The Marconi monument as it looked in 2005.

A signal honor.

Corner of Atwood Avenue and Plainfield Street, Johnston

The father of wireless technology, Guglielmo Marconi, was born in Italy, and performed most of his experimental work in England, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Massachusetts, and on ships at sea in the Atlantic.

So why is there a monument to Marconi in Johnston?

In the early 2000s Johnston's population was about 46% Italian American. One of those Italian Americans was Johnston Mayor William R. Macera, and he happened to be a fan of Marconi. So it didn't take much prodding on the part of Vincent Frattallone of the Italian cultural society Comitato Tricolore per gli Italiani nel Mundo (Tricolore Committee for Italians in the World (CTIM)) to convince Macera that Johnston should set aside a spot in town to honor one of Italy's most celebrated native sons.

The suggestion was made in 1999, and within two years Macera turned the idea into reality. He chose the intersection of Atwood Avenue and Plainfield Street, on the border with Cranston, because the two towns share similar demographics. Because Atwood and Plainfield are both state roads he had to secure the approval of the General Assembly. Through that process he found out that the Cranston side already had a World War II memorial, so the scope of the project was scaled back to include only the Johnston side of the intersection.

Still, Macera had big plans, and he had a line on possibly the best possible dignitary to have at the dedication of such a monument, Marconi's youngest daughter Princess Elettra Marconi. Macera met her in 1999 when she stopped in Johnston while touring the U.S. promoting a book about her father by her mother, Maria Christina Marconi, called Marconi, My Beloved.

The plans came together on April 25, 2001, the 127th anniversary of Marconi's 1874 birth. The Johnston half of the intersection (really just a corner on the edge of a Walgreens parking lot), was dedicated as Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, reportedly the first "square" in the United States to be named for the inventor.

At the dedication speeches were made in both English and Italian, the American and Italian national anthems were played, and Princess Elettra, then seventy-one, spoke to the crowd via telephone from Bologna, Italy. Among the dignitaries present in the flesh were Johnston Mayor Macera, Cranston Mayor John R. O'Leary, Michele Frattallone of the CTIM, Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., state Senator Joseph Polisena, and state Representative Mary Cerra.

(Side note: In case you were wondering, Elettra Marconi got her princess title from her 1966 marriage to Prince Carlo Giovannelli, and decided to hold onto it after they separated).

The CTIM had earlier presented Mayor Macera with a plaque honoring Marconi, and Macera stated at the time of the dedication that he hoped it would one day hang on the wall of the proposed new Johnston Fire Station #1 on Atwood Avenue. The station, he said, was to have a state-of-the-art communications center to serve both the police and fire departments. Macera intended that it would be called the Guglielmo Marconi Communications Center. But although the station was completed in 2004, the communications center was not included, and the whereabouts of the plaque are currently unknown (or at least unknown to this writer).

The marker erected in 2001 was only a modest ten-foot pole bearing a sign that read "Piazza Guglielmo Marconi," but a year later, amid similar pomp and circumstance (including another call from the princess) a more permanent monument was installed on the north corner of the intersection.

The monument is a low pyramid of dark polished granite topped by a small metal transmission tower, complete with blinking red navigation light. Designed by Vincenzo Frattallone of the CTIM, it looks like a transmission tower because it is one, albeit with a very weak signal. Originally you could tune your car radio to 94.9 FM while parked nearby and listen to a recording of Marconi himself speaking on an infinite loop.

A small, enigmatic sandstone design element was affixed to one face of the monument. An email sent to the CTIM failed to elicit an explanation of its meaning, so we're left to make our best guess. The element, which disappeared from the monument sometime after 2005, appeared to depict two coasts connected by the barely legible words "Atlantic Link." A committee with a similar name is listed on the monument under Patronage. Sketchy information online (much of it in Italian) leads us to understand this was an organization dedicated specifically to increasing awareness of the 100th anniversary of the first confirmed transatlantic transmission of radio signals from North America, in 1902.

The town didn't have to pony up any money for the monument. The building and installation were organized by the CTIM, and materials and labor were donated by local Italian American businesses and organizations. Power came from the Walgreens and the transmitter was maintained by the Providence Radio Association.

In October 2006 the princess dropped by to see and listen to the monument in person. She was in the states to celebrate the 104th anniversary of the Atlantic Link. While here she visited another local monument to Marconi, placed on the shore of Pleasure Lake in Roger Williams Park in 1953. Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline met her there and presented her with a key to the city.

Mayor Macera left office in January 2007 and passed away in April 2010. In August 2011 a water main break flooded the intersection of Atwood and Plainfield, damaging the transmission equipment in the base of the monument. As is often the case, the priorities of one administration do not necessarily carry over to its successor. Politics are politics, Johnston isn't immune from the economic troubles faced by the rest of the country, and the relationships that Macera built with interested Marconi boosters didn't survive him. The upshot is that there seems to be little interest in fixing the monument's radio equipment at this time (2013).

But while the monument stands mute, it does still stand. Be sure to include it on your next radio-themed roadtrip. And think of Marconi whenever you listen to conservative talk radio, download a funny cat video to your smart phone, or use your neighbor's unprotected wi-fi.

Monument text:

PIAZZA
GUGLIELMO MARCONI
1874-1937
The Father Of Radio
Nobel Prize in Physics 1909
William R. Macera, Mayor
Town of Johnston, R.I.
April 25th, 2001

Designed by
Vincenzo Frattallone

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 5 minutes

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk.

Finding it: from Route 295 take exit 4 to Plainfield Pike. If coming from the south take a right off the exit; if from the north, take a right. Go about 1.5 miles to the intersection of Plainfield Street and Atwood Avenue. The monument is on the corner adjacent to the Walgreens.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to roads or man-eating dogs. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited May 21, 2013

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