It was 1928, and Joseph A. Capecchi, a sculptor who emigrated from Florence, Italy, to St. Paul at age 16, was busy crafting a bust of then-presidential candidate Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee of a major party. In a historic photo of Capecchi in the University of Minnesota's archives, he's wearing a bowtie, vest and slacks while carving a hyper-realistic bust in the backyard of his home at the corner of Juliet and Fairview avenues in St. Paul.

"He was not a political person, but he really thought the world of Al Smith and he was heartbroken when he lost and he actually destroyed the statue after the election, so no one has it at this point," his grandson Mark Capecchi said. "It was very unlike him because he was so mild-mannered and such a gentleman."

Although all that remains of that bust is a picture, most everything else that Capecchi made is intact. He is best known for the gold leaf on the 70-foot ceiling dome of the historic Cathedral of St. Paul and four grand mosaics, measuring 25 by 15 feet, of the cardinal virtues — temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. The cathedral's archivist Celeste Raspanti recently uncovered new archival images, including Capecchi's original paintings of the four cardinal virtues.

Joseph A. Capecchi, or "Nonno" as grandsons Jerry, Mark and Paul lovingly referred to him, was friends with Italian artist Michelangelo Bedini, who worked for the Vatican Studios in Rome. In collaboration with Bedini, Capecchi designed the four virtues, and then sent the designs to Rome, where Bedini made the mosaics, then sent them to St. Paul.

"All of these are individual stones that are put into place, that give you the effect of a painting from a distance," Jerry Capecchi said.

When Capecchi first arrived, the cathedral had only a foundation in place. The dome was completed in June 1954 at a cost of $200,000.

Capecchi's Minnesota

Capecchi originally came to St. Paul in 1906 to work as a sculptor at the Giuliani Statuary Co., later renamed the St. Paul Statuary Co.

On a hill in St. Paul, near the Minnesota History Center and down the street from the historic James J. Hill House, the cathedral is recognized as one of the most important beaux arts cathedrals in America, and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although it is one thing to wander around the cathedral admiring the various sculptures at ground level, it's best to look up and see the light.

"Gold leafing was one of the real specialties of what we did," Mark Capecchi said. "The gold is so thin, we couldn't touch it with our fingers or it would disintegrate. It comes in books or it would come in rolls, almost like a toilet paper roll. And if we had a big space that we had to build, like the entryway down in here, you'll see the ceiling has silver leaf, it's actually aluminum leaf, because silver tarnishes."

In the summer of 1976, a young Jerry Capecchi found himself inside the Cathedral of St. Paul, high up on scaffolding, cleaning smoke residue from the gold leaf-covered ceilings after an arson fire. The newspaper the Catholic Spirit called it the cathedral's "face-lift."

Indeed, it was a Capecchi family affair.

Joseph A. Capecchi's sons — Joseph E. And Paul L. Capecchi — did the gold leafing at the State Capitol, including the Quadriga and the ball on top. Joseph A. Capecchi also did many sculptures including a granite one of J.J. Hill in St. Cloud and countless others.

Although Capecchi lived the rest of his life in Minnesota, he did visit Italy. During his very last trip, he was photographed with the Duomo in Florence in the background.

"He loved Florence," Jerry Capecchi said. "He named his first daughter Florence."