One Sunday in June 1998 I was among a group of SCA members who arrived in Orkney for a day of castle visits, organised, most successfully, by Graham Coe. Our last port of call, before catching the ferry back to John O'Groats, was one of Orkney's foremost tourist attractions, the Italian Chapel, in its isolated location on the island of Lamb Holm. Graham had decided that, although not a castle, it deserved inclusion in our itinerary on the grounds that it was a building of tremendous interest with a fascinating history. Everyone on the tour was suitably impressed by the Chapel, but I have particular cause to be grateful for Graham's decision to include it.
At that time, as a mature student at Glasgow University, I was looking for a research topic for my M Phil thesis; the Italian chapel appeared, like a bolt from the blue, to fit the bill. Now, the thesis successfully completed, I can reflect that what I expected to be a pleasant, if windswept, day has taken me a lot further than Orkney and added an unexpected dimension to my life. There can be more to SCA tours than meets the eye!
My thesis consisted of examining the Italian Chapel, its interior, façade, external statuary, and artworks, in the light of earlier artistic sources, and establishing links between the Chapel and those sources. Such a study is not, however, an appropriate subject for the SCA's magazine, so I shall restrict myself to a brief history of the Chapel and its builders, on the grounds that those who appreciate the beauty of Scottish castles might also be interested in the story behind another beautiful building, even one created from a Nissen hut!
Italian Chapel - Orkney
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands was being used as a natural deep-water anchorage for the British fleet, allowing easy access to northern waters. The many navigable channels opening onto the Flow made it difficult to defend and, on the night of 14 October 1939, a German submarine entered the Flow, where it torpedoed and sank the British battleship Royal Oak, resulting in the loss of over 800 lives.
The decision was taken by the Admiralty to block the eastern approaches to the Flow by the erection of a series of sea walls, now known as the Churchill Barriers. Towards the end of 1941 the labour situation was acute, but Allied victories in North Africa resulted in a substantial availability of Italian prisoners of war. Approximately 1000 of these men were transported to Orkney in January 1942 to assist with the massive engineering task.
The building and decoration of the chapel became their obsession
They were housed in two camps, one on Burray, and the other on Lamb Holm. It was the latter of the two which interested me. Camp 60 consisted of 13 bleak huts, but the men were encouraged by their Commandant to improve their surroundings, which they did by laying concrete paths and making flower beds, creating in effect a small Italian piazza with a statue of St George as its centrepiece. They also created a theatre complete with scenery, and a recreation hut with its own concrete billiard table! The statue of St George was designed and built by one Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner whose home town of Moena was in the Italian Dolomites.
The men were conscious, however, of not having a chapel, and approached the Commandant on this issue. He offered them the use of two Nissen huts, placed end to end, for the purpose of creating their chapel and a school.
Domenico Chiocchetti undertook the task of decorating and designing the chapel, and picked a team of helpers to assist him in his task. The building and decoration of the chapel became their obsession, their tunnel, wooden horse and great escape, providing them with an interest and diversion from the daily drudgery of life as prisoners of war on a cold and barren Scottish island. Chiocchetti intended the chapel to be a symbol of brotherhood and peace in the face of adversity. On completion, the chapel was dedicated to Our Lady under the title Regina Pacis, Queen of Peace.
The materials required for the work were neither readily available nor easily obtained, apart, that is, from cement. The men scoured the beaches for driftwood and other detritrus. Some boarded the old blockships in the Flow to claim timber and metal which could be of use, while others made items, such as cigarette lighters, which they could sell to raise extra funds for the purchase of materials. The chapel was decorated using any suitable materials which they could lay their hands on including empty "bully beef" tins. Some other materials were donated by local tradesmen and the camp Commandant.
Italian Chapel - internal
Internally the huts were lined with "pressed cardboard" then coated with water-based paint. The chapel is approximately 72 feet in length, 16 feet wide and 10 feet high. The chancel was the first area to be decorated. It was Chiocchetti's intention to create something similar in style to the churches of Italy with which he was familiar.
Work began first on the east wall, with Chiocchetti's altarpiece of a monumental Madonna and Child. Frontally facing, with eyes downcast, the half-length Madonna gazes at the Child on Her knee, who offers an olive branch, the symbol of peace. Chiocchetti's Madonna is based on a tiny copy of a painting by Nicolo Barabina (1832-1891) entitled Madonna of the Olives. Chiocchetti was given the small photograph by his mother when he left home for the war, and carried it in his pocket. This altarpiece is the focal point of the chapel, and beneath it stands a concrete altar table.
The chancel is divided from the nave by an ornate choir screen, fashioned in wrought iron. It was designed by Chiocchetti but made by a fellow-prisoner, Palumbo, a blacksmith by trade, who completed the work in three months. Palumbo was also responsible for producing the candelabra on the altar. The altar lamps were fashioned from "bully beef" tins.
On completion of the chancel, the remaining area of the hut looked so shabby in comparison that permission was given to continue the decorative scheme throughout; another hut could be found to house the school.
The walls were decorated throughout in trompe-l'oeil resembling stone and decorative brickwork. There are fictive vaults, corbel tables, columns and windows. There are angels in "niches", dado rails, and Gothic rib vaults forming part of the fictive architecture. The decorative scheme is truly remarkable, given the paucity of materials available.
Towards the end of the War, the men were transported to Yorkshire to await repatriation. Chiocchetti, however, remained in Orkney to complete his task before joining his compatriots. After hostilities had ended the camps were dismantled. When the demolition squad entered the chapel they were so moved by what they saw that they left it intact. It stood unattended for the next 15 years until a committee was formed in 1958 to care for the chapel and raise funds for its preservation. Through the committee's efforts the chapel is now in a good state of repair and monthly services are held during the summer.
In July 1996 a special declaration of friendship was signed between the peoples of Orkney and Moena. At the ceremony Domenico Chiocchetti, at the age of 86, received the freedom of his home town in recognition of a lifetime's devotion to art, the high point of which was his work in the Italian Chapel in Orkney.
In April 1999, I visited the village of Moena, and met Domenico Chiocchetti and his family. Their hospitality and kindness were memorable, and Domenico, though frail, struck me as a very serene, gentle and contented man, retaining his sense of humour even in poor health. The chapel meant much to him, and he was delighted that people took an interest in it. On 7 May, just three weeks after my visit, Domenico Chiocchetti died at home, shortly before his 89th birthday.
In June 1999, I was back in the Italian Chapel, which was filled to capacity, to attend the memorial service for Domenico Chiocchetti. His widow, Maria, and their family were also there, having flown over from Italy to be present.
It remains one of the wonders of the Italian Chapel that such beauty developed out of such pain and hardship. I am grateful to the SCA, and Graham Coe, in particular, for giving me the opportunity to learn its story and to play a small part in preserving the work of Domenico Chiocchetti and his fellow-prisoners for posterity.
Article by SCA member Rachel Stuart of Blackhall Manor