Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chiocchetti's and Palumbo's Gift of the Soul to Orkney

Orkney (Scotland) and war, of one kind or another, have a long intertwined history. Scapa flow, for example, which is the name of the sea that surrounds the Orkney Islands, is one of the great natural anchorages of the world, serving as a harbor for Viking ships more than 1000 years ago. More recently, it was the site of the United Kingdom's chief naval base during both WWI and WWII (the base closed in 1956).

It was in WWII, in early 1942, that over 500 Italian prisoners of war (captured in North Africa), were brought over to Orkney to help construct the Churchill Barriers (a fortication ordered built by Churchill, following a German U-boat sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in 1939, an attack that took the lives of 833 members of the Royal Oak's crew). However, since a treaty prevented prisoners of war from working on military-related projects, the Churchill Barriers became roads linking the southern islands of Orkney together (a function they still serve today). But the barriers were not the only project these Italian prisoners of war had worked on.

A small hillside on the north side of the island of Lamb Holm overlooks the most northerly of the Churchill Barriers. On it is a small and (from the outside) modest appearing chapel that is now know as the Italian Chapel. A glimpse of the soulful beauty of the chapel's inside is given by the image at the top of this blog entry (the other "side" of the chapel, the part that visitors walk through as they enter, is simply an austere vestibule; if anything, its simple unadorned appearance intensifies the grand vision that immediately grabs hold of all visitors' attention).

During the years 1942-1945, the hill was where the Italian prisoners of war lived (at Camp 60). By all accounts, however, Camp 60 was infused with an unexpected aesthetic. The prisoners built footpaths (using concrete that was readily available for the barriers), gardens, and vegetable plots. They also set to work on a place of worship, culminating - under the leadership of prisoners Chiocchetti and Palumbo (who designed the wrought iron rood screen) - in the Italian chapel. The chapel is a mini artistic-masterpiece, and stands as a living testament to the indomitable will of the human heart and soul.

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