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Melocco, Pietro Olivo (Peter) (1883–1961)

by Catherine Kevin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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MELOCCO BROTHERS: Pietro Olivo  (1883-1961), Antonio Nicholas (1886-1946) and Galliano Eugenio (1897-1971), mosaic manufacturers, were born at Toppo, Udine, Friuli, in northern Italy, sons of Giovanni Battista Melocco, dairy farmer, and his wife Teresa, née Fabris. Born on 18 March 1883, Pietro was sent at the age of 10 to the United States of America to live with his father's three brothers in New York. He trained as a mosaic artist and marble worker under their tutelage and at the Cooper Union technical college in New York. In August 1904 he became an American citizen. He later claimed that he had been disillusioned by corruption in the New York building industry, and a lantern slide show about Sydney inspired him to take his skills to Australia. After returning briefly to Italy he reached Sydney in the Gneisenau on 6 May 1908 and went to live at Forest Lodge.

Peter (as he was known in Australia) worked with G. E. Crane & Son for six months, then set up his own workshop at Redfern. Learning that Cardinal Moran was importing mosaics from Italy for the floor of the chapel of Irish saints at St Mary's Cathedral, in 1910 Melocco submitted designs for half the quoted price. Moran agreed to employ him on the condition that shamrocks be included.

Antonio, born on 17 December 1886, and Galliano, born on 6 March 1897, came to Sydney in the Seidlitz in June 1910. A skilled artist and craftsman who had trained in mosaic work in Paris, Tony worked alongside Peter in St Mary's. Galli finished his schooling as a boarder at Knox College before becoming a marine engineer and working in vessels trading to New Zealand and Canada. On 24 December 1920 at the Sacred Heart Church, Mosman, Peter married with Catholic rites Giuseppa Vittoria Asioli, a Sydney-born seamstress. He was naturalized in February 1925. On a visit to Italy, Tony married Victoria Pellarossa, a schoolteacher, on 19 June 1922 at San Giorgio, Udine. In 1928 he too was naturalized.

The 1920s were a boom time for the Meloccos, whose work was included in many of Sydney's picture theatres, including the Capitol. Melocco Bros Ltd was registered in 1925, becoming Melocco Bros Pty Ltd in 1927; the firm had moved to Annandale the previous year and employed up to two hundred people. The brothers' mother and sisters had migrated from Italy and settled in a residence at Annandale built for the family by Peter.

Galli, who had been naturalized in 1923, joined the family business in 1926 and opened a division in Brisbane in the late 1920s. At Fortitude Valley on 29 October 1932 he married Eva Letitia Maud Bell, a stenographer, and next year returned to Sydney with her and their first child. Galli was responsible for building up the construction and concrete aspects of the business. In 1941 he introduced ready-mixed concrete to Australia. His children were raised in the Presbyterian Church of their mother's family. Peter and Tony sent their children to Catholic schools. Although knowledgeable about Celtic art and renowned for his association with St Mary's Cathedral, Peter was not devout—on Sundays he waited outside church while his family attended Mass.

In 1928, as part of his work for the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales in Martin Place (now occupied by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia), Tony had used the Italian technique of scagliola—an imitation marble made from keen cement—which became the Meloccos' trade secret. After travelling in Italy and the U.S.A. investigating the process, he spent many hours refining it in the Sydney workshop. From 1930 the brothers also ran Road Construction Ltd. During the Depression their businesses were vilified in Smith's Weekly for allegedly denying work to Australians. The Meloccos claimed, however, that they insisted on their mainly Friulani Italian employees speaking English and that their preference was based on skills rather than ethnicity. Despite his respectability as a businessman and board member of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Peter was interned on the outbreak of war with Italy, on 11 June 1940, partly because of his membership of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Sydney. After a few days in Long Bay gaol and five weeks in an internment camp at Orange, he was released on 14 July, reputedly after the intervention of Kim Beazley senior and Arthur Calwell. Tony's son Albert served with the Australian Imperial Force.

The postwar construction boom in Sydney benefited the Meloccos, whose marble and terrazzo work also featured in corporate construction in Canberra. Tony suffered from Parkinson's disease and died of cerebrovascular disease on 27 June 1946 in a private hospital at Normanhurst. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. Peter and his craftsmen completed work on the mosaic floor of the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral in 1958. He died on 18 July 1961 at his Vaucluse home and was buried in Rookwood cemetery with Catholic rites. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him. That year the company became a subsidiary of Blue Metal Industries Ltd, of which Galli became a director. He died on 26 December 1971 in hospital at Hornsby and was buried with Catholic rites in the Garden of Calvary cemetery, Rouse Hill. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.

It has been estimated that about 90 per cent of the marble, scagliola and terrazzo work in Sydney between 1910 and 1965 was undertaken by the Meloccos and their studio. They designed and crafted the interior of Boomerang, Elizabeth Bay, and were responsible for the mosaic work in the Anzac Memorial, Hyde Park. The frieze and mosaic in the ticket office at Central Station, the Tasman map mosaic floor in the vestibule of the State Library of New South Wales and decorations in the State Theatre are some of their other best-known surviving work.

Select Bibliography

  • Melocco Brothers Fiftieth Anniversary Calendar (State Library of New South Wales)
  • C. Kevin and R. Pesman, A History of Italian Settlement in New South Wales (Syd, 1999)
  • P. Genovesi and W. Musolino (eds), In Search of the Australian Italian Into the New Millennium (Melb, 2000), p 377
  • Italian Historical Society Journal, vol 10, no 1, Jan-June 2002, p 4
  • series A1, items 1923/8262, 1924/27314 and 1928/6394, series A367, item C78210, series A12217, items L3955 and L8392 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Catherine Kevin, 'Melocco, Pietro Olivo (Peter) (1883–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/melocco-pietro-olivo-peter-13093/text23687, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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