Bufano – The Art of Public Art

Beniamino Bufano at work in his North Beach, Greenwich Street studio-1955 Courtesy of the San FranciscoHistory Center, San Francisco Public Library

Beniamino Bufano at work in his North Beach, Greenwich Street studio-1955 Courtesy of the San FranciscoHistory Center, San Francisco Public Library

Have you ever wanted to walk the streets?  For arts’sake?  Italy’s immeasurable collection of public art is a forgone conclusion.  You stumble over it, walk around it, and view it from afar in just about every locale.  Rome, for example, could well be the world-wide epicenter of all public art; fountains, statues, arches, it’s all there, waiting to be admired. 

What about Italian art on the streets of San Francisco?  Are you straining to think of some?  Don’t fret.  We’ve just the solution.  San Francisco’s public spaces are the setting, the open air museum, for Bufano art.  Over 30 pieces are placed around the city, free to view at one’s own pace, anytime of day, or night.

Born, Beniamino Bufano, in San Fele, Italy (c. 1896), he was one of sixteen children. His family immigrated to New York when he was three, and, by the age of six, he was already contributing to the family income by shining shoes and peddling newspapers.  Years later he entered art school, working as a janitor in lieu of tuition and later became apprentice to sculptor James Frasier.  By 1915 his artistic talents were obvious.  He is well-known for his large-scale, modernist monuments representing peace and works that often featured smoothly rounded animals and simple shapes in ceramics, stone, stainless steel, and mosaic.  Bufano moved to the city by the bay in 1915 and was selected as a participating artist for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  

Bufano’s love of the city’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, is reflected in the three beloved sculptures of the Catholic Saint.  Possibly the most famous of the three is Saint Francis of the Guns, located on the City College of San Francisco campus. It is a 9 foot tall representation of St. Francis made out of melted down guns and bronze.  He was fired as an instructor at the San Francisco Institute of Art in 1923 for being a radical.  Known for being a pacifist, reports of the day say Bufano severed his finger and sent it to President Wilson to protest World War I.  Bufano died in San Francisco on August 16, 1970. 

One of the city's most photographed works is Bufano’s Madonna, located in Fort Mason’s great meadow.  The granite statue features a colorful mosaic of four children's faces blended together, which signifies the Madonna's protection over the children of the world.  His animal sculptures are also favorites including the mother bear and her cubs outside of the UCSF Medical Center and the penguin of downtown's Sidney G. Walton Square. 

Madonna protects the children of the world, Fort MasonCourtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Divison

Sadly, in 1961, Bufano’s statue of St. Francis was moved from the steps of St. Francis Church on Vallejo Street in North Beach and relocated to Fisherman’s Wharf when parishioners complained it was intrusively large for that location and the statue’s weight was damaging to the church steps.  

It is said that, in his final years, Bufano lived rent-​free at the Press Club, and ate free meals at Moar’s Cafeteria where he’d created three large mosaic murals. Now his art sits quietly in many of San Francisco’s parks or adjacent to the city’s many landmark structures.  Bufano would probably agree this is as art should be, public and free to all.  Clearly, one can’t deny walking the streets of San Francisco for arts’ sake would be a rewarding way to spend an afternoon.  

The Public Art and Architecture website at http://www.artandarchitecture-sf.com/tag/benny-bufano, has a listing of many of Bufano’s San Francisco pieces.  Would you like to explore San Francisco’s urban art?  You can do so by spending an artful afternoon strolling around the city’s public spaces.  Enjoy the public art of Beniamino Bufano at the following San Francisco locations (partial list):  

Northeast:

Madonna protects the children of the world, Great Meadow, Fort Mason, Bay & Laguna Streets

Saint Francis, southeast corner of Taylor & Beach Streets, Fisherman's Wharf

Seal, Animal, Frog, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park, 900 Beach Street near Polk Street

The Penguins, Sydney G. Walton Square, Front & Jackson Streets

Saint Francis, at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street

Sun Yat-Sen, St. Mary's Square, 601 California Street

Horse and Rider, 2501 Sutter Street courtyard between Sutter & Post Streets

The Penguins, northwest corner of Pine & Powell Streets

Central:

Bear and Cubs, University of California, SF, 530 Parnassus Street

Cat and other statues, Academy of Sciences, outdoor courtyard, 55 Music Concourse Drive

Southwest:

Saint Francis of the Guns of 1968, City College of San Francisco, 50 Phelan Avenue

Head of St. Francis, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, main quadrangle

Penguin’s Prayer, Lake Merced, 1100 Lake Merced Boulevard

Peace, 800 Brotherhood Way

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