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The Italians And The Voortrekker Monument

Estelle Pretorius, Researcher Voortrekker Monument

a paper presented to the Ntvl GSSA branch


It is not commonly known that the Italians were involved with the construction of the Voortrekker Monument. Apart from the fact that the initial construction, till after the placing of the corner stone (1938) was done by an Italian firm, Italians were also involved with the construction of the laager wall and the casting of the Anton van Wouw statue of the woman and children in front of the Monument. Further more the marble frieze was chiselled from Italian marble in Italy.

During the 17th and 18th century a small number of Italians settled in South Africa, but it was only in 1880 during the gold rush, that their numbers increased appreciably. By 1890 for example, there were between 150 and 200 Italians in the Cape Colony and towards the end of that decade about 1200 in the Transvaal. Many of them were miners, builders and businessmen. However, not all of the Italians were workmen and shop owners - there were also professionals among them such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and also artists. There were between 3 000 and 4 000 Italians in South Africa by 1900.

When South Africa became a Union in 1910 the building industry blossomed. Two new capital cities, Cape Town and Pretoria, had to be provided with public buildings. For example a great many stonemasons, bricklayers and decorators worked on the construction of the Union Buildings in Pretoria (1910-1912) - many of them were Italian. There was discernible prosperity in the 1930’s with the development of the industrial, commercial and agricultural activities in the Italian community. On the forefront were the families Carleo (mechanical industry), Lupini (building material), Gallo (railroad construction) and Rossi, Beretta and Lombardi (farmers). Italian industrialists, businessmen and individual technicians contributed to the country’s prosperity.

Background: The Central People’s Monuments Committee (Die Sentrale Volksmonumente Komitee)

At the Congress of the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies (Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge) in 1931 representatives from several monument committees and other interested organisations under the chairmanship of doctor E.G. Jansen met in Bloemfontein. The aim was to establish a central body for the construction and maintenance of people’s monuments. The Central People’s Monuments Committee (SVK) was established and they decided to erect a national monument in honour of the Voortrekkers during the 1938 centenary celebrations.

After thorough deliberation it was eventually decided to erect the monument in Pretoria and the SVK assigned the architect Gerard Moerdyk to design it. The design was approved in 1936 and tenders were submitted for the construction.


The groundbreaking ceremony took place on Monument Hill on 13 July 1937. Advocate E.G. Jansen, chairman of the SVK, turned the first sod. Progress with the excavations and foundation was already well on the way by February 1938 and tenders for the construction was obtained. (7,646 cubic metres of concrete were eventually used in the foundation of the Monument). Ten tenders were obtained and the lowest tender (£175,000) was accepted, namely that of the Italian construction firm, A. Cosani. The construction started early in 1938 and the cornerstone of the Voortrekker Monument was laid on 16 December 1938 as the highlight of the Central Centenary celebrations in Pretoria.

After the onset of the Second World War in 1939 construction came to a standstill whereupon Cosani wanted to be discharged from the contract because he was not strong enough financially to complete the construction. Most of his security was in Italy where he also had to obtain a lot of the machinery and tools. The contract was concluded in good spirit and the SVK paid Cosani an amount of £2,103 for the work already completed.

The tender for the completion of the construction was accepted from the firm W.F. du Plessis in Bloemfontein in 1940 - the firm would make use of white builders exclusively. As a result of the war there was an increase in the loss of white workers and from 12 black workers were used to mix the concrete and clean the site from 1942.

Statue: Woman and children

At the base of the Monument there is a statue of a Voortrekker woman and her two children. Moerdyk gave pride of place to the Voortrekker woman, because without her contribution the Great Trek would not have lead to lasting settlement.

The sculptor was Anton van Wouw (1862 - 1945). This sculpture group was his last commission as he was already nearly 76 years old. He used a nurse, Isabel Snyman, as a model for the Voortrekker woman and Betty Wolk and Joseph Goldstein as models for the children. Apparently Van Wouw started early in July 1937 with the sculpture and his contract with the SVK ended on 31 March 1938. The Woman and children is 4.1 metres high, weighs 2,5 tonnes and was cast by the firm R Vignali in Pretoria.

What makes this bronze sculpture group unique is that it is the first public sculpture that was cast in one piece in bronze in South Africa. Renzo Vignali quoted Van Wouw £725 for the casting: The casting of the bronze in one piece will give a better result as there will be no weldings or alteration whatsoever. The alloy of the metal to be used shall be of 84% copper, 14% tin, 2% zinc... (The Woman and children was removed from the base of the Voortrekker Monument in 1965 by the same firm in Pretoria and cleaned - the first time that it was done).

Renzo Vignali (1903 - 1945) came to South Africa from Italy in 1931, apparently on Van Wouw’s insistence. He was a practised bronze caster mastering the art in his father’s foundry in Florence. He stayed in Johannesburg initially but later moved to Pretoria West where the sculpture group of the Voortrekker woman and children was cast in bronze on 5 August 1939. For this task Renzo Vignali called for the help of his father, Gusmano Vignali (1867 - 1953). Gusmano arrived in South Africa early in 1939 and also helped his son to cast the Coert Steyberg statue of Louis Botha in front of the Union Buildings. The Vignali foundry moved to Pretoria North in 1942 where it is still in business.

The Vignali Foundry played an important role in the art history of South Africa - during the first 27 years of its existence (1931-1958) it was the only foundry in South Africa specializing in the casting of works of art. Before Vignali’s arrival in South Africa artists, (amongst others van Wouw), had to have their works cast overseas - in countries such as Italy and the Netherlands. This brought about high costs and delays. Hendrik Joubert, an employee of the Vignali foundry, started his own business in 1958 and since then several independent foundries have seen the light. The pioneering work in this regard was however done by the Vignali Foundry.

Renzo Vignali unexpectedly died in 1945, leaving his wife Vittoria and daughter Gabriela behind. His father, Gusmano, extended his stay in South Africa with two years to finish Renzo’s uncompleted works. Thereafter, Luigi Gamberini (1916 - 1987) an employee of Vignali and a former Italian prisoner of war from Zonderwater, continued the business. Luigi Gamberini married Renzo’s daughter Gabriella in 1960. After Luigi Gamberini’s death his two sons, Lorenzo and Carlo Gamberini took over the Vignali Foundry, supported by their mother, Gabriella. She died in 1996. Although the two Gamberini brothers were born and bred in South Africa they learned the art of casting in the Italian manner and they still respect the old proven casting techniques.

The Vignali Foundry also cast Phil Minnaar’s statue of general P.J. Joubert (1971). This bronze bust is currently standing at Fort Schanskop that is part of the Voortrekker Monument Heritage Site.

Historical frieze

The frieze against the walls of the Monument’s Hall of Heroes is an intrinsic part of its design - the story of the Great Trek from 1835 to 1852 is depicted relief on 27 panels. The frieze does not only depict the Great Trek, but also a way of life, methods of labour, conflict, religious beliefs and the way of life of the Trekkers. The frieze cost £30,000 to create, is 92 metres long and one of the biggest marble friezes in the world.

Four sculptors created the frieze, namely Hennie Potgieter, Laurika Postma, Frikkie Kruger and Peter Kirchhoff. They worked for five years creating the plaster of paris panels whereupon it was sent to Italy to be chiselled from marble. According to Hennie Potgieter it was decided to chisel the panels in Italy as the South African marble was not suitable for sculptures of that nature. It would have been cheaper to transport ready-made panels of marble from Italy instead of importing the heavy blocks of marble and finishing the sculptures on site.

Fifty initial chisellers under the supervision of the well-known Italian sculptor professor Romano Romanelli (1882 - 1968) started the panels. Initial chisellers are not artists but with the help of a dotting machine they are able to chisel and reproduce the work of a sculptor precisely. Romanelli had a large studio with machinery and technical apparatus in Florence where initial chisellers could work together. Romanelli was interested in the South African history and made a thorough study of the Great Trek. Hennie Potgieter and Laurika Postma stayed in Italy for a year to ensure that everything went according to plan (1947 - 1948).

Three hundred and sixty metric tonnes of Quercetta marble was taken from the quarries - the finished frieze weighs about 180 metric ton. There were constant strikes in the marble quarries in Italy and therefore the work was delayed. Two months before the inauguration of the Monument a few of the panels were only arrived in Durban and they still had to be transported to Pretoria. Eight panels of the frieze were not ready when the Monument was inaugurated.

With the inauguration of the Monument a medal was sent to Romanelli to honour him for his involvement. After seeing photos and plans of the monument, he declared that it was a very important monument from an artistic viewpoint, a first rate creation.

Thérèsa Viglione

Panel 15 of the marble frieze is a depiction of the heroic deed of the Italian woman Thérèsa Viglione. She was a trader who camped near the Trekkers with 3 Italian men and three wagons to trade. During the attack by the Zulus on Bloukrans on 17 February 1838, she fearlessly charged down the banks of the Boesmans River on a horse to warn the laager of Gerrit Maritz against the oncoming Zulus. Because of her action the Trekkers were forewarned and could defend themselves - many lives were saved. After the attack she nursed the wounded children in her tent and thereby also drew the respect of the Trekkers. Frikkie Kruger, the sculptor of this panel, used an Italian woman Lea Spanno as the model for Thérèsa Viglione. Lea Spanno worked in a chemist in Sunnyside near the artist’s studio.

Laager Wall

Around the Monument is a laager wall of 64 wagons - the same amount of wagons as at the battle of Blood River (16 December 1838). The Voortrekkers drew a laager with their wagons when danger was threatening and have proven its military worth. The laager wall forms a symbolic rampart against everything clashing with the ideals and views of the Voortrekkers.

The laager wall consists of terrazzo work - a mixture of pieces of marble and cement. White cement was imported from America and pieces of white marble from the quarries at Marble Hall were used as well as pieces of blue granite from Namakwaland. The Dey firm in Pretoria laid the foundation of the laager wall in March 1949. Frikkie Kruger made a clay model of the wall whereupon a plaster of paris imprint was taken to Johannesburg. Imprints were made in cement and the Italian firm Lupini in Johannesburg cast the final sections. The final cement sections were transported directly to the Monument where the final casting took place.

The first wagon was finished in March 1949. Every wagon weighs about 8 tonnes and is 4,6 metres long, 2,7 metres high and compiled from 24 sections. The total length of the laager wall is 313 metres. Nearly all the artists who worked on the wall were Italian. A photograph of two of the Italians, namely Fornoni and Carrara appears in the Transvaler of 21 April 1949.


From the above it is clear that up to now the Italians who had a stake in the history of the Voortrekker Monument have not had the acknowledgement that they deserve. They are sometimes only mentioned in passing in literature on the subject and this has made research very difficult.

The grandson of Romano Romanelli, Laurent Romanelli, sent photographs of his grandfather to the Voortrekker Monument on 22 May 1995:

I am very proud to be associated with your country. Your monument is part of myself as it represents some of the values my grandfather loved so much and that I share ... I wish South Africa the best.

Estelle Pretorius
Voortrekker Monument
© 18 August 2003


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