The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.






The Italian captain who bought Pulau Bukom …

10 06 2017

Except perhaps for sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose magnificent work adorns the old Supreme Court, little is known of Singapore’s many connections with the Italian community – except perhaps of the community’s many culinary offerings we are now able to find. It may therefore come as a surprise that the connections do go well back –  even before Italy as an entity existed and that Singapore’s Pulau Bukom was once owned by an Italian man.

Explore Singapore’s surprising Italian connections at The Italian Connection at the Fullerton Hotel.

Pulau Bukom is perhaps better known to us as the island on which Singapore’s successful journey into the oil refining trade, had its beginnings. Shell, who built and operate the refinery, has long been associated with the island. 20 acres of it was bought by the company in 1891 for the purpose of kerosene storage. The transaction netted the island’s owner,  Capitano Giovanni Gaggino a tidy profit. Gaggino, an Italian master mariner, shipowner and adventurer, purchased the island for $500 in 1884 with the intention to supply freshwater to shipping. His purchase of “Freshwater Island” as it was informally known as, was one of many of Gaggino’s ventures here. He would spend 42 of his 72 years in Singapore from 1876 and passed on in 1918, whilst on a trip to Batavia. Capitano Gaggino was also known to have authored several books, one of which was the very first Malay-Italian dictionary.

Capitano Giovanni Gaggino, who once owned Pulau Bukom (source: Reproduction of “La Vallata del Yang-Tse-Kiang” by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Open source).

Even before Gaggino, Italians – many of whom were involved in shipping and trade, made landfall. One rather famous Italian, the renowned botanist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Odoardo Beccari, used Singapore as a stepping stone to his well documented explorations of the region’s forests. Credited with the discovery of the giant corpse flower, Beccari also documented a month he spent in March 1866 at the “wooden bungalow” of the Italian Consul, Signor Giovanni Leveson (a.k.a. Edward John Leveson) on the Johor Strait. The bungalow is thought to be where Woodlands in Singapore’s north got its name from.

Odoardo Beccari (source: Sailko, Creative Commons License 3.0).

Like Capitano Gaggino, Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore. He arrived from Bangkok in 1921 and remained – except for a period of internment during the Second World War (as a citizen of Italy, one of the Axis states, he was interned in Australia from 1941 to 1945), until his retirement in 1956 . He worked tirelessly and amassed a huge portfolio of work that began with the second Ocean Building on which he provided the decorative artificial stone facings.

Composite image of Rodolfo Nolli and the main (south) entrance of the GPO. Two sets of works – the coat of arms and a pair of flambeau compositions, went missing during the Japanese Occupation (source of images: National Archives of Singapore).

The majestic Ocean Building did not only launch Nolli’s career in Singapore, it also spelled a new era for the bund along Collyer Quay. Before the end of a decade, three even grander edifices would be added: the Union Building, a second generation Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, and the grandest of them all, the Fullerton Building. The additions, all of which Nolli had work done on, provided the bund with an appearance that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment.

Ocean Building in the 1920s (Source: W. A. Laxton, The Straits Steamship Fleets)..

Built to house the General Post Office, several municipal offices as well as the exclusive Singapore Club, the Fullerton was decorated with some of Nolli’s more exquisite pieces of the era. Two precast sculptural works: a pair of flambeau compositions and a royal coat of arms – symbols of enlightenment and empire – adorned the main entrance to the GPO. Sadly, these disappeared during the Japanese Occupation and all that can now be seen of Nolli’s contributions in the building is the magnificent plasterwork of the barrel vaulted ceiling of the Singapore Club’s Billiard Hall. The hall is now the Straits Room of The Fullerton Hotel. The hotel has occupied the Fullerton Building since 2001.

The Straits Room is now where the only works of Rodolfo Nolli’s in the Fullerton Building to have survived can be found.

The historic waterfront, 1932, to which Nolli added decorative finishing touches, and the waterfront today (source: top image, Singapore Philatelic Museum; lower image, Jerome Lim).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, whose works are also found in Bangkok – where he spent 7 years of his life, in parts of Malaysia and also in Brunei, was bestowed with a knighthood by the Italian Crown in 1925. This is an honour that another Italian gentleman connected with the Fullerton Building, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, has also received. Cavaliere Viterale, the GM of Fullerton Heritage, is a well respected member of the hospitality industry and it was for his contributions to it that he received the honour. The building, which was opened in June 1928, celebrates its 89th anniversary this month.

Nuns of the Canossian order speaking to Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale at the exhibition opening. The order, which has origins in Italy, first arrived in Singapore in 1894 (source: The Fullerton Heritage).

More on the Italian Community, including on an Italian order of missionaries whose work in tending to those in need continues to this very day, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, can be discovered at an exhibition that I curated with Zinke Aw, “The Italian Connection”. The exhibition, The Fullerton Hotel’s East Garden Foyer, runs until 18 July 2017. Information on the exhibition can also be found at The Fullerton Heritage’s website and through the official press release.

 

 

 








%d bloggers like this: