From Enemy to Friend: A Tribute to Coriolano Caprara, 1920-2020
It is with great sadness that I have to report the death of Coriolano Caprara, known as ‘Gino’ to his friends. He is the last of the Italian POWs who were held at Camp 34 on Burray, where they were used to build the Churchill Barriers.
Gino was lucky to be able to celebrate his 100th birthday in mid February this year (2020), just before lockdown was introduced in Italy because of the Covid 19 pandemic. It was heartwarming to see video footage of the party on Facebook, where Gino was singing ‘It’s Now or Never’ in English, as well as dancing. The party was attended his friends John Muir and Claire Louttit (John’s daughter) from Orkney. John is the President of the Italian Chapel Preservation Committee. With him he brought a gift for Gino, a painting of the Italian Chapel by Orkney artist Gary Gibson, who has been a long time supporter of the Italian Chapel. Philip Paris, who wrote a novel and a history book about the Italian Chapel, and Antonella Papa, who carried out restoration work on the chapel. Also among the guests were members of the Chiocchetti family, who presented him with a model of St George and the Dragon. Domenico Chiocchetti had made a statue of this before he started on the chapel on Lamb Holm, the other camp where POWs were held.
I first met Gino in 1995 when he was with a group of former Italian POWs who had returned to Orkney for a visit. This followed on from a visit in 1992, when they had taken part in a BBC documentary about their confinement and the work that they did on the Barriers. The Orkney Museum had an exhibition on the building of the Barriers, which featured the POWs and the magnificent Italian Chapel. The old men were rather quiet and subdued to begin with, but soon they were seeing themselves and friends as young men in the photographs. One old man tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him. He pointed to a young man with Hollywood film star good looks standing by a home-made billiards table in one of the photos and then pointed to himself. “Me!” he said, “And I am still a good billiards player.”
Another wonderful happening during their visit to our exhibition was when one man recognized a cigarette lighter that he had made. They made many beautiful things, both as gifts and to sell locally. Many of these lovely things are on display in the 20th Century Gallery of the Orkney Museum (Covid 19 restrictions permitting).
I met Gino again in 2014, at the launch of a proposed film project called ‘The Melted Heart’, written by the Italian translator, writer and actor, Inga Sempel. He was joined by members of the Chiocchetti family, as well as members of the Palumbi family – the man responsible for the metal work in the Italian Chapel. He was so full of life and fun, it was a real pleasure to meet him again. When my wife, Rhonda, and I started our own website, Orkneyology.com, I had thought of asking Gino to write something. It then occurred to me that I had been given an account of Gino’s time as a POW, which Inga had translated into English. I was able to get his address through mutual friends and wrote to ask his permission to publish it. He agreed immediately.
Coriolano ‘Gino’ Caprara died in his sleep last weekend. My thoughts and love go out to his family, especially his daughter Linda, who has been so kind and helpful in publishing his memoirs online. While Gino came to Orkney in the cold depth of winter in 1942 as an enemy, when he left in the summer of 1944 he went as a friend. Such is the way of war. He was a gentleman who I was honoured to have known, for his boundless enthusiasm, humour and kindness. There is still one surviving Italian POW from Camp 60, Lamb Holm, but he wishes to be left in peace and not to talk about his experience. I have always respected that and not tried to contact him. Everyone’s experiences are different and it is quite understandable that he wishes to let the past remain there.
My thanks to Orkney Library & Archive for the photos of the Barriers and the James Sinclair collection for the POW photos. Thanks also to Gino Caprara, Inga Sempel and Clair Louttit for their photos and to Orkneyology.com.