Virgil Cantini was born in Italy in 1919. His family migrated to the United States in 1930, settling in Pittsburgh. Cantini attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology on a football scholarship. Despite being discouraged by his mother from pursuing a career in art, Cantini shifted his focus from athletics to art. His mentor, the silversmith Frederick Claytor, introduced him to the medium of enameling. Cantini had seen an enameled panel in the studio and was drawn to it. He immediately knew that this would become his primary form of expression. He went on to earn his master of fine arts degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1948. He became an art professor in the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Department at the same university. Cantini’s work gained immediate national exposure when his enamel Masquerade
was juried into the 13th National Ceramic Exhibition in Syracuse, in 1948. His work was included in the show again in 1949 and 1950. In 1949 he participated for the first time in the Wichita Art Association’s Decorative Arts and Ceramics Exhibition, submitting three works. Two years later he submitted an impressive panel, Saint Francis
, to the 1951 Wichita exhibition. The work was purchased for the association’s collection. In 1950 the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pittsburgh organized an important exhibition entitled History of Enamels: VII–XX Century
. Cantini was represented by nine works.
In 1952 an interview with the artist conducted by Dorothy Sterling appeared in the December issue of American Artist
. This was followed by another mark of distinction in 1953, when he was named, in a Time magazine poll, as one of the “Hundred Leaders of Tomorrow.” By 1959 he was considered one of the most prominent contemporary enamelists, and his work was included in the seminal exhibition Enamels
, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York. His work went through numerous stylistic changes. His early style, which was predominately figurative, was well suited to ecclesiastical works. This became a specialty of Cantini’s, and he received numerous commissions from churches throughout Pittsburgh. He also created works—plates, bowls, and jewelry—for a general market. In the late 1960s he gradually abandoned the figure and shifted to an abstract, nonobjective approach. His work also started to increase in dimension, with some pieces attaining eight feet in length. Cantini received numerous commissions for public art and eventually abandoned enameling and devoted his time to large sculptural pieces.