Obituary: Domenico Chiocchetti

IN JUNE 1940, the Italian people, tired and bewildered, were plunged into war by Mussolini. In a few years, millions of their men, among them a gifted painter, Domenico Chiocchetti, were killed or taken prisoner. Chiocchetti, captured in North Africa, was one of several hundred prisoners sent to Orkney, to the wet, windswept island of Lamb Holm, to help erect the Churchill Barriers sealing the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.

A greater contrast to the green pastoral valley in the Dolomites where he had grown up could hardly be imagined, but in these bleak and inauspicious surroundings Chiocchetti set about easing his homesickness by erecting an extraordinary reminder of his native land.

Chiocchetti began work on the Italian Chapel, as it has come to be known, late in 1943, when two Nissen huts, joined end to end, were made available to the prisoners of Camp 60. Joined by a band of felicitously named helpers - Bruttapasta, a cement worker, Primavera, an electrician, Palumbo, a blacksmith - he began by hiding the corrugated iron of the hut behind a facade of plasterboard which he then painted with trompe-l'oeil brickwork and carved stone. An altar, altar-rail and holy-water stoop were moulded in cement by Bruttapasta. A tabernacle was fashioned from timber salvaged from a wreck, which also provided iron for two candelabra. Palumbo worked for four months on a wrought-iron rood-screen of unusual intricacy and beauty. Fellow prisoners, inspired by the chapel, gave up cigarette money from their welfare fund to send to a firm in Exeter for two heavy gold curtains to hang either side of the sanctuary.

The sanctuary vault was frescoed by Chiocchetti with the symbols of the four evangelists, and lower down on either side he painted two Cherubim and two Seraphim. In the very centre of the vault hovered the White Dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Chiocchetti's masterpiece was a painting of the Madonna and Child behind the altar. Based on Nicolo Barabina's Madonna of the Olives, a battered postcard of which Chiocchetti carried in his pocket, it depicts the Virgin Mary bearing in her arms the infant Jesus, who offers his mother an olive branch. Above the mother and child, cherubs hold a scroll inscribed REGINA PACIS ORA PRO NOBIS ("Queen of Peace, pray for us"). One cherub also holds up a blue shield, the heraldic badge of Chiocchetti's home town Moena, showing Christ, tall and serene, guiding a boat out of stormy waters into a calm sea.

So inspired was Chiocchetti by his work that, when in 1945 Camp 60 was disbanded and his fellow prisoners sent home, he stayed on for some weeks to finish his work.

The Orcadians were deeply moved by his achievement. "We who are brought up in the Calvinistic faith," wrote the poet George Mackay Brown in the Orkney Herald,

a faith as austere, bracing and cold as the winds that trouble Lamb Holm from year's end to year's end, can hardly grasp the fierce nostalgic endeavour that raised this piece of Italy, of Catholicism, out of the clay and the stones . . . The Italians who fought weakly and

without hope on the battlefield because they lacked faith in the ridiculous strutting little Duce have wrought strongly here . . .

But few imagined that the chapel, battered by wind and weather, could survive for long.

In 1958, however, its fame had grown and its condition deteriorated to such an extent that a preservation committee was formed. Chiocchetti was traced to Moena, where he was working as a painter/ decorator, and in March 1960 was brought back to Lamb Holm, courtesy of the BBC, for three weeks to restore his work. He returned again, with his wife, in 1964, bringing with him as a personal gift to the chapel 14 Stations of the Cross hand-carved in Cirmo wood, and, as a gift from the mayor and community of Moena, a standing crucifix and altar cruets of Venetian glass.

Links have been maintained between the former Italian prisoners of war and the people of Orkney and, when in 1996, at the age of 86, Chiocchetti was granted the freedom of Moena, there were three Orcadians present to witness the event.

Since his visits, the preservation committee, supported by donations from the tens of thousands of people who visit the chapel each year (in 1998 75,000 came - almost four times as many visitors as the entire population of Orkney), has ensured that Chiocchetti's work remains intact. Mass is celebrated in the chapel during the summer months, and on 9 June Bishop Mario Conti will fly to Orkney from Aberdeen to celebrate a memorial service for Domenico Chiocchetti. The service will, perhaps, include a reading from the letter Chiocchetti wrote to the people of Orkney before returning to Moena after restoring his chapel in 1960:

Dear Orcadians - My work at the chapel is finished. In these three weeks I have done my best to give again to the little church that freshness which it had 16 years ago.

The chapel is yours - for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.

I thank the authorities of Kirkwall, the courteous preservation committee, and all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lamb Holm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart . . .

Goodbye dear friends of Orkney - or perhaps I should say just "Au revoir".

Domenico Chiocchetti, painter: born Moena, Italy 15 May 1910; married 1949 Maria Felicetti (one son, two daughters); died Moena 7 May 1999.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones