Page 1: Biography
Bergamini, Carlo Giuseppe
Stonemason, sculptor, commercial traveller
This biography, written by Jock Phillips, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Carlo Giuseppe Bergamini was born at Carrara, Italy, on 19 January 1868, the son of Oreste Bergamini and his wife, Marie de Raimondo Castelpoggi. Carrara was the centre of the Italian marble industry and the family were stonemasons and sculptors. As a young man Carlo arrived in Australia and New Zealand as a travelling representative of the family firm, hoping to win orders for cemetery headstones and marble monuments.
In Dunedin Bergamini met Elizabeth Jane Reid, who had migrated with her parents from County Antrim, Ireland. Despite his Roman Catholic faith, they were married in a Presbyterian ceremony on 18 May 1889. Family legend says that on the honeymoon in Melbourne Carlo spent the money set aside for his return to Italy. The couple returned to Dunedin where Carlo set up as a marble sculptor and monumental mason, first on his own account, then in 1898 in a partnership with James Crawford, and finally some two years later in association with Elizabeth's father, Hugh Reid. Marble angels and crosses were imported in sculpted form from Bergamini's family in Carrara, and Carlo would finish, inscribe and then erect them in the cemeteries of Otago.
The end of the South African War in 1902 provided new opportunities for Bergamini. Some communities, wishing to commemorate both pride in their sons' service to the empire and sorrow for those who had fallen, decided to erect war memorials. Often they called for designs on a competitive basis. Carlo Bergamini proved to be an adept designer, and five communities (Palmerston, Waimate, Ōamaru, Riverton and Dunedin) awarded him winning prizes. The firm of Bergamini and Reid was then commissioned to erect the memorials. It also won a tender to put up a marble memorial tablet at Otago Boys' High School.
Bergamini won the commissions largely because his designs summed up the sentiments of the period. The iconography expressed that mixture of nationalist and imperialist enthusiasms which New Zealanders associated with the country's participation in the war. At both Palmerston and Waimate his designs featured a youthful figure of Zealandia – the daughter of Britannia – with one hand raised in triumph and the other carrying a wreath of flowers. At Ōamaru the sculpture was a realistic portrayal of a local veteran; at Dunedin it was a more generalised heroic New Zealand trooper protecting an injured mate. The details also showed how sensitively Bergamini had read the prevailing mood. On three of the memorials the Union Jack and the New Zealand Ensign were intertwined in marble beneath the protection of the imperial crown, while at Palmerston and Ōamaru the British lion made a symbolic appearance. Such details helped make these memorials undoubtedly the most distinguished in the country.
Contemporaries praised Bergamini for the appropriateness of his designs, while the firm of Bergamini and Reid received plaudits for their relative economy and the efficiency with which they put up the memorials once the carved figures had arrived from Italy. When the Invercargill memorial, for which Bergamini was not responsible, was being hoisted into place it fell and broke into three pieces. Immediately Bergamini was called in and his repair led contemporaries to wonder at his 'artistic manipulation of the Carrara marble'.
Despite his ability to express British imperial sentiments in stone, Bergamini remained essentially Italian. He drank red wine, made his own ravioli, and eventually took his daughter back to Italy for several years. By then his life had changed, both personally and professionally. The business partnership with Hugh Reid dissolved in 1909, and Bergamini moved to Christchurch. There his marriage with Elizabeth also suffered and they separated during the First World War. By that time, too, Carlo had given up work as a stonemason and become a commercial traveller, eventually working for the International Harvester Company. In the years following the First World War, when New Zealand again erected memorials, Bergamini was no longer prepared to offer his services. Occasionally, however, in prickly letters to the Christchurch newspapers, he was prepared to offer advice on others' memorial designs. He signed his address, 'Carrara Academy'.
Carlo Bergamini, a distinguished looking man of fair hair and blue eyes, died at Christchurch on 16 July 1934, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter; one son had predeceased him. Fitting monuments to his life's work are the beautifully designed South African War memorials found in Otago and Southland.