Joseph Dominick Phillip Oddenino, known locally as a "hobo painter" with a taste for wine, wandered into this small village after the Civil War, trailing, according to the mythology that sprang up around him, about 200 cats.
"He is a very eccentric character," proclaimed The Culpeper Exponent of the mysterious Italian in 1887. "He occupies a room where he cooks, eats and sleeps . . . he has always been very reticent, and over him seems to hang the veil of mystery . . . . It is now rumored that the old man is a count . . . banished from Italy."
Apparently undeterred by this "veil of mystery," the Mitchells Presbyterian Church in Culpeper County commissioned Oddenino in 1888 to paint the interior walls of its sanctuary. The church recently restored the paintings -- done in the trompe l'oeil (French for "trick the eye") style -- and the Oddenino legend flared anew.
"The story that had always been told to me is that Oddenino was just passing through," said Dorothy A. Faulconer, a parishioner for the past 44 years who was chairman of a drive that raised $170,000 to restore the church. "But lately there has been more interest in the artist himself."
"It's hard to determine what is truth and what is myth" in the life of Oddenino, said the Rev. Arthur D. Thomas, the current pastor of the church. "But I tend to believe there is a lot of truth in the legends."
In 1862, he left his family behind in Northern Italy near the town of Turin and came to the United States, according to research by his descendants. As for the rumors that he was a count by birth and that he was banished from Italy, family members today say they are unaware of both distinctions.
"He obviously was an eccentric and loved being an eccentric in Piedmont, Virginia, which -- let's face it -- is not the center of the artistic world then or now," said Richard Guy Wilson, a professor of architecture at the University of Virginia. "In some of these little towns he must have been a rather strange figure."
He is said to have had a long full beard, a habit of sleeping in the church gallery and a fondness for wine that did not fit well with the austere habits of the Presbyterian congregation of the time.
The drinking may have led to his early dismissal, according to Wilson, because much of the fresco at the base of the walls was left unfinished, only to be touched up later by an amateur.
But some believe the drinking may have been inspirational. What he produced turned the interior of the plain little church by the side of a sorghum field into an Old World cathedral -- at least at first glance.
The structures are all painted in dry fresco. And although the work is flawed in spots -- a rounded arch is painted in a corner, for example -- it has drawn attention as a rare surviving example of wall painting.
"The murals are unique, some of the very finest trompe l'oeil paintings in the United States," said Wilson, who has written an article on Oddenino's work for the December issue of Antiques magazine.
Spiral and rounded Corinthian columns adorn the walls, framing pointed Gothic arches and rounded classical ones. An elegant Renaissance-style cornice runs the perimeter.
Even a sober man might swear for a moment that the columns and arches exist, but the walls and ceiling are actually flat.
"You walk into this church in the middle of almost nowhere and there is this attempt to transport you 5,000 miles into the Old World," said Wilson. "He created an almost Italian Catholic historical environment in which a Protestant service takes place."
By the time he died in 1913 in the nearby town of Aroda in Madison County, Oddenino had painted several other churches and private homes in the Piedmont area as well as the Culpeper County courtroom. Except for the Mitchells church, however, most of Oddenino's other work has been painted over and lost.
Three years ago, Thomas and his 100-member congregation undertook an ambitious fund-raising drive to rescue the church, which over the years had developed major structural faults that threatened the dry frescos.
In what Thomas called a "venture of faith" the church raised $170,000 to repair the crumbling ceiling and buckling walls and floor. In some spots, only the rug was keeping parishioners from falling through the rotted floorboards. Termites had ravaged wooden beams throughout the 103-year-old church.
"It was in terrible shape and the plaster was compressing on the inside," said Henry J. Browne, a restoration architect who led the rescue effort.
Despite initial fears that some of Oddenino's work might be lost in the restoration, Browne said the project was a complete success. Some of the artist's previously unnoticed murals were actually discovered in the church entry.
Browne left the project impressed with Oddenino's most ambitious work.
"To [the congregation of the time] he was just a wine-bibber . . . but I don't depreciate that at all," he said. "The man knew what he was doing. It has a great deal of artistic value."