own work in Saint Peter’s Cathedral.