DELVECCHIO, THOMAS (Tommaso), innkeeper and founder of a natural history museum; b. 1758 on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, son of Pierre Delvecchio and Catherine Buti (Bufi); d. 5 May 1826 in Montreal.
Thomas Delvecchio and his brother Pierre (Pietro), along with the Bonacinas, Rusconis, Doneganis, and Rascos, were among the first Italians to settle in the province of Quebec. These families, which arrived in the late 18th century and for the most part came originally from Lombardy, were probably endowed with the business acumen commonly attributed to people from that region, since they soon carved out a place for themselves in Montreal in trade, the hotel business, and speculation in real estate.
The Delvecchio brothers made their mark in particular as inn- and tavern-keepers. The exact date and the circumstances of their arrival in the colony are not known, but when on 23 Jan. 1797, at Lavaltrie, Lower Canada, Thomas married Thérèse Chevalier, the 15-year-old daughter of innkeeper Michel Chevalier and Marguerite Brault, he gave his age as 38 and identified himself as an innkeeper and resident of Pointe-aux-Trembles (Montreal).
Delvecchio probably settled in Montreal shortly after his marriage. His first child was baptized there in the parish of Notre-Dame in 1799. In 1812 Delvecchio was running an inn on the Place du Vieux-Marché, now the Place Royale. This establishment, which was called the Auberge des Trois-Rois because its façade boasted a large clock with three figures that struck the hours, was one of the most popular in the town.
As a prosperous innkeeper Delvecchio was a respected member of the small Italian community in Montreal. In 1791 he was godfather to one of the children of merchant Carlo Rusconi. Upon Rusconi’s death in 1796 and that of his wife a short time later, Delvecchio became the guardian of their four underage children, a responsibility that he is said to have carried out scrupulously. As another mark of his compatriots’ esteem, in 1800 he was chosen, along with his brother, to serve as Giuseppe Donegani’s executor.
At the end of 1822, perhaps to reinvigorate his establishment at a time when customers were being increasingly attracted to the new market on the Place Jacques-Cartier and reportedly deserting him, Delvecchio announced that he intended to set up a museum of natural curiosities. On 14 Aug. 1824, “after many efforts, expenses, and trips (again lately in the United States),” he announced the opening of the Museo Italiano at No.4, Place du Vieux-Marché. For a sum between 30 sols and one Spanish dollar, based on the number of persons, visitors could admire a large natural history collection of stuffed quadrupeds, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and fish. They could also see wax figures of a South American Indian family and some Philadelphia and Montreal beauties, as well as automatons, musical instruments, and many other curiosities, among them “a lamb with eight legs, a pig with two bodies in its lower part, four ears, and eight legs, and a ram’s head with four horns.” The museum premises were not spacious, but they were well laid out and music was played during the tours. Delvecchio was at pains to point out that nothing to be seen there “is in the slightest degree contrary to morality or decency, so that the most religious persons . . . may see the curiosities without qualms. Smoking will not be permitted in the exhibition hall, and neither indecent speech nor indecent conduct will be allowed.”
This sort of museum – devoted to the arts and sciences as well as to the most varied “curiosities,” the most famous one in North America being Charles Willson Peale’s in Philadelphia – probably appealed to the public. Although the first in Canada, Delvecchio’s museum was not the only one for long. Soon after the Museo Italiano was inaugurated, Pierre Chasseur*’s natural history collection and the museum of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec opened one after the other at Quebec. In 1827 the Natural History Society of Montreal inaugurated its museum.
The Museo Italiano does not appear to have made its founder rich. In a notice dated 20 Jan. 1826 Delvecchio announced that if the public showed no greater interest in it, he was going to close the museum and sell the collections at the start of the navigation season. Strangely enough, the Montreal Herald published this announcement again on 6 May 1826, the day after Delvecchio’s death.
The inventory of Thomas Delvecchio’s estate reveals that the innkeeper was reasonably well off. The assets in his house and museum were worth £1,115, and there was £361 in cash. He also owned a house on Rue Saint-Jacques and two lots on the Place du Vieux-Marché, one having a two-storey house with a vaulted cellar and a shed, the other a three-storey house and stable built in stone. In addition a total of £845 was owing him. The estate went to his wife and four daughters (the couple reportedly had had eight children). In a will drawn up the day before he died, Delvecchio bequeathed £500 to his daughter Marie-Christine in accordance with her marriage contract, and he gave instructions for a like amount to be paid to each of his daughters when they married. The rest of his assets went to his wife on condition that she not remarry. His son-in-law, Pierre-Cajetan Leblanc, took over running the museum, and in 1842 he was on Rue Saint-Paul, engaged as well in the grocery business. The collections of the Museo Italiano were ultimately dispersed in 1853.
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