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Editorial: Pittsburgh's Michelangelo's mosaic must be saved

| Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, 6:03 p.m.
Segments of Virgil Cantini's mosaic is seen along the walls of a pedestrian tunnel Downtown on Sept. 13, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Segments of Virgil Cantini's mosaic is seen along the walls of a pedestrian tunnel Downtown on Sept. 13, 2018.

Art is in Pittsburgh’s soul.

The city is built on the back of craftsmen. Steel, iron, glass, brick, stone. There is labor and technology behind the producton of all of them, but the intangible something that perfected them, or stacked and twisted them into bridges and buildings, that was art, without a doubt.

The skyline, the structures, the shape of the Point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers give birth to the Ohio. The Steel City is a celebration of beauty.

It’s given the world artists like Andy Warhol and Mary Cassatt. The Carnegie Museum of Art, The Frick Pittsburgh and more collections and galleries than you can remember are waiting to be explored. Murals, sculptures, stained glass and public projects make art something that comes to meet you on the street.

And that is why the mosaic in a little tunnel that many people never knew existed is something that should be saved.

For 54 years, the scraps of colored glass and tile have been fitted into the pedestrian passage beneath Bigelow Boulevard, giving people a view of the city they didn’t realize in its abstract geometry. The mosaic is an artist’s snapshot of the city from above.

It’s a unique work of art by Virgil Cantini, the man behind Pitt’s studio arts program. When the 60-foot tunnel walkway is destroyed as part of a project to build a new cap and park over the Crosstown Expressway, it might be lost .

There is an effort to make sure that doesn’t happen, after a grant-required review of the area identified the mosaic as a “historic resource.”

But it isn’t just about the history. Yes, it does give a lovely pixelated picture of the city frozen in fragments of color at the height of the 1960s.

The value, however, is more than the date. It is the soul.

Cantini might well be the quiet, unheralded Michelangelo of Pittsburgh. Where that more famous artist decorated Florence and the Vatican with his Pieta and David sculptures and the awe-inspiring frescos of the Sistine Chapel, Cantini’s work is a seamless piece of the Pittsburgh communities it complements.

In East Liberty, the “Joy of Life” is a steel sculpture, part of a fountain, where the figures are rusted and weathered, as will happen when iron meets water. The exultation of the sculpture is a show of celebration in spite of the brown-red corrosion. Rust happens, but it does not stop the figures from dancing.

Another mosaic in porcelain and steel represents the “harmony of the law and the rich tapestry of the American legal system” behind the judges’ bench at Pitt’s Law Building moot courtroom. Outside the university’s Parran Hall, a golden bronze “Man” climbs through arrow-shaped peaks.

His works are part of the oft-ignored backdrop of color and shape that changes an industrial landscape into a living mid-century gallery.

The city is trying to find a way to save the whole of the tunnel mosaic. Let’s hope they do. Can you imagine deciding which Michelangelo wasn’t worth saving?

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