Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Alamo Cenotaph generates a tremendous amount of passion, yet the artist responsible for it is mostly forgotten, according to those responsible for carrying on his legacy.
Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini immigrated to the United States in 1896 and became a citizen in 1902. After creating statuary throughout central and southern Texas, he won the commission to adorn the Cenotaph with the figures of Alamo defenders he revered, cementing his legacy until the present day.
“I know I was chosen … not only for my artistic merits, but also because of my proven love and almost fanatic admiration for the heroes of the Alamo,” Coppini said in a KTSA radio interview in 1940, the year the monument was completed.
Coppini said he particularly admired Col. William Barret Travis for drawing the line in the sand, which anyone dedicated enough would cross in defense of the Alamo, despite knowing they might be doomed.
“All crossed it, and to my own mind it was then, and only then, that that group of men became the greatest heroes in our history, as they refused to escape their tragic fate,” Coppini proclaimed in the interview.
Yet despite the artist’s love for the Alamo and the city that became his adopted home, San Antonio has not remembered him with due reverence, according to past and present board members of Coppini’s namesake academy, the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts.
“There is a lot of forgotten history about what this man has done for the city of San Antonio,” said Charlotte Cox, current board president.
Notably, Coppini is said to have connected Adina De Zavala with Clara Driscoll, who was credited with saving Alamo Plaza from commercial development, which ultimately preserved it as a monument to the formation of Texas.
Cox noted Coppini also was central to establishing at least two other traditions integral San Antonio’s modern identity.
He organized a group of businessmen to form the “Chili Thirteen,” named after the Chili Queens, to transform the original San Antonio “Spring Carnival” into what is now known as the citywide Fiesta celebration.
Coppini also created the first Fiesta medal, she said, then called a badge and adorned with the profile of a Mexican woman. On the copper medal was inscribed “K of O,” for the Knights of Omala, which had its headquarters in his Melrose Place studio. The Knights combined with the Order of the Alamo, which still presents the Coronation of the Fiesta Queen, according to an illuminating 2012 account by Paula Allen for the San Antonio Express-News.
The light that enveloped him
Born in Moglia, Italy, in 1870, Coppini studied in Florence where the tradition of Michelangelo was still very much alive. Coppini emigrated in 1896 and briefly settled in New York, finally moving to Texas in 1901 at the behest of another immigrant, sculptor Frank Teich. Coppini became a U.S. citizen in 1902.
“When he stepped off the train, the light that enveloped him was like Italy,” said Cox, referring to Coppini’s thoughts as noted in his autobiography, From Dawn To Sunset, published in 1949 and now selling for more than $150 on Amazon. “He fell in love with San Antonio, and fell in love with the people here,” she said.
The Coppini Academy occupies the studio the artist built in 1936 after winning the commission to work on the Cenotaph. The L-shape of the studio, over 60 feet at its height, still echoes the profile of the soaring monument.
“When you walk in that studio, you can’t not feel Coppini’s presence. It’s like the man is still alive,” said Janice Hindes, who served as president of the Coppini Academy from 2001-2001 and 2010-2012.
The academy, which was founded in 1945 by Coppini and his protegé Waldine Tauch, also a noted artist and sculptor, has remained in continuous operation as a nonprofit offering classes in representational art. Hindes said she was honored to have a chance to meet Tauch after winning an award from the school early on her career, before Tauch’s death in 1986.
A sculptor of his time
In part to the influence of Teich, who worked on several Confederate monuments, Coppini became a popular sculptor of Southern and Texas heroes. His bronze and stone figures still stand throughout Texas, including those of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Sam Houston.
A driving tour to see all of Coppini’s public work in Texas would cover many miles, with visits to Austin, Ballinger, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Galveston, Gonzales, Huntsville, Palestine, Paris, and Victoria, and locations throughout San Antonio from Brackenridge Park to the Scottish Rite Cathedral downtown.
His most visible legacy to San Antonians is the Cenotaph, titled “The Spirit of Sacrifice” after the martyrdom of the leaders of the 1836 Alamo battle.
His recorded thoughts align with the designers currently charged with redeveloping Alamo Plaza, who have said the redesign is aimed at bringing “reverence and learning” to the site.
However, without recorded confirmation, it is impossible to speculate on whether Coppini himself would have objected to the monument being moved. The answer might lie deep within the archives of Coppini and Tauch, whom he took in as an assistant and who took over leadership of the namesake academy after Coppini's death in 1957.
Cox points out that Coppini, long a proponent of a suitable memorial to the Alamo defenders, had submitted his own, earlier proposal for a monument.
Coppini’s “Alamo Heroes Memorial” would have stood a mere 28 feet and 2 inches in total height. Atop it would have been a 13-foot statue representing the state of Texas, in the form of a woman holding a sword and “Lone Star” shield. Beneath her would have been heroes Bowie, Bonham, Crockett, and Travis. His proposal included erecting the memorial in front of the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium, now the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where memorials to the veterans of the World War I and the Vietnam War now stand.
The memorial eventually selected was a 60-foot-tall tower-like structure designed by architect Carleton Adams, for which Coppini added statues on each face. (Adams also notably designed Jefferson High School.) The two are said to have worked largely independently of each other.
Accounts differ and arguments are many about why the Cenotaph was originally located in its current spot and historical speculations regarding where Alamo defenders died and were cremated and buried. Mary Maverick, wife of Samuel A. Maverick, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, believed the site where Col. Juan Seguín located the remains was between Blum and Crockett Streets, or Crockett and Houston Streets, areas now occupied by a Days Inn and a La Quinta hotel.
Entrusted with Coppini’s legacy, Cox said while the academy board doesn’t have an official opinion on whether the monument should be moved to a new location in the redesign, they are most concerned that it not be damaged.
“We at Coppini just don't want to see it destroyed in the process,” Cox said.
Maquettes, or early, smaller-sized models, of the Cenotaph and many of these statues can be found at the academy, in the original studio room behind a clear plexiglass wall, and in the elegant upper-floor rooms housing a collection of Coppini's work and related ephemera.
To those who agree that Confederate statues should no longer stand in public places, it might be jarring to walk into the small, elegant second-floor museum preserving Coppini’s work. Robert E. Lee greets each entrance, poised proudly on a polished wooden table facing the door.
The statue “is a fantastic piece of art and a not-so-fantastic piece of history, and people confuse the two,” Hindes said. “In great part, his subject matter has limited his appeal."
But to those dedicated to preserving the artist’s legacy, Coppini’s work remains an enduring homage to classical values and human achievement.
Click through the gallery below to see more of Coppini's work.
“He would be rolling over in his grave if he knew statues were coming down just because of people’s opinions,” Cox said. “To him, it was beautiful art.”
To scholar Rubén Cordova, who most recently curated a Tricentennial exhibition at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center titled The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, “All the lies of the Alamo are congealed onto the Cenotaph.”
Cordova advocates for a museum that addresses the true complexity of the Alamo’s history, instead of the Cenotaph, which he calls a “quasi-religious shrine” that ignores facts. “Texas kind of ignored [the Alamo defenders] and let them down, and then deified them after they died. It’s all a pack of lies, from my perspective.”
Conversely, Texas historian Stephen Hardin contends that arguments to move the Cenotaph in order to “tell all stories of the Alamo” are “phony.”
In a document Hardin shared with the Rivard Report, he wrote, “What stories might those be? … Whose stories are more important than the men and women who died on that ground?”
Civil rights activist and former City Councilman Mario Salas (D2) said of the Cenotaph, “I don’t care where they move it to, frankly, because all the names on there don’t tell half the truth.” Salas mentioned Native Americans and the seven or eight slaves who were present for the battle, and who were freed by Santa Anna immediately afterward.
“They need to redo that thing to some degree, or make some addition to it. There’s a lot to honor there,” Salas said.
Bryan Preston, director of communications for the Texas General Land Office, said that the Cenotaph could use some minor factual updates. Preston maintains a list of errors on the monument, including names of 12 Alamo defenders that were omitted, and multiple misspelled names, including José Toribio Losoya, identified on the monument as "Toribio D. Losoya.” A bronze statue of Losoya stands nearby, overlooking the river one block west along his namesake street.
Preston also cites current historical research, which in 1986 named Damacio Jimenez as an Alamo defender. “As far as I’m concerned, the Cenotaph isn’t a complete monument until Jimenez is included on it,” Preston wrote in an e-mail to the Rivard Report.
“Pompeo Coppini was not very concerned with accuracy,” said Walter Buenger, chief historian of the Texas State Historical Association, which maintains a list of those present for the battle. Should the Cenotaph be moved, Buenger said, “That would be a good time to make corrections.”
Meanwhile, as debate rages on about Coppini’s signature achievement, classes, workshops and a first-time exhibition fulfill the legacy of his teaching academy.
In honor of the Tricentennial year, the Coppini Academy is opening what has traditionally been its annual fall membership exhibition to all San Antonio artists. Works for San Antonio Through the Eyes of the Artists are being selected by Kristen Mancillas, education and programs manager for the Briscoe Western Art Museum. The exhibition opens to the public with a reception Oct. 21, 2-5 p.m., and runs through Oct. 26.