Obituary: Domenico Chiocchetti

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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.