Two Artists and a Cowra Chapel

Eliseo Pieraccini and Carlo Vannucci are names on the lists of Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia during WW 2.  Individually, they were just a number and a name; their details were recorded and notated on multiple Australian Military Forces forms.

But there are invisible threads that connect the two men.  They were both from Viareggio (Lucca) a seaside town on the Tuscan coast.  They arrived in Australia from India onboard the Mariposa. Their only placement in Australia was Cowra: 27.4.44 until repatriation onboard the Alcantara 23.12.46. They both left a lasting legacy.

Vannucci’s occupation is recorded as ‘decorator’ and Pieraccini’s occupation is ‘clerk’. They are names that remain forever connected to this history and Cowra, because during their time in Cowra, they painted ‘renaissance’ style Altar Panels for Cowra Camp 12 (C).

Cowra Altar Compound 12 (C) c. 1946  (photo courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)

The coloured photo of the chapel at Camp 12(C) was one of three photos Ippolito Moscatelli took home to Ospitaletto di Cormano (Milano)  with him; souvenirs of life as a prisoner of war in Australia. At first glance, granddaughter Francesca  Maffietti thought this was a chapel in Italy.  Her grandparents made pilgrimages to many chapels in Italy, taking photos along the way. At first glance this chapel could be mistaken for an Italian chapel; the decorations are undoubtedly Italian in style.  Eliseo and Carlo through their art, brought a little of Italy to Cowra.

The wooden floor, corrugated iron roof, exposed beams and gaps between walls and roof: this is the chapel in 1946. The altar is painted in a fashion to appear like marble. The details are beautiful: the motif of the Holy Ghost represented as a dove above the crucifix, the cross on the front of the altar, the paintings of Mary and Jesus, the backdrop painted in burgundy, whites and shades of black. In contrast is the November 1941 chapel for Cowra Camp 12 (C). It consisted of an outdoor altar. Quite possibly this original altar eventually found a home inside a hut and bit by bit, decorative paintings were added as were religious items.

Guerre 1939-1945. Nouvelle Galles du Sud, camp de Cowra No 12, section C. Autel en plein air. War 1939-1945. New South Wales, camp of Cowra, camp 12, section C. Outdoors altar.

Outside Altar Cowra Camp 12 C 12.11.41 (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00217)

The Altar panels of Mary and Jesus are stored at the Cowra Regional Art Gallery. Details about the panels can be found at: https://www.cowraguardian.com.au/story/6550175/council-seeks-heritage-listing-for-italian-pow-art-works/

The Virgin Mary painted by Eliseo Pieraccini (left) and Jesus painted by Carlo Vannucci (right) (photos from The Cowra Guardian December 24 2019, Council Seeks Heritage Listing for Italian POW Art Works)

Carlo Vannucci

In addition to this little know history is the close connection between Sergeant Robert Dunlop Burge and Carlo Vannucci. Hugh Cullimore, Art Curator at the Australian War Memorial provides the following information:“Sergeant Robert Dunlop Burge (N386934) was in charge of the Engineering section at Cowra prisoner of war camp from 15 May 1942 to 29 April 1947. During his service as a guard, Sergeant Burge formed friendships with several of the prisoners, including Italian artist Carlo Vannucci. Vannucci had been captured in Libya and transported by the US Navy to Australia, where he was interned in Cowra. Sergeant Burge organised paints and canvas from old flour bags for Vannucci and other artists in the camp. Sergeant Burge’s wife, Jenny Catherine Burge, regularly travelled on the train to visit her husband serving at the camp. Vannucci painted [a] portrait of Jenny for Sergeant Burge, as a gift.” And the same initial descriptor with this quote: “Sometime later on a routine workshop inspection Vannucci took me by surprise with a gift of a framed painting which he had signed” Burge said in 1975, in an article published in the local paper at the time, as reported by the ‘Cowra Guardian’, 5 June 2014. “It was an impression from memory of a sea view in his home town Viareggio, an Italian well known seaside resort…The painting was an expression of Vannucci’s thanks.”

Colleen Hill, daughter of Sergeant Burge visited Carlo in Italy in 2014 as reported: https://www.cowraguardian.com.au/story/2332256/a-new-generation-of-friendship/

Carlo Vannucci on return to Italy continued his artistic passion with his involvement in the Carvevale di Viareggio: https://2017.gonews.it/2015/09/30/viareggio-carnevale-morto-carlo-vannucci-decano-dei-carristi/  The facebook group: Carnevale di Viareggio highlights a number of Carlo’s works. 

“La vacca capitolina” di Carlo Vannucci (Carro di prima categoria)terzo premio al CarnevalediViareggio 1979

Eliseo Pieraccini

In the Relic Collection of the Australian War Memorial, there is a sculpture that is attributed to Eliseo Pieraccini.  Hugh Cullimore Art Curator provides the following information: The two [photos] titled CR25408 are of the Pieraccini work we have, with scant details on its creation. I note its strong Art Deco appearance, a style that was sliding out of fashion by the time of the War.

Statue made by Eliseo Pieraccini (AWM CR25408)

What works of art did your father bring home from Italy?

Did they create an item in wood or metal?

Do you have a painting or sketch made by your nonno?

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
― 
Pablo Picasso

A special thank you to Francesca Maffetti, granddaughter of Ippolito Moscatelli and Hugh Cullimore, Art Curator Australian War Memorial for their contributions to this article.

POST SCRIPT: The history of the Cowra Camp is complicated.  It consisted of 4 compounds: A, B, C and D each capable of accommodating 1000 people. It housed prisoners of war: Italian, Japanese, Korea and Formosan; and internees: Italian, Indonesian and Javanese.  Which group lived in which compound changed during the years of its operation : 1941-1946.

In 1942 Compound D was named: Special Camp 12 (D) for Italian prisoner of war Dysentery Carriers [amoebic and bacillary carriers].

Cowra Camp also housed children. Indonesian families were interned at Cowra in September 1943.

By 1944 Compound D housed Japanese Officers, Formosans and Koreans.

Such was the complexity of the prisoner of war and internment camps in Australia. 

3 thoughts on “Two Artists and a Cowra Chapel

  1. Pingback: Attori e Artisti | Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War in Australia

  2. Ron Hughes

    I found this very interesting, my father Harold Hughes, served during the war and was at Cowra for several years during his service where he was paymaster to the Italian POW’s. I have a painting of my mother Patricia who was a Nurse at Cowra Hospital. The painting was done by an Italian guest of our military at the time in Cowra. She was a local girl who married my father around that time . This painting has been treasured by my family for many years as our connection to the past as our father had a very good relationship with the Italian ‘Prisoners’ going on to learn their language, among many others, in his retirement as a school headmaster. He travelled through Europe with a group of likewise senior language students acting as interpreter in several countries.
    I could send you a copy of the photo if you would like to see it.
    Cheers
    Ron Hughes

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    1. Joanne in Townsville Post author

      Hi Ron, thank you for reaching out. I would LOVE to see the painting. There are so many beautiful items the Italians produced and gave as gifts, such as your mother’s painting. The majority of the Italians were so grateful for the kindness extended to them by the Aussie guards and farming families. I always get goosebumps when another item is shared/ uncovered. Art work is one of my side line favourite topics and I have a few articles about paintings and painters: Riccardo Del Bo (signed Del-Bo), Carlo Vannucci, Ippolito Moscatelli (signed MI), Carlo Gulminelli, Alfredo Godutto (but he wasn’t at Cowra). Can you see a signature at all? And today the “Cowra Guardian” printed an article about Francesca Maffietti who is hoping that someone has a painting by her nonno Peppino (Ippolito Moscatelli) who had a diverse range of styles. This is the link to the article: https://www.cowraguardian.com.au/story/7442650/cowra-can-you-help-francesca/?cs=593 My email address is joannetappy@gmail.com Ciao Joanne Tapiolas

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