Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Michelangelo Centre

It had been his dream for a dozen years or more – an opulent function centre in the heart of Hamilton, a dazzling extravaganza of imported sculptures and marble floors, fountains, hand painted murals in the fresco style, and 60 crystal chandeliers. Recapturing the splendor of 15th century Rome and the Renaissance, the centre would also reflect the twin loves of its creator, Giuseppe Risicato, - his Sicilian home, and immortal Italian artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Marble floors, golden columns and an imported replica of Michelangelo’s David in the foyer of 
The Michelangelo Centre, Hamilton 1985
Photograph by Giuseppe Risicato, from the collection of Elisa Sandrone

The Centre, on the corner of Beaumont and Cleary Streets, was opened on Friday 23 August, 1985 by Australia’s Foreign Minister Bill Hayden. A mural painted by Giuseppe, based on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, [1] was unveiled by Mr Hayden.

Guiseppe Risicato putting finishing touches to the mural The Creation of Adam, in the lead up to the opening of The Michelangelo Centre, Hamilton 1985
Photograph: Ken Robson/Fairfax Syndication

The opening was a lavish event for more than 200 guests, who feasted on whole roast pig, lamb, pheasants, turkey and fresh fruit. They drank imported Italian wines and champagne served by toga clad ‘Romans.’ The Hunter Orchestra and an Italian band entertained guests, and $10,000 was raised for the Orchestra.

An abundance of food for a function at The Michelangelo Centre, Hamilton 1985
Photograph by Giuseppe Risicato, from the collection of Elisa Sandrone

For engaged couples, it was the height of style to stage their wedding reception in the Michelangelo Centre.

Paula and Luigi Manzi celebrated their marriage in The Michelangelo Centre
on 1 March, 1986
Photograph courtesy of Paula Manzi

Bridal table at The Michelangelo Centre, Hamilton 1985
Photograph by Giuseppe Risicato, from the collection of Elisa Sandrone

At receptions, cocktails would served in the foyer, and the menu offered was unabashed Italian – antipasto, a seafood course, followed by two more courses, and dessert. The main course featured several options including chicken baked in a champagne sauce served with potato, champignons and peas; stuffed pork fillets or veal sautéed in wine and cream.

After dessert of cassata, spumoni, trifle or fruit salad, a tray of assorted cream cakes was served 
Photograph by Giuseppe Risicato, from the collection of Elisa Sandrone

Eighteen months later, by December 1986, the Centre was in deep trouble.

The owner of the building, Remo Bortolus, took possession of The Michelangelo Centre from Giuseppe Risicato on 3 December, 1986. Rent on the premises was reported to be five months in arrears, and the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs had begun investigating complaints from people who had paid deposits of up to $600 for planned functions. An application had been lodged in the NSW Supreme Court for the winding up of Giuseppe’s company, Don Beppino Pastifico Pty Ltd. [2]

How did the grand vision of Giuseppe Risicato come to this?

The story is a sad one, even tragic.

Giuseppe was born at the end of the Great War, in 1918. His home town was Vizzini, in the province of Catania, in Sicily.

Wash Day in Vizzini, Sicily
Painting by Giuseppe Risicato, from Risicato’s Sicilian Cookbook [3]
Courtesy of Professor David Frost

His passion for art became evident at an early age, and at 14 he became a student of the famous Italian artist Professor Messina. He had a particular flair for religious art. World War II disrupted his career path, and he spent time in France and Switzerland, returning to Italy after the war ended. Employed by Pellegrini and Co. he began restoring statues and refurbishing the art in Catholic churches.

In 1948 Giuseppe came to Australia where he continued his work for Pellegrini in Catholic churches, schools and convents in country towns in eastern NSW, and in Queensland. On occasion, he would paint a mural such as one for St Mary’s Church in Casino. [4]  From time to time, he held exhibitions of his paintings.

At some point Giuseppe must have decided to stay in Australia, setting up his own business.

With his wife Zilla, Giuseppe established himself in Hamilton, opening Giuseppe’s Photographic Studio at 52 Beaumont Street. Many Hamilton families have beautiful family and wedding portraits taken by Giuseppe, often against a backdrop of the white staircase in his studio.

His interest broadened to fashion photography, and in 1960 he founded the Giuseppe Risicato International School of Modelling in Newcastle. He was a member of the Miss Australia Advisory Committee for 18 years, and became the official Miss Australia photographer. Generous at heart, Giuseppe undertook fund raising for children with cerebral palsy.

When Giuseppe met former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at a function in Cessnock in the early 1970s, he was impressed by Mr Whitlam’s knowledge and understanding of Italy. After the Government’s dismissal in 1975, which affected Giuseppe deeply, he painted Mr Whitlam.

Gough Whitlam standing in front of a portrait ‘Il Padrino’ (The Godfather) by Giuseppe Risicato
The painting  once hung on the wall of the Don Peppino Italian Restaurant in Merewether
Photograph: Allan Jolly/Fairfax Syndication

The restaurant’s success led Giuseppe to The Michelangelo Centre, and a tiny pastificio, tucked around the corner in Cleary Street, selling Newcastle’s first fresh pasta.

When Giuseppe painted the murals on the walls of the Centre, he was 67. In a Monday Profile feature in the Newcastle Herald a month before the opening, he told journalist Eric Aubert that even though he was working from 7 am to 11 pm to get the ambitious murals completed, he loved every minute of it. To quote Giuseppe:

‘Art has been my life.

‘Without it my life would be empty. It is something that I love to do, so the time I spend on it is not really work.’ [5]

It was when Giuseppe was explaining to his interviewer how helpful and welcoming he’d found Australians in his early years, that things began to go badly wrong.

Giuseppe said he couldn’t understand ‘foreigners who say they are not accepted by Australians.’ He continued:

‘I soon realized that I didn’t want to return to live in Italy…the majority of my friends are Australians. Australians have always been friendly, honest people but in Italy, about 95% of the people are crooked.’

It was the last seven words of this quote that created a furore in the Italian/Australian community in Newcastle.

The Consular Agent of Italy, Emilio Penzo, wrote to the Newcastle Herald that his office had received ‘literally thousands of phone calls’ protesting the statement and the hurt and insult it conveyed. The Newcastle Herald printed letters from other irate Italians, who wondered if Mr Risicato included Newcastle’s Italian community in his ‘sweeping statement’. Italian-Australians still had relatives in Italy, and some felt his comments reflected badly on them all. One letter writer to the Newcastle Herald was annoyed that ‘taxpayer’s money’ had been used to bring Mr Hayden to Newcastle to open the Centre.

Giuseppe must have been utterly devastated by this response. He would not have been the first interviewee to confide a little carelessly to a journalist; nor would he be the first to claim he had been ‘taken out of context.’

Some of Giuseppe’s anguish is expressed in a letter he wrote to friend Peter Sandrone, seeking to explain himself more clearly.

‘This disaster …has been blown out of all proportion …I in all my sincerity have been victimised (for) a mistake made by someone else…

‘There is no point to degrade the land where you were born because you automatically degrade yourself….

‘Dear Peter, I would not have created (the Michelangelo Centre) if I was not proud of my country or my people.’ [6]

Ricotta Street Light and Shadow (Vizzini)
Painting by Giuseppe Risicato, from Risicato’s Sicilian Cookbook
Courtesy of Professor David Frost

When a letter writer to the Newcastle Herald called for an apology, Giuseppe wrote to the newspaper, explaining:

‘I too am Italian, I have a family in Italy, and I faced the same hurt and shock that (other) Italians did when I read how this comment was reported in the newspaper.

‘My comment was a comment on the economic situation in Italy, where a large percentage, perhaps 95%, of the unemployed youth are forced to turn to crime in order to survive because they do not receive unemployment benefits like Australian youth.

‘It was not a comment made about 95% of the whole Italian population. Once again, I would like to apologise for any hurt and embarrassment that the report may have caused.’ [7]

At the end of Giuseppe’s letter, was a note from the Editor:

It is acknowledged that there was a breakdown in communication between Mr Risicato and the Herald’s reporter.’ – Editor.

It would prove to be too late. Although the opening of the Centre went ahead, with even more guests than were planned for, and bookings flowed, the damage had been done. While younger generations were happy to enjoy the stunning facility for their functions, not so some of their parents. They had been insulted, and would not easily forgive Giuseppe.

The dream was over within 18 months. Quite apart from the financial losses, the personal pain and humiliation of the failure of The Michelangelo Centre for this creative, sensitive man would have been unimaginable.

Yet at some point, Guiseppe must have picked himself up and begun again. His love of art, photography and food is skillfully blended in a cookbook co-authored with his sister Palmina Risicato, with Professor David Frost and Christine Mangala.

As well as family Sicilian recipes, and beautifully photographed dishes, the book contains Sicilian paintings by Giuseppe completed on a return visit home to Vizzini.

Risicato’s Sicilian Cookery
Giuseppe and Palmina Risicato, with Christine Mangala and David Frost 1998, Aquila Books, Enmore, Australia [8]

Why did The Michelangelo Centre fail?

Perhaps the business model of a function centre with a singular appeal was at fault. Very likely the interior was over capitalized, and recovery of money invested in costly marble, sculptures and fittings impossible to recover. It would not have helped that the main base of potential customers was antagonised at the outset. This would have wreaked damage that was difficult to reverse.

Was it one of those factors, or did each of them contribute in part to the shattering of Giuseppe’s dream?

It would be a grave error to view Giuseppe’s life in terms of this one, unsuccessful venture. The fact that he embarked upon it at the age of 67 tells us so much about this man – his vision, his passion, his capacity to make his dream a reality, his skills as interior designer, artist and photographer.

A pharmacy now occupies the site that was once the Michelangelo Centre. No doubt a shop fit out of plywood and paint has covered up the murals on the walls and the marble floor – if they are still there. I wonder if, one day in the distant future, tradesmen might uncover a remnant of this little corner of Renaissance Italy, and wonder what on earth they’ve stumbled upon?

Perhaps Giuseppe’s son Silvio Risicato, who has long made his home in Italy, knows what happened to those treasures.

Giuseppe had kept eight large colour photographs of The Michelangelo Centre. These he passed to friend and Hamilton resident Elisa Sandrone with the words:

‘You are the one to take care of these.’

Giuseppe passed away in 2011, aged 91. His Hamilton home was sold.

It is with the help of Elisa and her daughter Luana Sandrone that this story has been reconstructed.

The Michelangelo Centre is part of Hamilton’s history. So too is its creator. This story honours the life and work of a richly talented Italian/Australian. Giuseppe Risiciato dared to put his heart on the line, to stand out from the crowd, and take a risk.

Street view of The Michelangelo Centre, 60 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 1985
Photograph by Giuseppe Risicato, from the collection of Elisa Sandrone


Thank you to Elisa Sandrone and Luana Sandrone for sharing this story.

Elisa and Luana Sandrone, 2015

[1]  The mural was Giuseppe Risicato’s replication of a Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. In newspaper articles at the time of the opening of the Centre, this mural is referred to as The Creation of Man, The Birth of Man, or God Creating Adam. My research suggests it aligns most closely with Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and titles used locally somehow became confused.
[2] Newcastle Herald, Tuesday December 16, 1986
[3] Giuseppe and Palmina Risicato, with Christine Mangala and David Frost 1998, Risicato’s Sicilian Cookery, Aquila Books, Enmore, Australia
[4] ‘Young artist finds Casino art conscious’. Northern Star, Lismore, Wednesday 15 December, 1954
[5]Love of Art and Australia,’ Eric Aubert, Newcastle Herald Monday July 22, 1985
[6]  Letter from Giuseppe Risicato to Peter Sandrone, 25 July 1985. From the personal collection of Elisa Sandrone.
[7]  Letters, Newcastle Herald, July 27, 1985.
[8] The date of printing of Risicato’s Sicilian Cookery is stated as 1988. However, it appears this was a typographical error and the date of publication was 1998. Permission to reproduce two of Giuseppe Risicato's paintings that appear in the cookery book has been granted by Professor David Frost, Cambridge. 


Ruth Cotton said...

When I contacted Professor David Frost now in Cambridge, UK (formerly of UoN) to get permission to reproduce paintings from Risicato's Sicilian Cookery, he replied:

'I am delighted to hear you are writing a story about Guiseppe - a very close friend (though he got cross with me when I returned to Cambridge) and an extraordinary personality. He often figures in my conversation and even with the chef at our local pub, whose pizzas are the only ones that bear any comparison with Giuseppe's.

'My wife Christine Mangala helped lay out the food that Guiseppe photographed, I grew fat testing the food - and the book was a collaborative effort … Guiseppe was 80+ when we knew him.'

Unknown said...

I think that Gloria MacKinnon may well be able to assist you with further information about this building, and what happened to it between its days as a function centre and its current life as a Discount Chemist. Gloria's shop "Anne's Glory Box " was located there from some time in the early 1990s. She sold craft materials and ran classes from the building.At that time it was still all marble on the floors, and some of the elaborate plaster columns and chandeliers were still in place. Sadly, I think the murals were painted over. In the late 1990s, or early 2000s, the shop moved to a smaller premises in Cleary Street - all part of the same building, and the Beaumont Street section became an Antique Store. I believe that Gloria was the owner of the building for at least some of this time.
Anne's Glory Box still has an on-line store.
Ann'e Glory box

Ruth Cotton said...

Thank you Robyn Greenwell, I will follow up Anne's Glory Box.