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The life of Guido Nincheri Canada’s Michelangelo

“I’m tired of people coming back from Europe and telling me how beautiful the churches are. We’ve forgotten what we’ve got here.” mac1996 Between 1915 and 1973 the Italian-Canadian painter Guido Nincheri devoted his life to producing stained glass windows and frescoes for more than one hundred churches across North America.

Although honoured in Montreal’s three hundred and fiftieth anniversary as a builder of the city, few Canadians know of the identity of this craftsman. The purpose of this paper is to uncover the story of this unrecognized artist and evaluate the significance of his contributions to Canadian society.

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Born in Tuscan, in the small town of Prato, in Italy, on Sept. 29th,1885, Guido Nincheri was born to a wealthy textile broker, Pietro, and his wife, Maria. Nincheri, inspired by his passion for the arts, decided not to maintain his father’s textile company and left Prato when he was eighteen to study architectural design and art composition. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts in Florence, he continued to do post-graduate work from 1908 to 1912. In his years of post-graduate work, he was commissioned to do several murals in the Palazzo Nanni and in the salon of Marco Vecchio.

He received recognition, by these commissions, and won numerous medals in competitions for architectural design and artistic compositions. On April 21st,1913, Guido married his wife Giulia, in Florence. In December of that year, Guido and Giulia decided to take their honeymoon in Argentina, only to be stranded in Boston because of the outbreak of World War One.

With no way to return home, Guido turned to French Canadian Montreal. In Montreal, he quickly landed a job as a stage prop painter in the renowned opera house Chateau Dufresne. The opera house still stands at the corner of Berbooke St. E and Pie-IX Blvd. While working at the opera house in 1926, Nincheri attempted his first fresco painting at the Chapel Socurs Des Noms de Jesus et Marie and agreed to defer his fee there, for two years. In this fresco, Guido depicted one hundred and twenty well-known biblical stories. His excellent craftsmanship eventually led to him being recommended by the clergy in various parishes and he soon was being shuttled back and forth between Montreal and small towns throughout Quebec, during the 1920s.

By portraying these biblical stories through stained glass windows and frescoes, Guido Nincheri created a unique Canadian style in Roman Catholic churches throughout North America. He devised a new method of fresco painting and still used the traditional British and Italian painting styles. Drawing inspirations from pre-Raphaelite artists, Nincheri filled his works with minute details and mythological subjects. Guido would not only include biblical portraits in his frescoes but would include in his illustrations bishops, cardinals, local priests and parish images. As his daughter in-law Elf stated, ” Guido would interupt his wife in the middle of preparing dinner . “Hold still. I need to do a study of your hands”. Guido Nincheri used live models to portray his work and when required to paint two devils for a fresco in Saint Anne Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, he asked a nun to arrange a sketching session with the more mischievous boys in her class. Also in the same church he turned his own self portrait into Saint Peter when he could not find a suitable model. After the sketching of a model Guido Nincheri would prepare for the painting of the fresco.

Fresco painting is highly labour intensive where pigments are dissolved in water and applied to lime plaster. Pigments become an integral part of the wall, forming a fine, transparent, vitreous layer on its surface. Fresco painting is only suitable for dry climates and technically demanding. Guido Nincheri had to follow a certain number of steps when preparing and painting a fresco. After the initial sketching was completed, Guido had to carefully brush and dampen the wall. After the wall was thoroughly worked over, a layer of plaster containing slaked lime and inert filler such as sand or ground marble was applied. Guido would have to layout vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of the composition on the plastered wall with cords pulled tight and pressed hard against the plaster. The rest of the layout would have to be drawn out to enable him to make any necessary corrections. Then the design was brushed in a piece by piece to serve as a guide for the painting of the fresco. This process was called squaring.

The pigments available to the painter were limited because of the high alkaline compounds in the lime. Fresco colours included vine black, black earth, ivory black, red orchises (particularly those rich in hematite), cinnabar (which is mixed with white to give a pink flesh colour); yellow ochre, yellow earth, Naples yellow, green earth, umber, raw and burnt sienna and finally, smalt. These pigments had to be finely ground in water and could be mixed on a palette because in drying they altered in tone. A whole range of these colours would be prepared before the painting, in sufficient quantities, because one batch of colours altered in intensity and tone from another.

The colours would be kept in jars of water called a mustache. While the work proceeded, the colours for each job would be taken from the jars as necessary. Once the design had been traced and the paint prepared, work could begin on the painting and could continue for several hours, depending on the climate and the season. The best time to begin painting was two or three hours after the plaster was applied because the plaster would not yet have the chance to form a crust of calcium carbonate which would make it difficult to dissolve the pigments.

If the plaster did begin to harden, the painter would spray it with water and it would last for another hour. Unpainted plaster was removed and chipped off to provide for future painting. Any areas that could not be painted in the fresco were done later when the composition was completely finished and the plaster thoroughly dried. These included colours incompatible with the fresco and figurative motifs, that overlapped several images (lanes, festoons, ribbons, etc). Fresco painting took up a considerable amount of time and did not tolerate mistakes. Guido Nincheri would spend years on a project, some even lasting for more than a decade.

This style of fresco painting was valued within the Roman Catholic community in North America because of its European heritage. However, in the eyes of the clergy in the 1960’s, Guido Nincheri was simply a tradesman. They paid him and he painted. This perception by the clergy of his work led to a controversy in the Florentine artist’s life. In 1930 Guido was commissioned to do a fresco in Montreal’s Little Italy. Montreal, at that time, was known as the city of a hundred church bells. European artists and artisans were in high demand because of the expansion of several new Catholic parishes. One of these new parishes was Madonna Della Difesa where Guido was hired to paint, upon its ceiling, the biggest fresco project of its time. The church’s committee and the Archbishop of Montreal wanted to honour the Lateran Treaty of 1929, by painting a portrait of the founder of the treaty, Belloiosuea Mussolini, in the church’s main hall.

Mussolini had officially established the Vatican City as a separate and sovereign state. He also authorized Roman Catholicism as the country’s only recognized religion. In return, the Papacy accepted the seizure by Italy of the Papal States in 1860 and of Rome 10 years later. Mussolini was very popular for the joining of the state of Italy and the Roman Catholic religion, but as time went on, he became affiliated with Hitler. When Canada declared war on Germany it also declared war on Italy and any of its sympathizers. Unfortunately, Guido Nincheri was associated with Mussolini through the painting that he was forced to portray in the church of Madonna Della Difesa.

His son ” George recalled, how his father had been loath to paint the dictator. He kept dragging his feet and putting it off by taking on other projects.” But one evening, the parish priest, along with three churchwardens, dropped by Nincheri’s home for a little chat. “They threatened to tear up the contract if Father didn’t paint Mussolini as ordered.”.

Nincheri knew that this monument of the bald fascist leader would come back to haunt him but as an artist, he couldn’t afford to let the fresco be wrecked by refusing to paint Mussolini. His prediction turned out to be right and Guido Nincheri was arrested by the RCMP for being an expected fascist sympathizer. Up upon his scaffolding, while placing the finishing touches on his delicate work at a new project at Baie Comeus Ste Emile Church, he was arrested by two R.C.M.P. agents. Labelled as a fascist sympathizer, Guido was placed in a prisoner of war camp at Petawawa, outside of Pembroke.

Later, after his imprisonment, three more RCMP agents showed up at his studio searching for any documents that might prove their theory of Guido being a fascist supporter. Giulia Guido’s wife was outraged at her husband’s imprisonment and the accusations of the government. Giulia, an accomplished seamstress, who actively contributed to Guido’s business by making the costumes for his models, set out to free her husband. Giulia and Guido’s assistant, Matthew Martirano, searched Guido’s study for the original document for the controversial ceiling.

After finding the original outline, for what Italians now call Mussolini’s Church, which didn’t include the sketch of Mussolini, she contacted a Montreal judge who enlisted the help of Ernst Lapointe, the former justice minister of Canada, After three months in jail, Guido was released but placed on probation where he couldn’t leave Montreal and had to report to the R.C.M.P. every week. As the Second World War progressed and Mussolini became more inextricably linked with Hitler, the R.C.M.P. walked into the church and hung a blank canvas over the portrait of the dictator. The sheet stayed there until the mid-forties.

After the war, although hurt by the accusations of being a fascist, Guido Nincheri still didn’t abandon his Florentine style and continued to produce frescoes.

One of his most renowned monuments was the Saint-Leon De Westmount church. This church was named after Pope Leo First who ruled from 440 to 461 AD. These decades were in a period of social and political upheaval during the decline of the Roman Empire. One of the main figures of this fresco was Pope Leo, who was not only responsible for aiding the people of Rome to fight against Attila the Hun’s armies, but also for reforming the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the dogma of Papel Infallibility.

The church’s Florentine Architecture created a natural setting for Guido Nincheri’s art since he had studied in Florence. In the main hall, the nave, Nincheri painted a series of frescoes depicting angels in heaven, heaven after the Apocalypse and the gates of heaven in the future where St Peter and St Leo await.

At the very center of this fresco, Nincheri created a number of scenes from St John’s book of Revolution. The Eternal Father is illustrated, with the Lamb of God, surrounded by a multitude of angles. Also included are the twenty-four elders and the horsemen of the Apocalypse representing victory, war, pestilence and death.

Above the high Altar, the portrait of Pope St Leo dominates, surrounded by historical figures like Attila Hun and Valentina. Overshadowing him is St Peter and Angles holding the key to heavens gate. Floating above them is a white dove a symbol of God’s Spirit.

The rich interior decorations, particularly the magnificent frescoes that line its vaults, and the stained-glass windows that illuminate the church, were all painted, etched and placed by Guido Nincheri’s hands. The church’s interior design, itself, took Guido 16 years to complete, starting in 1928 and finishing it in 1944. On Sept 26, 1999, on behalf of the Honourable Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Lucienne Robillard, President of the Treasury Board of Canada, recognized Guido for this work and awarded a plaque commemorating his work in the church and its historical significance.

“Here, at Saint-Leon, Guido Nincheri created a remarkable interior decorative programme consisting of architecture, frescoes, stain-glass windows and statues (wood, bronze and stone). The contribution of this architectural jewel to our religious heritage deserves to be recognized,” stated Minister Robillard.

The plaque was placed upon steel in front of the Church of Saint-Leon de Westmount, located at 4311 De Maisonneuve Boulevard, near Victoria Street, Montreal.

He also created many other works in Ontario and the Maritimes, during the 1930s and 1940’s and his reputation crossed the border into the United States. He decorated thirteen churches in Rhode Island and one in Massachusetts. He carried out the artwork for Vancouver’s Holy Rosary Cathedral. In Ontario, he worked on twenty-four churches including Eglise Saint-Michael in Toronto and churches in Hamilton, Windsor, Ottawa and St Peter’s Cathedral, in London.

He did five in New Brunswick, one in Nova Scotia and four in Prince Edward Island. Along with Quebec’s Saint-Leon De Westmount and Madame Della Difesa churches, he produced interior designs for sixty-one other churches in Quebec. Included in these is the Amerindian mission church in Kahnawake.

Nincheri died in Providence, R.I. in 1973, a month before his 87th birthday, He’s buried in Notre Dames des Neiges Cemetery.

In evaluating the contribution of Guido Nincheri’s extensive amount of work to Canadian society, one has to, first of all, realize the high quality of craftsmanship in his work. He has earned many distinctions. In 1933 Pope Pius appointed Nincheri knight-Commander of the Order of Saint-Sylvester, thereby affirming him as one of the great artists of the church.In 1972, he was named Knight of the Republic in Italy. Twenty years later, Nincheri was awarded the posthumous title of Builder of the City of Montreal.

Filipino Salvatore, a historian at Concordia University, states: ” He brought with him, such a vast knowledge of the history of painting, such classic style and such a capacity to harmonize colours and volumes and images, that it is beyond the historical period in which he lived. He is a world-class painter”.

Jean-Claude Marson, who sits on the committee of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board that decides what people, events or buildings are of national significance, when commenting on the placement of the plaque that commemorates the fresco walls, stain glass windows and bronze, wood and stone statues found in the Church of St Leon De Westmount stated that they were a true”masterpiece”. “This plaque is a way to honour and recognize the work of this outstanding and talented artist.”

Guido’s son, George, also gave a speech at the ceremony of the unveiling of the plaque at St Leon’s “It is here in St-Leon’s,” he said, “that my father was in a position to show, in a tangible way, his prolific talent in the field of religious art. Look around you and you will know the man- you will know the artist.”

When thinking about what would cause a person to devote his entire life to produce such a vast amount of work, one has to go beyond the visible aspects of the art, to the inner involvement of the artist. Guido Nincheri was a humble man who was shy about signing his work, and only signed one in five frescoes and one in ten stain-glass windows. He felt that he didn’t need recognition in newspaper articles because his churches were out there for everyone to see.

He wanted his work to express a sense of community where all types of people were involved. “Many of the people in his paintings were parishioners and friends. He’d take one look at you and the next thing you’d know there you would be painted in among the angels and the saints.” He wanted everyone to feel a sense of upliftment whether religious or non-religious and to be a part of a greater thing.

Not only by creating this link from people to people but also producing his work from province to province across Canada Guido Nincheri inspired Canadians from different cultures- not just French Canadians, but also English, American and Native Americans.

An immigrant, who came to Canada with no family ties and no reputation, Guido Nincheri evolved from being simply a craftsman to becoming a national figure who helped build a Canadian community.

Bibliography

Arpin Claude, “Nincheri,” Montreal Gazette, January 9th 1994,sec C1,C4.

Bien, Linda. “Frescoes of Saint Leon-de-Westmount,”n.d.

<http://collections.ic.gc.ca/nincheri/en-fresco-St-Leaon.html> (18 February 1999).

Darren Becker, “Heritage Canada honours church artist,” Montreal Gazette, 27 September 1999, sec A5.

Goodspeed, Rhona. “The Art of Guido Nincheri,” n.d. <http://www.vassar.edu/vietnam/index.html> (8 June 1999).

Gordon, Dick. ” Montreal, Mussolini and a Man Named Guido,”n.d.

<http://www.radio.cbc.ca/programs/thismorning/features/fresco.html > (17 January 2000).

Fisher, Luke. “Joyous hymns of light and colour,” Mcleans, January 8th 1996, 68-69.

The Dictionary of Art, 11th ed., s.v. “Fresco.”

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 57 vol., s.v. “Nincheri.”

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