Monday, May 31, 2010

Corner of Scottish island that is forever Italy

The Orkney Italian Chapel as it stands today

In a moving letter, written 50 years ago, an Italian craftsman gifted his greatest work to the people of Orkney. Domenico Chiocchetti, a painter and sculptor of extraordinary talent, wrote: “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.”

With these words, Chiocchetti encapsulated one of the most poignant symbols of the Second World War, and this week a new book, Orkney’s Italian Chapel, commemorates an extraordinary tale of reconciliation.

“The chapel in Orkney reaches out from the past,” said Philip Paris, the author, from Tain in Ross-shire. “It is a symbol of hope and peace from people long gone for those yet to come.”

Between 1942 and 1945, Orkney was home to 550 Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa. Their task was to construct concrete causeways — the Churchill Barriers — linking four islands, to stop German U-boats from attacking ships at anchor in Scapa Flow. These men were housed largely in Camp 60, on the island of Lamb Holm, in a compound of 13 huts, whose sole remains today amount to the lovingly preserved chapel and a concrete statue of St George killing the dragon. Today these relics draw 90,000 visitors a year and represent the most popular tourist attraction on the islands.

The exterior design of the chapel oozes the Renaissance style of Tuscan churches and symbolises the spirit of all those who lived at the camp. On closer examination, the tales of craftsmanship are testimony to the great skills of a handful of prisoners.

In the early days of his confinement, Chiocchetti had fashioned the statue of St George from concrete and barbed wire, while his fellow inmates worked on the creation of paths, flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. But with no place of worship, the prisoners lobbied Major TP Buckland, the camp commandant, and then, with his permission, set about converting two Nissen huts, joined end to end, into the chapel.

Much of the interior was the creation of Chiocchetti. In 1944 he created the focal point, his painting of the Madonna and Child, which sits above the altar, by copying a prayer card he had been given by his mother.

“I carried a little picture of the Madonna with the Olive Branch with me everywhere, and this was the inspiration for the central image,” he said. “The rest of the picture, the head of the angel, the four evangelists and, at the sides, angels kneeling in adoration, I created myself. The war was still going on and naturally the motif which inspired me was peace.”

The same man made the altar, using clay shipped from mainland Orkney, to fashion the shape for a plaster mould. This he filled with concrete and cast the high table. To the left of the altar he created an image of St Francis of Assisi, and to the right a painting of St Catherine of Siena.

Others had a hand in the interior beauty. The prisoners made use of all kinds of scrap material. A lantern was made from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks from reinforcing metal rods. Giuseppe Palumbi, from Teramo, used similar materials for the candelabra and the magnificent rood-screen and gates. The building’s exterior was designed by Giovanni Pennisi, an artist.

The overall effect remains overwhelming, but in the 15 years after the war the chapel was left untouched and it was more by luck than judgment that it survived.

The driving force behind its restoration was Father Joseph Ryland Whitaker, the Catholic priest of Orkney and Shetland, who helped to establish the Italian Chapel Preservation Society. By then, urgent repairs were needed to stop water entering the building and to make the fa├žade safe. In the longer term, significant work was required to its beautiful interior.

A BBC radio programme helped the restoration committee to find Chiocchetti, who returned to complete three weeks’ crucial restoration work on the chapel in 1960.

He returned just once more to Lamb Holm, before his death in Moena in May 1999. A Memorial Requiem Mass was held at the Italian Chapel, attended by his wife and daughter. He had asked them to say goodbye to the friends in Orkney.

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