Joseph Coletti’s Speedy Angels

This is the third post in a series on Boston’s angels.

We have bright angels of joy and dark angels of mourning. Some angels are forged in stained glass while others are carved in marble or granite. Musical angels sing hymns or play instruments and literary angels who write sacred texts or read manuscripts. In Boston we find two modern angels who celebrate the speedy passage of automobiles.

The Sumner Tunnel

The Sumner Memorial Tunnel angels were sculpted by Joseph Arthur Coletti in 1934, when the cars the angels carry were the height of automotive design. Mr. Coletti was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. He was raised in Quincy, MA, where his father worked in the granite quarry. After training at Quincy’s Evening Art School and the Massachusetts School of Art, he apprenticed himself to the sculptor John Evans. Later, he became John Singer Sargent’s only pupil and worked with the master on the sculptured ceiling at the Boston Public Library and the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Passport Photo of Joseph Arthur Coletti

The Sumner Tunnel was the first of three underwater passages under Boston Harbor. It carries traffic from Logan International Airport and Route 1A in East Boston to the city, where it has two exits. One travels under route I-93 and emerges on the west side of the highway near the Haymarket Subway Station. The other routes traffic to route I-93 North and Storrow Drive.

Opened on June 30, 1934, the Sumner Tunnel carried traffic in both directions for 27 years until the parallel Callahan Tunnel opened in 1961. It was named for William Hyslop Sumner, founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and developer of Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor. It carries cars for a mile and is more than 30 feet in diameter. 

Joseph Colletti’s Angels

What does this traffic engineering have to do with angels? Well, you’ll find two of these celestial creatures above the decidedly un-celestial entrance to and exit from the Sumner Tunnel in East Boston. The bronze reliefs depict two angels, each holding a vintage roadster in her outstretched hands and flying in opposite directions. Their wings lift behind them and their hair and garments blow back from the speed of their passage.

The angels bracket a circular relief framed by oak leaves. Below this appears the dedication inscribed in bronze letters.

Boston is home to two modern angels who celebrate the speedy passage of automobiles.

Coletti’s Angels at the West Exit
Photo: American Art Museum

The Sumner Memorial Tunnel angels were sculpted by Joseph Arthur Coletti in 1934, when the cars the angels carry were the height of automotive design.

An Immigrant from Italy

Mr. Coletti was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. He was raised in Quincy, MA, where his father worked in the granite quarry. After training at Quincy’s Evening Art School and the Massachusetts School of Art, he apprenticed himself to the sculptor John Evans. Later, he became John Singer Sargent’s only pupil and worked with the master on the sculptured ceiling at the Boston Public Library and the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts.

His creative work can be found in various New England towns as well as in cities around the country and in Europe. It includes architectural sculpture, medals, portraits, memorials, statues, nudes and animals. Mr. Coletti had a long and distinguished career during which he authored many books and articles, studied with the sculptor Aristide Maillol, and served for six years as Chairman of the Massachusetts Art Commission. Mr. Coletti died in New England in 1973 and is buried at Mt. Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy.

Symbol of the Season

Mr. Coletti’s angels remain with us, though, and they are the perfect symbol for this time of year. The holidays involve much to-and-fro, hustle and bustle, and travel from one place to another. We rush in what feels like several directions at once, carrying things as we go.

The angels also represent both the beginning of the modern age of fast travel and the various means we now have of getting around. They hold automobiles but decorate a major route to Boston’s airport. The traffic at Boston Logan airport is heaviest during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons as family and friends head home for the holidays. The angels represent their fleet passage by car or air.

Getting a Good View of Coletti’s Angels

Although finding Coletti’s Angels is easy, getting a good look at them is more difficult. Unfortunately, they get little respect. Highway signs block the ones at the East Boston entrance, placed directly in front of them. You can see the angels briefly just after 2:41 in this video. They also appear above the exit in the North End but that puts them directly behind cars leaving the tunnel, and thus invisible to passengers. 

Pedestrians can get a somewhat better—and certainly much safer—view from the plaza in front of the Traffic Tunnel Administration Building at the corner of Cross Street and North Street in the North End. To see the angels, walk over to the fence alongside the tunnel and peer to the right. Pedestrians can get a somewhat better—and certainly much safer—view from the plaza in front of the Traffic Tunnel Administration Building at the corner of Cross Street and North Street in the North End. To see the angels, walk over to the fence alongside the tunnel and peer to the right.

Directions and Information

You will find the Sumner Tunnel entrance located near the T’s Haymarket and North Station stops on either the green or orange MBTA metro lines and commuter rail. A short walk will take you to the Administration Building.

Don’t try parking around here. If coming by car, park at the Boston Market garage or in the public garage at 20 Clinton Street. Then cross the Greenway to the corner of Cross and North streets.

The Sumner Tunnel is open all the time and viewing Mr. Coletti’s Angels is free.

Boston’s Angels

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