Dea Mulolli is a PhD student at Western Michigan University. She was walking through the student union, the Bernhard Center, when she met another Dea – one who’s always around the building.
She’s the sole figure in a mural that’s in a stairwell near the bookstore. It’s titled “La Dea Roma.”
“I speak a little bit of Italian and ‘dea/deos’ meaning god/goddess, so we just assume it means the Goddess of Rome,” she said, referring to herself and Western writing instructor Lee Kirk. He’s also intrigued by the mural.
In it, a woman wears a yellow crown and flowing gray robe. She’s holding a torch with a snake winding around it in one hand. In the other, a staff with a green, red-and-white flag.
“Which is like the Italian flag with a small modification,” Mulolli explains.
While its simple style evokes an ancient mural, the piece is clearly modern. The medium is some kind of poured material rather than tiles or paint.
Dea wonders what the piece means and where it came from. We ended up holding a sort of mini-conference in the stairwell to try to answer those questions. Dea and Lee were there. So was an assistant curator from Western’s art school, and three couples from the Grand Rapids area. The men in the couples are brothers and they have a special connection to the piece.
“I can remember that when I went to school here,” says Rick Rossi, who’s one of the brothers. He’s looking up at the mural. Rossi says that years ago, as a student at Western, he saw the plaque.
“I said ‘Oh my God, dad did that!’”
Rick’s father’s name was John Baptiste Rossi.
“Born in 1885,” explains Joe Rossi, another of the brothers. Their father was born in Italy. He was 16 when he came to the United States.
“Emigrated in 1901 through Ellis Island,” Joe adds.
The elder Rossi eventually moved to the Midwest and in the 1920s he went into the flooring business in Grand Rapids. Among other things, the Italian craftsmen who worked for him laid terrazzo. That’s chips of a hard substance like marble, set in cement and polished to a smooth surface. A third Rossi son, Abe Rossi, says terrazzo is expensive.
“But maintenance-wise it paid for itself. Janitors liked it because it was easy to clean,” he says.
Terrazzo is also the medium of “La Dea Roma,” a piece given, and by all indications made by the Rossi Company. The family knew it was here but it’s been years since any of them have seen it.
Throughout the “conference,” the brothers return to the mural, run their hands over the surface and debate the exact technique. Rick Rossi says in any case, it’s advanced.
“This had to take a lot of time. This is extremely detailed when you really consider what’s going on here.”
Everyone is curious about the symbols in the piece.
Clara Peeters is a curatorial assistant in Western’s Gwen Frostic School of Art. Peeters says Dea Roma does mean Goddess of Rome.
“She’s wearing a mural crown in this image, which represents the protection of the Hellenistic city-states by Rome,” she explains.
Peeters adds that in her right hand, the deity carries the modern flag of Italy, “with that little cross modification in the white section.”
And in her left hand she holds a Rod of Asclepius, a staff – well, in this case it’s a torch - with a single snake winding around it.
Someone suggests that the snake represents evil. But Peeters says that in fact it represents medicine and health, and the torch stands for knowledge.
John Rossi had 10 children. The three sons visiting today aren’t sure when or why the company gave the piece to Western. That would have a been a question for their oldest brother, who’s deceased. But the plaque uses old name for the school, Western Michigan College. That means Roma’s been at the Western at least since the 1950s.
John Rossi died in 1960. The family says he’d be glad to know the mural is at Western. And maybe the Roman theme isn’t an accident.
“His Italian culture was his life,” says daughter-in-law Anne Rossi. “He had a sister that was an opera singer and he loved the opera and all of the arts. So he left a beautiful legacy for the boys.”
The university plans to tear down the Bernhard Center in a few years when it’s done building the new student union. But the school says it will find a new campus home for the Dea Roma.
PhD student Dea Mulolli says she learned something about terrazzo.
“I didn’t know you could use it for artwork. I’ve seen it in floors, I’ve seen it on other places but not in artwork,” she says.
When art or anything else gets your attention in Southwest Michigan, we want to hear about it!