Letter from Italy

Dear H,

We arrived in Italy in February, leaving a blizzard behind us in Pittsburgh. Though Rome could hardly be called warm, the temperatures stayed well above freezing and the sun shone nearly every day. Our apartment lies just fuori le mura (outside the wall, meaning the ancient Aurelian wall) in a leafy suburb called Nomentano. Our building is limone, lighter than the giallo one up the street from it, a distinction that becomes important when directing a cabdriver. Our street, Via Udine, is flanked by early twentieth-century apartment buildings, a painter’s palette of earth tones: cream, rust, honey yellow, ochre, blood orange. Pigeons, hooded crows, and swifts rule the airspace, while a clowder of neighborhood cats patrols the streets below. Traditional wooden shutters open and close like square eyelids on the windows of the buildings. Chocolate brown on lemon (ours), deep green on autumnal orange (across the street), and blue on the bone-pale edifice I can see from our roof. Speaking of roofs, antennae by the dozens poke up from all the buildings hereabouts. Apparently the digital revolution has not yet made it to Italy. Or it has, but these semaphores of the past remain.

The past, the past. Everyone says it, but it’s worth repeating: In Rome the past is always present. It appears at every break in the ground. I still marvel at the way ruins from thousands of years ago shape the curves of major streets or, like the Torre Argentina where Julius Caesar lost his life, reveal themselves in the center of a busy piazza. Anywhere a visitor walks in Rome, she can be certain the ancient city crouches just below her feet. For this reason, I’m glad J. and I visited Palatine Hill early in our time here. In February, undistracted by other tourists, I could concentrate on the numinous aura emanating from the fallen palazzi on the hilltop. Grass grows around crumbling walls and decapitated columns, outlining the floors of ancient drawing rooms. Marble thieves left a few columns standing beside the imperial brick walls, as well as innumerable stones inscribed in Latin around the dry fountains and abandoned temples. I’d come to Italy with J. intending to paint, and one of my first pictures depicts a broken capital we saw lying in the dirt near the Domus Augustana.

Strange juxtapositions abound in Rome, as I discovered when we first visited Villa Torlonia, the park near our apartment. Our landlady-to-be had recommended the place, remarking that “Mussolini used to ride his horse there,” and when we first entered the grounds, the grassy hills and fields alternating with copses of towering umbrella pines and Himalayan cedars made us wish we had horses too. In the distance we could see the roofs of various buildings and the top of an obelisk surrounded by palm trees. Taking the right-hand path, we passed first a big, colorful Moorish structure, locked behind a green fence and “Vietato” to visitors. The hill rose, a grove appeared on the right, and the ground fell away on the left to reveal an oval clearly meant for some athletic purpose. Did Mussolini ride his horse here? It wasn’t that big, but surely it had once hosted more than a pack of boys kicking a soccer ball.

The path continued up, and on the right an elaborate Swiss chalet jumped out of the trees like a house in a fairy tale. The gabled roof reminded me of medieval Burgundy with its colored tiles in geometric designs. Stained glass owls winked beside the front door, providing the place its name, the Casina delle Civette. This odd residence once housed Giovanni Torlonia, the final scion of the family. He exchanged his lodgings from the estate’s big mansion, the Casino Nobile, for this smaller house after the death of his mother. Giovanni installed the owl designs (a symbol related to luck, usually bad, in Italy) all over the house. Above his bed an elaborate mural depicts a cloud of bats descending—either on the sleeper or the insomniac. In 1925 he leased the Casino Nobile to Benito Mussolini for the nominal sum of one lira per annum. Il Duce lived in the mansion from then until his arrest in ’43. His wife Rachele and youngest two children fled Rome but were arrested trying to leave Italy. Rachele became the prison cook on the Isle of Ischia and after the war returned to her and Benito’s home village where she opened a popular restaurant.

The Allies made Villa Torlonia their headquarters from 1945–47, and they did the most damage to it. When they finally decamped, entropy enveloped the mansion for thirty years until the city of Rome reclaimed it. The park opened to the public in 1978, the renovated buildings years later.

The museum now in the Casino Nobile provides artifacts documenting Mussolini’s long tenure (his furnished bedroom the most personal) and photographs of events that occurred there: Il Duce greeting dignitaries on the sweep of steps rising from the grand driveway; the regal 1930 wedding of his daughter Edda to Galeazzo Ciano (a politician Il Duce eventually had executed—despite the pleas of his daughter—for betraying him); images of him playing tennis and fencing in the oval (originally built for jousting by a nineteenth-century Torlonia), and, yes, riding his horse on the villa grounds. Mussolini’s acquired palace exudes the opulence of the noble family he “rented” it from, with tempera painted walls in some rooms and baroque gilding and marble in others. The Torlonia, the last great aristocratic family of Rome, acquired the estate in the 1790s. For 150 years, scions of the family employed the best architects and artists to design, build, and furnish its houses and to landscape its grounds.

Still, it wasn’t the glitzy house (gorgeous, visitable mansions abound in Rome) that intrigued me, but the art gallery located on the second floor. I found myself mesmerized by a collection of works from the “Scuola Romana” donated a decade ago by the estate of Dr. and Mrs. Francesco Ingrao (Dr. Ingrao, a medical doctor, supported his artistic patients by buying their work). The Roman School flourished in the 1930s, and it reminds me of Expressionist painting, but with a more grotesque edge. In these works, whimsy often mixes with horror. Not surprisingly, as Mussolini’s Fascist party had begun to move ever closer to Hitler’s Nazi agenda, and the Roman School had Jews among its founders and was, in any case, opposed to the Fascist art of the Novecento which longed to return to the triumphs of the past. Instead, the Roman School showcases the gallows humor of people who wonder if they will be the next ones killed. One work from the collection that I haven’t been able to forget (nor, alas, to find online) is a pastel and ink drawing of someone who had just been shot in the Tiburtina railway station. In October 1943, thousands of Roman Jews were arrested at their homes and deported to Auschwitz from that station. I can only imagine the emotional state of the artist who drew the scene on the piece of brown paper he had in his bag. I imagine him passing through the station, seeing the horror, and choosing to bear witness, even if all he had at first was brown paper and a pen. His drawing skill rendered a delicate drawing of a dire subject, which he made even more tender with the use of white and pink pastel, or chalk (I imagine him adding it later). The only bright color is the red blood flowing from the crumpled body.

That framed image kept me riveted in its corner for half an hour though it’s not the most striking piece in the collection. That honor must go to Mirko Basaldella’s sculpted head covered in colored tesserae, Fury. I sketched it, though even without the memento, I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

The Roman School developed athwart another art movement of the Fascist era, the Novecento (meaning, the 1900s). The Novecento, as its name implies (the word mimics Quattrocento and Cinquecento, the highest points of Italian Renaissance art) hoped to lead Italian art back to its glory days. Margherita Sarfatti, the art critic and voice for this group, envisioned a return to the kind of work that had once made Italy the center of the art world. Sarfatti’s essays on art, many of them written when she was quite a young woman, show a fine mind, confident in its judgments as well as its prose. Many historians consider her the cultural leader of the Fascists; certainly, her ideas were championed and developed by Mussolini. She numbered among his many mistresses and wrote the first biography of her lover. The irony of her position became clearer later, as the Germans began to push their anti-Semitic agenda on the Italians. Sarfatti was Jewish.

In 1938, when the Manifesto of Race stripped Jews of their Italian citizenship and, of course, their membership in the party, Sarfatti left Italy for South America. Prince Giovanni Torlonia also died that year. While inspecting a dress march of the Italian artillery on horseback, he fell off his mount. Somehow, he landed on his sword, which had come out of its scabbard. The point pierced one of his eyes. He died two months after the accident, his funeral an affair of state that one can watch on YouTube “I funerali di Giovanni Torlonia.” Mussolini appears in the newsreel marching beside family members in the funeral procession.

Historic ironies abound in Rome, and clearly Villa Torlonia exemplifies the pattern. The biggest of Torlonia’s may be that it rests atop Jewish catacombs dating back to the first century AD. The Nomentano is one of the city’s historic Jewish neighborhoods, and our landlady’s family settled here long ago for that reason. We’ve come to love Ugo and Lia, her brother and sister-in-law, and my son and I were honored to be invited to a Shabbat dinner at their house. Ugo astonished us with his beautiful singing of the Kiddush while his children answered the questions he asked them in Hebrew, and his daughter distributed for us the bread he had made. Ugo’s mother, who lived in our apartment until her death a few years ago, survived the war years in Rome because nuns hid her, most likely for money as well as compassion, in a convent along the Via Nomentana, just down the street from the Villa Torlonia.

Mussolini had to have known about the Jewish necropolis beneath him, as scholars visited the catacombs regularly throughout the 1920s at the invitation of Giovanni Torlonia. The prince had funded the excavation and restoration of the catacombs in 1919 when the widening of Via Nomentana unearthed some of the arcosolia.[1] Farmers of the land, which had mostly been vineyards for wealthy Roman families until the nineteenth century, no doubt knew about the catacombs since there were visible entrances (only one now remains, and it’s currently blocked off with a fence and a “danger” sign). Further, the area had been known since the Middle Ages as the Campo dei Giudey, or “Field of the Jews.” Modern archeologists first heard of the catacombs in 1902, when construction workers putting in a trolley line on Via Nomentana crashed into what those who study catacombs call a “lucernarium,”[2] or skylight.

As their paths crossed on twilit strolls—or canters—around the grounds, I can well imagine Prime Minister Mussolini chatting with Prince Torlonia about the ongoing work, restorative and scholarly, occurring in the hollows beneath them. Moreover, he had to have seen a sarcophagus with a menorah carved into it, because the piece sat in the kitchen gardens of the Casino Nobile for decades, not disappearing until the end of the war. We know about it because one of the scholars from the 1920s drew and photographed it. Perhaps because of his relationship with Sarfatti, or simply because the Italians never really subscribed to Hitler’s Aryan agenda, Mussolini tried to protect the Roman Jews early on from his ally’s anti-Semitic agenda. Neither he nor the majority of Italians wanted to seize and ship their fellow citizens, the ones who happened to be Jews, off to internment camps. Ultimately, of course, Il Duce capitulated to Hitler.

Still, Mussolini avoided breaching any of the Jewish catacombs when he built air raid shelters under the Casino Nobile in the late 1930s. He did, however, worry about Allied troops sneaking into them and then conducting a surprise attack on the house, so he kept their entrances closely guarded. In the end, of course, it wasn’t the Allies he had to worry about, or even the vengeful Germans he’d betrayed. He was brought down by his own countrymen.


But I digress. I meant to tell you about my impressions of Italy, and instead I’ve been caught up in the history of Rome, all the big egos that have strutted out their brief time here. Before selfies, there were monuments, and half of Rome’s treasures are statues and villas leaders built to commemorate themselves. Anyone who’s looked at ruins knows that those who ride pedestals might as well be on bucking broncos. They’re destined to fall off.

To my mind, the three megalomaniacs who form Rome’s unholy triumvirate are Nero, Mussolini, and Berlusconi. Just as his followers continued to worship Mussolini long after his death (his final resting place in his hometown of Predappio has long been a pilgrimage site for Fascists), lots of Italians still love the ousted Silvio. Not our friends— academics and professionals—who lament that he controlled the media for decades, wrecked the economy and ruined the Italian university system. Moreover, despite his well-known illegal activities, he could not be brought down for years. He had the laws on his side, since he made them. Indeed, he kept changing the statute of limitations to avoid prosecution for past crimes. Even last spring, as the elections drew near, Forza Silvio posters began appearing on the streets. Berlusconi can never run again—he’s been under house arrest and performing community service—but merely having his name on the ballot drew 17 percent of the vote.

Berlusconi styles himself the heir of Mussolini and on International Holocaust Day last year, he popped up to defend Il Duce as “not so bad,” but a benevolent leader who was forced into mistakes by Italy’s need to form an alliance with Germany. Berlusconi’s remarks were in response to a question about the plan to build a Shoah museum on the site of Villa Torlonia. The Jewish heritage museum would provide a symbolic cleansing of Mussolini’s presence. The building should have been well under way by now, but there’s no evidence any work has yet begun on the museum and its planned link to the Jewish catacombs. Instead, the official website for the catacombs says the burial chambers can’t be visited due to the presence of “dangerous gases” underground, hence explaining the overgrown, fenced-off entrance to the catacombs that my husband and I explored late one afternoon when park officials were otherwise engaged. I waded through the hip-high grass and down some metal steps to an ancient door cut into stone. It was barred shut, though I knew what lay behind it, as I’d seen photos from the last visitors in 2008.

We’ve taken all of our visitors (seven sets of them during our four months here) to walk the grounds of the Villa, to lunch in the café built around the former lemon grove, or to tour the old houses. Of course, all of our visitors had another list of sights they really wanted to see, and we helped with those, too. On the day my daughter Alix and her girlfriend arrived from New York, they announced their plan to hit a club in central Rome around midnight.

The girls were clearly jetlagged, and J., who always knows what to do, was in another country delivering a Fulbright lecture. My maternal instincts thus ran unchecked and gave me awful images of two lovely girls getting lost in Rome in the middle of the night. I urged them to stay home and relax for the first night. Alix cocked her head to one side. “Mom,” she said, “Let me remind you of something. I am 25 years old, and I work in Manhattan. I live in Bed-Stuy. I go out at night there and everywhere else in New York. Do you see where I’m going with this?” I turned to Kira. “Am I being too much of a mom?” She shrugged. “We’re used to it. Alix, if your mom gets cold, you have to put on a sweater.” I laughed, and they went out at the witching hour. They came home safely at 3 a.m., which I know because I was awake.

In addition to the pleasure of having my kids and other young members of my family visit, J. and I have enjoyed getting to know several Italian university students. His teaching Fulbright entailed lecturing six hours a week last spring at the U. of Naples “L’Orientale.” In May both of us led workshops at an American Studies summer school on the Isle of Procida, a lovely baby sister to Capri and Ischia in the Bay of Naples. The sessions took up much of the day, so we got to know the students in our workshops and met others when we took our lunch on the terrace of Terra Murata, with its spectacular view of the bay far below and Vesuvius in the distance.

We were housed in a hotel beside a marina. A half dozen restaurants sit around the little harbor, and each night the faculty enjoyed a three-hour dinner at a different one. As a recent convert to vegetarianism, I’m always looking for new dishes that don’t require meat. One of Procida’s specialities is a salad made from the huge, unusually sweet lemons that grow all over the island. Chefs peel off the skin, chop up the inner fruit and pulp, then toss the chunks with sliced red onion, olive oil, and pepper flakes. I loved this salad and tried to re-create it when we got back to Rome. Alas, it’s only possible to make something similar with regular lemons if you add a good sprinkling of sugar.

The students studying English-language literature at Naples, Rome, and the other schools we visited impressed J. and me as far better educated than comparable American college students—in high school, most of them studied Latin and Greek for five years, in addition really to learning the “core curriculum” of math and science that so many American universities force on undergraduates to make up for poor high school education. The students we met in Italy speak English fluently and are extremely well read.

One of these students, the delightful Mariarosaria, took me and my son Mark on a tour of the Naples graffiti—so much more inventive and imagistic than the boring scrawls of Rome (“Joker Full,” I read on a Via Udine wall, or “Ti Amo, Rita”). Naples’ tags are full-out urban art—colorful, often large drawings, with or without text. They’re everywhere, and they’ve lured famous taggers to the city. Mariarosaria showed us where Banksy had painted a saint (Naples is full of saints) with a gun hovering over her head. The one that intrigued me, however, was the image of a priest, hands raised, and the caption “Le Mani Sulla Pietà,” which means “hands-on piety.” Of course, one can think of all sorts of ironic meanings to that statement, especially considering the cognitive dissonance between the drawing and the words. This priest has his hands up, in surrender or supplication.

As we threaded our way through the crowded alleys of the Decumano, Mariarosaria described the depressing job market for Italians in their twenties, especially for humanities graduates. Most people, she told us, start working when they graduate high school and stay in the same job all their lives. They never move up, they never get raises, and they are rarely doing what they want to do. “You know the big bookstore here, Feltrinelli?” We nodded. “To get a job as a shop assistant there is the dream of someone with a master’s degree in English literature. Can you imagine that?” No one can get a college instructorship unless someone retires or dies, and government funds for education diminish annually.

Secondary school teaching positions are almost as difficult to land and fraught with red tape, as Pina, another student explained to me. “It’s a huge series of tests and bureaucracy, but finally, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you get placed in a school. Then that school does whatever they want with you. I know someone with a degree in languages who got a job in a school where they needed a math teacher. She had no idea what she was doing, and obviously the students weren’t learning any math!” Another, Angela, chimed in, “We have a favorite teacher at the university, a woman who tells us the truth. She told us if we want to get jobs, we need to study abroad. Italian higher education just isn’t enough anymore.”

These students strike me as among the best and brightest and, despite their fears, they’re succeeding in various ways. Pina just scored an internship with the American Consul in Naples, and Mariarosaria has begun tutoring students in English, and she imagines either starting her own language school or studying abroad if she can raise the money. Angela visited relatives in the U.S. last spring to find out about a Ph.D. program in American literature. Marta, Pina’s good friend, actually serves as a delegate for the Democratic Party in Naples, though only twenty-four. She’s a member of the party led by Matteo Renzi, the young and charismatic liberal poised, as of this writing, to be the next leader of the EU who swept the April elections with 41 percent of the vote.

Gabriele, another gregarious former student I met in my Procida workshop, works in his parents’ insurance company in Naples, but also edits a lively online magazine, My Generation Web. He, too, dedicated several afternoons to showing us the sights of Naples, letting Mark ride on the back of his scooter to see the bay up close; then leading both Mark and my niece Isabel by metro to Floridiana Park, where they took in a wonderful view of the city and the omnipresent Vesuvius. He even invited them to the birthday party of one of his many friends. When I thanked him profusely for his generosity, he said, “I love my city; I love showing it to people.” In America, these kind and talented students would all have better jobs, but even in Naples they are managing to carve out fulfilling lives.

We’ve been lucky enough to have two apartments in Italy. The one in Rome I’ve described and the one in Naples provided by J.’s Fulbright. I love the people I’ve met in Naples, but I’m not as fond of the city as my young relatives, all of whom prefer its noisy street life to the more dignified boulevards of Rome. Naples spooks me a bit with its dark alleys and weird shops like the “Doll Hospital.” Every few feet you pass a church, and the creepy one next to our apartment is consecrated to “Santa Maria delle Anime in Purgatorio.” A rich Neapolitan founded this church in the 1600s so regular masses could be said for souls in Purgatory. Frequent famines, plagues, and eruptions from Vesuvius made the Neapolitans particularly death savvy. But who knew where the afterlife might take one? Praying for souls in Purgatory lessened one’s own time in the flames.

Bronze skulls decorate the church’s exterior, and in the basement real skulls lie in recessed alcoves, surrounded by gifts from those who worship them—despite a papal ban on skull worship. Neapolitans live like gamblers, feeling themselves at the mercy of fortune. Luck, good and bad, is their real religion, and superstitions abound. What I first perceived as a red chili pepper wearing a crown, for sale in all the gift shops, turned out to be a devil’s horn. If someone gives you one, you’ll have good luck. The evil eye retains its power here, and a hand signal—the thumb holding back the two middle fingers while the index and pinky point down—dispels it. I saw people in the street making the signal when they passed a particularly garrulous drunk, a wild-eyed woman, who sat on some church steps near our apartment. Between swigs on her bottle, the woman muttered imprecations at all passersby, and half of the latter surreptitiously gestured the counter-charm.

Naples reminds me of New Orleans with its carnival atmosphere. The commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, with his black mask and ravening hunger, serves as the city’s secular mascot. The religious one has to be San Gennaro, whose preserved blood liquefies several times a year in the Duomo. The fried street food, especially the breaded rice balls known here as arancine (little oranges) taste delicious, but occasionally a sulfurous exhalation from the ancient sewers stops me mid-bite.

The war lives in memory here, and many buildings bear witness to its souvenirs. First the Allies, then the Germans bombed the city. The townspeople fled underground to escape, and we saw their refuge when we visited the cisterns and aqueducts, subterranean remains of the Greek city of Neapolis. The local wife of an American professor at Orientale, Renata, told me she’d been down there often as a little girl during the war. At first she thought it was fun being hustled underground in the middle of the night because she could play with her friends instead of sleep. Later, as the war and the bombings intensified, as many buildings in the city collapsed and people died, Naples became a deathtrap. Renata said, “I was one of the lucky ones. My grandmother had a place out in the countryside, in Campania, and all of us kids went to live with her until the war was over.” She looked away. “We were safe for a while, but the Nazis were so enraged after Italy abandoned them that they started bombing even the little villages.”

Carlo Vecce, a comparative literature professor at Orientale, invited us to his family’s ancient villa in Carbonara, behind the shoulders of Vesuvius. We happened to be there on the night of the elections, and Carlo pointed out the mayor of the tiny village anxiously awaiting the results in the square below. Earlier that day, we had visited the archeology museum in the town of Nola and then dined at a farmhouse restaurant deep in the countryside. We arrived during a First Communion party and celebrated with the locals. Our meal lasted nearly five hours as course after course made its way to our table. I could barely stand up by the time the meal was over. Wiser guests had been quietly taking breaks between courses to smoke or chat with their friends or let a fretful child run free.

Mark and Alfonso, Carlo’s extroverted, witty son, discussed Japanese anime and video games while J. and I marveled at the rural life of a Campania village. “You’re the first Americans they’ve seen since World War II,” Carlo laughingly told us. “They’ll be talking about you for months.” Indeed, the strolling musicians entertaining the party came over and sang with great gusto a rendition of the postwar Neapolitan song, “You Want to Be American.” The restaurant’s locals beamed as we tapped our feet and swayed to the lyrics of “Tu vuò fà l’americano.”

On the roof that night, we watched the sun go down among the mountains while discussing Machiavelli’s The Prince. Carlo, a Renaissance scholar, told me that Machiavelli wrote it in the hope that some Italian prince might use his political advice to unite the country and repel Spain. No one did, and Southern Italy fell to the Spanish, as they had and would again fall to the French (shades of New Orleans). Living near his mansion, I realized that the leader who finally did read and apply Machiavelli’s strategies is the peasant who styled himself a prince: Benito Mussolini.

I’ve spent a lot of my time here thinking about the past and its monuments. I like to visit cemeteries, especially the non-Catholic cemetery in Testaccio where John Keats and what remained of Shelley after his friends burned him on a beach are buried. Gramsci lies here too, and a whole host of visitors who settled in Rome. My favorite statue, William Story’s The Angel of Grief, stands over the grave the sculptor shares with his wife, Emelyn. These two came from Boston, and their friend Henry James wrote a two-volume biography of them and their circle of artists living in Rome. After we returned from the hallowed spot, J. read in his chair nearby, I sketched the Angel of Grief from the front, then painted a side view of her in acrylic.

estory angel (2)

Mussolini died an ignoble death in 1945. After Nazi storm troopers liberated him from prison in September of ’43, Hitler appointed him the head of a northern Italian Fascist district controlled by the Germans. Mussolini knew he’d been made a puppet but also knew the Allies would not treat him well. When it was clear that the Germans had been defeated, Mussolini tried to escape to Switzerland. Italian partisans caught him near Lake Como in his Alfa Romeo with his mistress, Clara Petacci, and two party members. Outside a farm in the village of Dongo, their executioner shot Clara first because she wouldn’t move away from her lover. With her body at his feet, Mussolini reputedly threw his coat open and shouted, “Shoot me in the chest!” This sounds brave and symbolic—destroy my heart, ungrateful countryman!—but most likely he wanted to save, literally, his face. The Italian partisan who killed him obliged, and his bulldog visage remained recognizable when the partisans hung him by his ankles from an Esso station in Milan. That famous photo of him, his mistress, and two slain subordinates dangling from the roof truss is beyond gruesome. Like Mirko’s head, I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

We’re leaving Rome in a few weeks, but we’ll keep up our daily walks at Villa Torlonia until we go. Next time we visit, I hope they will have built the Shoah museum beside the Casino Nobile and opened the Jewish catacombs. I’ve spent so much time thinking about them as I walked overhead that I’d really like to see what’s down there. The frescoes, I know, are magnificent.


[1] Arched recesses cut into the walls of the catacombs where the bodies were placed.

[2] That word applied to a Jewish tomb gave me pause, and I quickly realized why. My Catholic upbringing included that word, but in a very different sense. Lucernarium is the Latin term for the “Service of Light,” the mass said at dusk, Vespers.