Termini, the Rome train station, has always had the reputation of being a haunt for pickpockets. The rumors are true, and yet I’ve always felt exhilarated when arriving at the station from the airport, dragging my suitcase out onto the big square in front of the station, where all the buses stop. The Piazza dei Cinquecento, which literally means “the sixteenth-century plaza,” is bustling with people all day and a good part of the night. Taxis are lined up, buses are pulling out. All of Rome is before me.
For the past decade or so, whenever I’ve gone to Rome, I’ve stayed with my lawyer friend Ugo. I was arriving now to spend three or four months working in the libraries of Rome. As it happened, Ugo lived only a few blocks from the train station, in the Via Cavour.
Every Italian city has a Via Cavour, named for the nineteenth-century politician who was the Count of Cavour. In Rome the Via Cavour is a broad avenue that leads away from the train station and gradually descends to the Coliseum a couple of kilometers away. It is lined with shops and large hotels, and the traffic is intense. In Rome the Via Cavour is also known as the avenue down which all the political demonstrations pass. Every time there is a strike—and in Italy this is very often—the striking workers march down the Via Cavour carrying large banners and shouting slogans.
No matter the weight of my suitcase, I’ve always felt a kind of delight when coming out from the station onto the piazza, then turning down the Via Cavour, knowing that in a matter of minutes I would enter the majestic apartment building in which Ugo Vitagliano, avvocato, lived on one of the top floors. Ugo had been there for decades—his law offices on the fifth floor and his expansive apartment just above, on the sixth. When I met him, he had already been retired for a number of years, though he would occasionally take on some legal work for a friend or a friend of a friend. Though he had traveled a great deal—and in fact he spoke pretty good French—he was very much a Roman: born and bred in Rome, he had lived and worked there his whole life. He had handled real estate deals and divorces, had dealt with judges and criminals, had done pro bono work. He had been a young boy under Mussolini, a pre-adolescent during World War II, and had come of age during the hard years just after the War. He had seen enough bad people to be wary and enough good ones to still have some faith in humanity.
When I met Ugo he must have been about seventy. He was still devilishly handsome, with a chiseled jaw, bright eyes, and a well-trimmed moustache. Even more than good looks, though, Ugo had a kind of effortless charm that made people take to him immediately. He was affable and intelligent, very well read in history and philosophy without being pompous. As a result he was a wonderful person to converse with over a meal: he was full of anecdotes and information about Rome, unusual observations and the occasional joke or witticism. His manner was neither too serious nor too light. And while he might argue a point with conviction, he could also listen to others, quietly nodding his head as he absorbed what the person said.
Ugo’s wife had died years before, and he kept the pictures of her on the walls of the dining room and in his study. He did not need to tell people that she had been a beautiful woman. And while he spoke of her with great love and affection, he did not give up on life after her death. When I knew Ugo, he was courting a number of women in Rome, never quite divulging the degree of friendship or intimacy with each one. Ugo was too refined, too discreet for that.
When I stayed with him, if we were planning to go to a dinner or a concert, Ugo would mention that so-and-so would be joining us. Each of his women friends was as refined as he was: elegant women who were never ridiculously young for a man of his age, though they were never quite as old as he was either. Because he had worked as a lawyer in Rome for many years, Ugo knew lots of people. A fair number of the friends I made in Rome I made through Ugo, often at left-wing political fundraisers. Ugo had been through the Nazi occupation of Rome at the end of the Second World War, and his older brother had been a major figure in the Resistance. Those experiences had set him for all time against anything that smacked of right-wing thinking. He had spent years in the Italian Communist Party, which, he was quick to point out to people who were not familiar with Italian politics, was very different from other Communist parties. “Our Communism was always Gramsci’s, not Stalin’s,” he would say. Ugo would have made a good politician, as many of the people around him were aware, but he always resisted becoming a candidate. He preferred to be the fundraiser, the charming schmoozer who could bring people over to his way of thinking.
The apartment on the Via Cavour was large and old-fashioned. Ugo made little effort to modernize the place. The bathroom and bedrooms were still essentially as they had been when his wife had decorated the rooms. In his study he now had a computer and a printer, and just those few modern appliances necessitated, as is common in Italy, extra cords and outlets, so that in several corners of the dwelling there was a maze of wiring, extensions, and sockets of all kinds.
There were four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large kitchen. Naturally, this was more than a single Italian man could maintain. Fortunately, however, there was also Maria. Maria was more than a cleaning lady. She was part of the Via Cavour world, having come to the apartment four days a week for over thirty years. In many ways, Maria and Ugo were like an old married couple. Each had his or her ideas about how to do things, and neither hesitated to argue with or contradict the other. When Ugo was gone, Maria would talk about him, obliquely criticizing certain aspects of how he lived; and when Maria was not there, Ugo would shake his head, and tell of how he had to help her organize her life or else she would be lost. In truth, they needed each other. And though they came from completely different social worlds and backgrounds, they shared the common turf of the apartment on the Via Cavour. Ugo would leave requests for Maria to cook a particular dish and set it out for his evening dinner, and as she cut up the fowl in the kitchen or made polenta, Maria would shake her head and explain that Ugo could not live without her services. Then that evening, over the same dishes that Maria had prepared—after, that is, Maria had returned to the working-class suburb where she lived with her daughter—Ugo would explain that Maria was fortunate to have him to employ her, to take care of her taxes, and to make sure she received her pension. Many years before, when Maria had gotten pregnant, Ugo had done all the legal work for the father to legitimize the child. And he had taken care in his will, he assured me, to see that Maria was provided for.
Now I was on my way to Ugo’s apartment again. Our exchanges in the past months had been sporadic, as he had been having health problems. First he had a knee replaced, which was not unusual for a man of almost eighty. But afterwards, he implied on several occasions, there were more serious complications. We had communicated by e-mail, and his messages often said simply, “Lorenzo, I’m not doing too well.” I imagined that perhaps he was a bit lonely. I said that I would take him out to dinner as soon as I arrived, but his response was simply that he might not be up to that. “It’s hard for me to leave the apartment now,” he wrote.
I had given Ugo the information about my arrival. Ugo’s response said only that I should head straight for his place, regardless of the day or time, and that if he was not there the portiere, Antonio, would let me in. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, since he had told me he hardly left the house now. In the last week before my trip, I e-mailed him twice, but there was no response. I knew that he had to go into the hospital for some tests, and I assumed that he had not opened up his e-mail for several days.
When I stepped out of the train station, it was drizzling. Because I was going to be in Rome for several months, I was traveling with heavier suitcases than normal. Naturally, I was jetlagged after a night in an airplane. As I turned onto the Via Cavour, I wondered what I would do if I got to Ugo’s apartment and found no one there—not even Antonio, who knew me. I was trusting that Ugo’s last missive still held, and that he or Maria or the portiere would be around to let me in. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it if I had to look for a hotel room in the rain after a sleepless night.
When I got to the building and turned into the courtyard, I saw almost immediately that Antonio was there in the little office he occupied over to one side. He had seen me too, and he was already getting up and coming towards me, smiling and with his hand out to greet me.
“Tanto tempo!” he said. “It’s been so long! Welcome back!”
Antonio pumped my hand as he spoke. He was an energetic man with a round, bald head, and the lack of hair made him look older than he was.
“Too long,” I said. “But here I am, a bit tired.”
“Let me grab the keys,” Antonio said, “and I’ll let you in.”
He turned back to the office and pulled a set of keys out of a small cabinet. Then he punched for the elevator. I could hear the machinery whir as the little cabin descended.
“Ugo’s not home?” I asked.
“No,” Antonio said as he opened the elevator door and we got in.
He punched the sixth floor.
“What about Maria?” I said. “Is Maria there?”
Antonio looked at me.
“Maria hasn’t been here for months,” he said. “Didn’t you know?”
I shook my head.
“She fell down and broke her hip,” Antonio went on, shaking his head. “Right here in front of the building. I don’t know if she’ll ever walk again without a cane.”
“I guess Ugo didn’t tell you.”
“No,” I said.
“I vechii,” he said quietly. “Old people. It’s hard to be old.”
The elevator jerked to a stop at the sixth floor. Antonio pushed the door open. There, lining the tiled walkway, were the same large plants as always. Someone was obviously keeping things up.
“We’ll see if the Russian lady is home.”
“The Russian lady?” I said. “What Russian lady?”
“The one who looks after Ugo now,” Antonio said as he rang the doorbell. “Ugo is taking care of her immigration papers in return.”
There was no answer.
Antonio rang the doorbell again, but still nothing.
“I’ll let you in,” he said.
Antonio was just putting the key in the door when we heard footsteps on the other side, and a woman’s voice calling “Coming, coming!” in a heavy Russian accent.
The door opened. A stout woman with blond hair stood there and began nodding.
“Yes, yes,” she said, as though I had already asked to come in. “Yes, you are Canadian man. I am Ninel.”
I turned to Antonio to shake his hand and thank him.
“And where is Ugo?” I asked, not quite sure whether I was asking Antonio or the Russian woman.
“What?” the woman said loudly. “What, you not know?”
I was confused, and not just because of the jetlag.
“What am I supposed to know?” I asked.
“Is in hospital Ugo,” she said. “For one whole week already!” Then she added, “We go see him day after tomorrow.”
And with that, she fairly shoved me into the apartment. From the corner of my eye, I could see Antonio start to take the stairs back down to the ground floor.
“Grazie, Antonio,” I called before he was out of earshot.
All the while she was pushing me down the hall.
“Here you leave things and take nap,” she said, shoving me unceremoniously through a doorway.
As I set down my suitcase, I realized that she had pushed me into the master bedroom. That was when I realized that Ugo would not be coming back home anytime soon.
After I had showered, I called Ugo at the casa di cura where he had already been for a full week. He sounded weak on the phone.
“I think that they are letting me go home tomorrow,” he said. “Or if not tomorrow, the next day.”
But when I got off the phone and repeated this information to Ninel, she said, “What he says each day,” and shook her head. “Ugo comes not to house tomorrow. Never he eats, how Ugo can come to house?”
As I went to take a nap, it struck me how different the apartment would be without Ugo’s conversations about Rome and its history, and without Maria bustling from room to room, muttering managgia under her breath and cooking up dinner for the avvocato. I could not get used to the idea of things being run by a Russian woman. She was a good woman no doubt, but for her Italy probably represented simply an escape from a hard life in Moscow. She had only rudimentary Italian, and she made clear, in her first conversation with me, that she did not like Italians much. “Ladri,” she said, “thieves.” It seemed to be one of the words she had learned in Italian with a real sense of urgency.
The next morning I crossed the city to pick up the keys to the place I’d be renting for the next few months. It was still raining. Luigi, my landlord, had warned me that he would not be around the day I first arrived at the flat, but he said he would leave the keys in an alcove by the front door.
I grabbed a cab from the train station to get across town quickly. Right away, the cabby informed me of two things: there was a supplement of two euros for taking a taxi from the train station, and there was a supplement of one euro per suitcase.
“You’re Spanish?” he said, picking up the trace of a non-Italian inflection.
“I speak Spanish, yes,” I said. “But I also speak Italian pretty well.”
“The supplements are legal,” he now said. “I can show you the clause. No es broma,” he added in Spanish, just to make sure I got the message.
“All right,” I said. “To the Via dei Giubbonari. It’s right off the Campo dei Fiori.”
“I know where the Via dei Giubbonari is,” he replied testily. “I’m a Roman after all!”
“Va bene,” I said, and he picked up the suitcases and put them in the trunk.
As I climbed into the back seat, the driver said, “But I cannot enter the Via dei Giubbonari during the day. I’ll get a ticket.”
I was not sure what this was supposed to mean.
He explained: “I’ll have to let you off in the Campo dei Fiori.”
Somehow I knew what was coming next, as the cabby continued.
“But there is a supplement for dropping people off in the Campo dei Fiori.”
“Would that be two euros?” I asked.
“Yes,” the driver said as he pulled out into traffic. “How did you know?”
It did not matter. The important thing was to get to the apartment.
I have lived in Boston and in Chicago, but even with their ice and snow, with their frostbite and wind chill, they cannot compare to the cold of a dank and rainy winter day in a heatless apartment in Rome. In America, if the heat does not work well enough you can at least open the oven door and turn it on to 400. No such luck in Rome. Because in Rome you can be sure that any apartment without heat—and there are many—also lacks an oven. A hotplate with two burners to make coffee and pasta, maybe. After all, who would be foolish enough to buy an oven just to cook pasta?
So you resign yourself to the cold. It is like living outdoors, except that you have the comfort of having a roof over your head. And if you’re lucky, there isn’t any rain dripping on you, though that is not a given. There are many days when you are actually warmer outdoors, since you are at least moving around, and even when it starts to warm up outside in March it is still cold inside. Besides, you feel foolish putting on your winter coat while eating breakfast. Two sweaters—even three—is fine. But when you find yourself slurping soup with gloves on, you start to wonder how this can be considered an advanced civilization.
For four months I shuttled the two space heaters from the living room to the hallway to the bathroom and back again in an effort to warm whatever spot I was in. I learned right away that I could not plug in two heaters at the same time if I also turned on the water heater in either the kitchen or the bathroom because to do so blew the whole circuit. What if I tried one space heater and the two water heaters at the same time? I did that once and the apartment went black.
I soon mastered the delicate art of plugging and unplugging things into the old sockets—of which there were three different kinds. Juggling various adapters, since the sockets all took slightly different sets of prongs and no appliance from the past twenty years fit any of them, I also became expert at holding the sockets in place against the walls as I pulled out a plug so that I could move the space heater from, say, the bathroom to the kitchen. The one time I forgot and simply pulled on the plug, the whole socket fell out into my hand amid pops and flashes of 220v electricity. I did not forget again.
Fortunately, every day I could go to the library where it was warm. On days when it was sunny, Rome glistened in the bright, brisk air. In the Campo dei Fiori the fruit and vegetable sellers would be setting up their stalls in the early morning, clapping their hands together to warm them. The waiters from the cafés around the edge of the piazza carried out trays with coffee and cornetti. People called to each other, stopped at the newsstands to get a paper, said hello to passing friends as they made their way to work down the narrow streets.
During the months of January, February, and March, I spent many days in the Vatican library, poring over manuscripts. If I needed to get there quickly, I could walk straight through town, the fastest way being to follow the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II to the bridge of the same name. When I got to the river, the Via della Conciliazione would stretch before me, running straight into the great arms of the Piazza of Saint Peter’s, the square that can embrace a million faithful at once. On days when I had more time, I would take the longer way along the Tiber River, strolling along the quais.
I have known people who have gone to Rome on vacation in December or January, and all they remember is the wet cobblestones and getting splashed by cars driving through the puddles. The churches were so obscure they couldn’t see the paintings, their feet were wet and cold, and it got dark and raw in the late afternoon. They went to the churches that were known to have splendid, trompe-l’oeil paintings on the ceilings, and none of them were visible. And the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, that great baroque sculpture by Bernini of St. Teresa almost on the verge of orgasm? It was just a gray lump high up on the wall.
The problem is the weather. If you go see St. Teresa at noon on a sunny day, the sculpture is splendid and seems almost to roll toward you. Bernini put a small hidden window above and behind the sculpture, and when the sunlight hits it, the rays shine down on the saint like divine illumination.
What people don’t understand is that those paintings and those sculptures are made for bright, sunny days. Go into the Church of St. Ignatius on a sunny afternoon and look up at the ceiling. To your surprise, there is none! The ceiling has been painted away, and there, in trompe-l’oeil, is St. Ignatius as he is wafted up directly into the sky. You are looking straight up into the heavens.
Two days after I arrived in Rome, I went to see Ugo at the Casa di Cura Nuovo Itor. Ninel knew how to get there, so we went together. It was a good thing, because otherwise I would never have found the place.
Fortunately, it had stopped raining. As I walked across Rome to the Via Cavour, the city glistened in the bright, winter light of the late afternoon. The rain had washed everything, and the ochres and yellows and browns of the buildings looked soft, as though the facades were covered in cloth.
Ninel met me in the doorway of Ugo’s building. By the time I got there it was beginning to get dark.
“We take bus and metro,” she said. “Many pickpockets,” she added, and she clutched her purse.
Ninel and I took the metro to a station near the end of the line, then a bus that nosed around corners for a good half hour. Suddenly Ninel stood up and gestured with her head to indicate that this was our stop.
It was dusk now, but there was still enough light to see. The hospital was in a neighborhood in which highrise buildings vied with body shops and junkyards for superiority. Right beside the hospital was a big, rundown hotel called Hotel Rouge et Noir. I had to chuckle at the name. Poor Stendhal, lover of Italy, who wrote about his promenades in Rome—what would he think?
And who on earth, I wondered aloud to Ninel, would choose to stay at such a hotel? Getting put in a hospital in an awful place was one thing—you had to go where the doctors sent you. But why would anyone stay at an ugly hotel in an area that was equally brutto unless their car had broken down and they had no choice for a night?
Ninel explained in her broken Italian that she thought people were very smart to stay there, because it was much cheaper than hotels in Rome proper. She seemed to know all about it. For fifty euros, she explained, you could have a room and breakfast, maybe even dinner as well. They had buses that took people into town each morning and then picked them up in the evening. “Molto meglio che albergo in centro,” she told me earnestly: “much better than hotel in center.” I decided that this was either a cultural or a class difference and did not contest her view.
The hospital smelled of old sickness—that smell that never leaves some wards. It was dingy and gray in the stairwell as we climbed the stairs to the second floor. Surprisingly, Ugo’s room was filled with natural light.
When I entered Ugo’s room, he was sleeping, lying on his back like an effigy. They had put him in the cardiology ward. He woke almost as soon as I approached the bed and smiled, motioning me over. “Lorenzo,” he said, “tanto tempo! Come vai?” We kissed on the cheek and he had me pull up a chair.
He had gotten very thin, though you could still see the vestiges of the handsome man he had always been. His cheeks were sunken, however, and so was his chest. It was as though he was caving into himself, disappearing into his own chest.
“I lost eight kilos,” he said, holding up his fingers to show me the number, “and I can’t keep doing that.”
“Ugo, what’s wrong exactly?” I asked. “What do they say you have?”
I could hear nurses passing in the hall. The other man in the room was lying in a bed behind my back, sleeping. I could hear—and almost feel on my neck—his heavy breathing.
“That’s easy,” Ugo said, in answer to my question. “Non sto mangiando. I stopped eating. It’s that simple.”
“But, Ugo,” I said, trying to be upbeat, “you live in the land of the best pasta in the world! We have gone out to restaurants together to eat and drink! Think of the late nights we have spent in trattorías! Think of the fun we have had!”
“I know, I know,” Ugo said sadly. “Lorenzo, I remember our last dinner together.”
“Yes, the little trattoría between Cavour and San Giovanni in Laterano,” I said, “the one where the waiters all knew you!”
“Esattamente,” Ugo said, sounding fatigued. “We had a good time, no?”
I agreed. But then, what was I failing to understand? Ugo remembered the good times over food. He even seemed to miss them.
“So why don’t you leave here and let me take you out to dinner?” I asked jovially.
I knew, of course, that this was not realistic. But I wanted to see Ugo’s reaction.
He just shook his head.
“Impossibile,” he said. “I would just look at the food.”
I tried a different approach now. I spoke seriously, as an old friend.
“And why can’t you eat?” I asked. “Does it upset your stomach? Do you have pains of some kind?”
“No,” he said. “Niente di tutto questo.”
Ugo’s eyes circled the room a little sadly, as though the answer might be scribbled on the walls. He made a gesture that looked a bit like a shrug.
“I just don’t want to,” he said. “I can’t explain it. They put food in front of me and I don’t want to eat it. I tell myself, ‘Ugo, mangia!’ but I can’t get myself to eat it. They all tell me, ‘Eat!’ And I want to eat, I really do. But when I look at food I just feel a kind of repugnance.”
“Maybe it’s this place?” I volunteered. “Maybe if you were home and someone were cooking for you? Someone like Maria.”
“Maria can hardly walk. She can’t come to Via Cavour anymore,” Ugo said. “Anyway, I was already this way at home. It all started over two months ago. I stopped eating. I just didn’t want to, you see—just didn’t want to eat. I’ve lost interest in food.”
“But if you don’t eat, you can’t live,” I told him. “Food is life, Ugo!”
“Lo so!” Ugo said. “I know! Everyone’s right. I should eat. But when I see food I just can’t.”
Each time he said this he mimicked food being put before him and then held up his hands and pushed the imaginary food away.
“Is that why they brought you here?” I asked.
A nurse poked her head in the door, sniffed around a bit, and left again, evidently satisfied with what she smelled.
“Not originally,” he said. “They brought me here because of my heart. My heart wasn’t beating properly. But when they saw that I wasn’t eating, they said I couldn’t leave. The strange thing is,”—and here he turned toward me and lowered his voice—“the strange thing is, the doctors all think it’s something physical.” Then he went on, almost conspiratorially, “But it isn’t physical. I know that.”
Ugo now pointed to his head. “It’s up here,” he said, tapping his temple. “I know that. Something is happening up here. It’s psychological.”
“Of course it isn’t physical,” I agreed. “So can’t you just force yourself to eat?”
“No,” Ugo said sadly, “it’s stronger than I am. I keep telling them it isn’t physical.” He sighed. “They’re going to send a psychiatrist to see me on Monday.”
By the end of our conversation, Ugo was exhausted. He apologized for having no more energy and needing to sleep. His mind began to wander a bit. Twice he asked me how long I had been in Rome.
“Two days,” I told him each time.
“Are you staying at Via Cavour?” he asked.
I had answered that question already as well.
“No,” I said, “but I stayed there the first night. Grazie mille! It helped me out enormously.”
Ugo’s eyes were closing.
“You know,” he said. “My house is always open to you . . .”
His voice trailed off. I was not sure if he was awake or asleep.
I leaned down and whispered in his ear.
“Ciao, Ugo,” I said. “I’ll come back and see you when you have more strength.”
On the bus into town, Ninel and I did not speak. I wondered about this Russian woman who, by some strange route, had ended up in Rome. Her brusqueness was probably a learned habit, I thought. It did not mean that she did not care or had no feelings. She seemed to comply dutifully with the tasks Ugo asked of her. She picked up medicine for him at the pharmacy and brought exactly the sort of milk he asked for.
We transferred to the subway and took it back to Termini.
On the Piazza del Cinquecento I verified that I had both Ugo’s and Ninel’s cell phone numbers. It was noisy on the piazza, so I read the numbers back to her.
“Ninel, I will call you in a few days to see how Ugo is,” I shouted.
“Va bene,” she said in her heavy accent.
“And grazie for everything,” I added.
“For what?” she asked matter-of-factly. “What I have done for you?”
“For letting me in two days ago,” I said. “And for showing me how to get to the hospital today.”
Ninel shook her head.
“Well, thank you anyway,” I said.
We shook hands, and Ninel turned toward the Via Cavour. I watched her as I debated whether to take the bus down to the old city center or to walk back. I watched as she pushed with determination through the crowds. Her bleached-blond hair was easy to spot as she was gradually swallowed by the many people.
The name of my street, Via dei Giubbonari, means, literally, “the street of jacket makers.” Clothing makers had lived and worked there since the Middle Ages. In fact, to this day the street is lined with clothing shops. But then most of the streets that lead off from the Campo dei Fiori still carry names that refer to the businesses: “The trunk-makers’ street,” “the key-makers’ street,” etc.
The piazza of the Campo, like so many places in Rome, holds many layers of history. These days it is a favorite spot for tourists to come with their cameras because it has a big vegetable market six days a week, and the foreigners delight in the sight of the fresh produce. I will be the first to grant that you have not really tasted an orange or a tomato until you have bought one on the Campo dei Fiori. The locals say that there are three prices at the market: one for native-born Romans, one for Italian speakers with other regional accents, and one for tourists.
At night people come to drink.
When Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March in 44 BC, it was over at one corner of what is now the Campo. And in the center of the square still stands the somber figure of Giordano Bruno, the statue marking the place where the man himself was burnt to death for heresy in 1600. If you’ve ever read some of the writings of that eccentric philosopher, you’ll know from the rare times when you can fully understand what he’s saying that he is a genius, but a mad one. And the many times you can’t figure out what he means, this is also proof positive that he was mad. Myself, I have always had a fondness for him. He was, after all, one of the first to suggest that there might be other possible worlds, in part because he believed that planets were alive the way animals are. The Pontifex Maximus, of course, was not pleased to hear that our world was just one of many and therefore not special. Such a theory reduced the stature of the Messiah considerably. It isn’t hard to see why Bruno ended his life in flames.
There were always people in my street, day and night: couples who came out for the evening passeggiata and young men who looked like they were on their way to audition for the part of Danny Zuko in an amateur production of Grease. In the early morning there were stray dogs and a few drunks left from the night before. By the afternoon the Bangladeshis were hawking scarves and the Africans were selling fake Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens. The Africans could set up a cardboard stand in seconds and make it disappear even faster if a policeman was coming.
I met Mariano in my first week, though I didn’t learn his name until many weeks later. There were always a fair number of beggars, homeless people, and buskers around the Campo dei Fiori. There was one old guy who talked to God all day, waiting patiently in silence while God evidently answered him, then going on with the conversation. He even laughed occasionally at some one-liner the Creator told him. And there was a fat old guy who kept a cup in front of him and who would doze off while sitting on his crate. No one ever touched the offerings in his cup while he napped.
Mariano was much younger.
I first noticed him one rainy day. Mariano was sitting in the street, leaning against a building, with a cup for small change set before him. His face was bloodied, and I found myself wondering if he had fallen or had gotten beaten up. Clearly he lived in the street, my street. Or rather he lived there by day (I never learned where he went to sleep each night).
The next day I saw him again. He had washed the blood off his face. He was walking this time, and now I saw that he was spastic. He was also terribly thin. I watched as he dragged himself down the street and then sat down again in what I soon came to know was his usual spot to beg for change.
On the third day, I dropped some coins into his cup.
If I was expecting a perfunctory “grazie,” I got a surprise. Mariano fairly shouted an enthusiastic, “Grazie moltissimo!” as though no one had given him any spare change in months. At that, our pact was made—a silent agreement. I think that Mariano knew in that moment that I had already made my resolution. Every day after that I would drop some change into Mariano’s cup. He quickly learned that he didn’t need to thank me profusely—that I would pass by the next day and give him some change again whether he said anything or not. But he always thanked me anyway.
In this little way he knew me, and I knew him. Occasionally, if I was passing by the Roscioli shop to grab a piece of pizza, I would pick up a second one and drop it off with Mariano. Our agreement, always unspoken, was that at the very least I would give him 50 centesimi each day. Usually it was a euro. The other times when I passed by him during the day, he would just smile and say hello. He knew that I was a dependable contributor, a small-change benefactor. There were probably others in the neighborhood like me. No one single person took full responsibility for Mariano, but a number of us probably pitched in to aid him on a daily basis. Curiously, Mariano didn’t seem any happier or sadder than most of the other people who passed through the street. Undoubtedly he was poorer and dirtier than most, but he seemed at peace with the life he had. One day when a Dutch couple standing right next to him got into an argument, he just looked at me and smiled. I think he felt at that moment that he had the better life.
Late at night there were drunks in the street, of course. There were fights in the early hours of the morning on a regular basis and one heard shouting voices almost nightly. I was not worried about Mariano, though. By nighttime he would already be gone.
There was another regular beggar around the Campo dei Fiori, a woman I saw every day as I went to work in the French library of the Palazzo Farnese, the next piazza over from the Campo.
The beggar woman was missing a leg and went around on crutches. That is, one of her legs was completely gone. Not cut off at the knee but at the hip joint. She had the pants leg pinned up behind her. She sometimes went as far as the Piazza Navona to beg, but mainly she hung around the Campo dei Fiori and the Piazza Farnese.
I never gave her any money.
I asked myself countless times why I didn’t. She certainly had at least as much need as Mariano. In fact, had I seen her before I saw him, I might well have adopted her for my daily contribution. But by the time I became fully aware of her, I was already contributing to Mariano.
And then there was the matter of that missing leg.
At first, each time she saw me she began to plead for some change. But after a few weeks she gave up, much to my relief.
I wondered again and again why I didn’t give her anything.
It definitely had something to do with the leg, I thought. There was something so horrific about the way it was just cut off at the groin. If I gave her some change, I would begin to think about her life. And if I thought about her life, I would have to wonder how she got along with only one leg. I would worry about her, the way I did about Mariano. I would wonder where she got her food. I would wonder where she went to sleep at night. How did she manage with all her daily functions? How did she brush her teeth or go to the toilet or bathe? What was it like to turn over in bed with only one leg?
I tried not to think about these things.
And in order not to, instead of softening towards the one-legged woman, I actually hardened. I could not bear to think of what must have been a terrible mutilation. For in every other way she appeared to be a fairly normal, healthy young woman. She was not like Mariano, whose body was deformed. No, she was so normal that it often seemed inconceivable that one leg was actually missing—as though it were an optical illusion. At any moment the leg might reappear.
But of course the leg didn’t reappear.
She probably knew that I gave money to Mariano every day. After living in the neighborhood for a while, I was aware that around the marketplace everyone was familiar with the habits of the regulars. The people in the vegetable stalls knew what tomatoes I liked and that I would pay the high prices for wild asparagus when it was in season. And the shopkeepers at the Norciera Viola were well aware that I always bought some salami with truffles in it. The beggars must have known among themselves who gave to whom; they didn’t need to say anything. So, after a while the one-legged woman no longer held out her hand. She just looked at me when I went by. For a while I crossed to the other side of the street, no doubt out of guilt. But after a while I stopped doing even that. She no longer asked me for a contribution, and I no longer had to say no. She just looked at me. Looked straight at me.
I wanted to feel empathy, but it terrorized me to imagine what it was to be her. So she looked at me, and I looked back at her. A kind of truce.
At first her eyes had a woeful look, as though she was hopeful that over time there might be some change. But gradually her look hardened. She stared at me, sometimes almost with hatred in her eyes. She and I both knew that it was unjust of me not to give her any change when I gave money every day to Mariano. She knew better than I ever could how unjust our world was, and the fact that I was helping out someone else just made her situation that much worse.
She gave me hard looks all through February and March.
But in early April, I had the impression that her look changed somehow. I had been out of the city for about ten days, and when I came back she didn’t seem to look at me quite the same.
At first I thought I was just imagining things. But no, it was true, she looked at me now as though she understood something: understood my predicament. Not that I couldn’t afford to give money to two beggars, but after the second there would be a third. And then a fourth. And then a fifth. So, as spring returned to the Italian peninsula, she began to acknowledge me each day as I passed—acknowledged me with a look that I can only describe as one of pity.
This went on for several weeks until the last days I was in Rome. As I wrapped up my work in the libraries, I had a distinct sense that she foresaw somehow that my time in Italy was coming to a close. This was not at all the case with Mariano. Mariano probably thought that our pact would go on forever, if he thought about it at all.
Two days before I left Rome, I was walking through the Campo dei Fiori in a hurry to get to the French library. I came around the corner into the little street that led to the Palazzo Farnese, and as chance would have it, the woman with one leg was coming around the other way. Neither of us saw the other in time, and we crashed into one another. She evidently swung herself along on her crutches with considerable force, because it knocked my bag right off my shoulder. As for her, one of her crutches clattered to the ground.
I grabbed her instinctively and held onto her to keep her from falling.
“I’m sorry!” I suddenly said. “Mi dispiace!”
The woman was surprisingly light. The thought crossed my mind: can one leg weigh so much? She seemed to have the weight of a young schoolgirl.
A passerby picked up the crutch lying on the cobblestones and handed it to her. When she took hold of it, I steadied her a little, then released her, making sure that she had her balance.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “Are you hurt?”
The young woman didn’t say anything. She just shook her head no.
I didn’t know quite what to do.
“You’re sure?” I asked again.
She nodded now. Some people had gathered to see what had happened, but once they saw that it was nothing serious they began to drift away.
“All right then,” I said. “All right.”
But how did you end an exchange like that? I couldn’t just say Arrivederci. Even less Ciao! Nor could I offer her a coffee and invite her to sit down at a café until she had caught her breath. Beggars were not welcome in the cafés.
I felt off-balance, a little confused. I finally mumbled, “Buona giornata,” and with that I began to move away.
But she didn’t move. She didn’t say anything at all.
I started down the street. But after a few meters I could not resist the impulse to turn back and check that she was all right. I felt that I somehow had a responsibility toward her now.
When I turned around, I saw that she still hadn’t moved. She was standing there, watching me as I walked away. I was not sure whether I should go back and make sure once again that she was all right or just turn away.
I finally decided to continue on my way. But as I was just about to start back down the street I could not keep from turning back yet once more.
And it was a good thing I did.
She was standing in the middle of the street on her one leg, the two metal crutches like thin props on either side of her, holding her up. She was still looking straight at me.
And at that moment, to my surprise, she smiled at me. Not a broad smile, but a small, intimate one.
I did not know what to do. Should I smile back? Should I say something? Did this mean I should return to where she was?
As I stood there, undecided, she slowly brought one of her arms up, balancing on one crutch and her one leg.
The beggar woman was holding my shoulder bag up before her, balancing herself on her one leg and one crutch and smiling as she silently offered it to me.
As I walked back toward her, I thought that this was her way of saying goodbye. And as I took the bag we both smiled at each other, and a peace between us was finally established.
Rome is a city of dark, narrow streets that open onto piazzas, wonderful public spaces where people gather to talk while the children run around and where a group of youths might be kicking a soccer ball back and forth.
I used to take a stroll most afternoons after I finished at the library, walking with no particular plan in mind, choosing streets at random. After months of living in Rome, I was still amazed to discover new alleyways and vicoli I had never seen. I would wander into the churches I came across since most of them were open in the early evening. I stood in one sacristy and watched a priest nonchalantly preparing the holy wine for the Mass he was going to say to the seven octogenarians waiting out in the nave for the spectacle to begin; the priest was telling his colleague a long story about his sister’s problems at her office and at home as he poured out the holy wine. In another church, La Chiesa Nuova, I had made the rounds of the rather pedestrian interior when I discovered that the paintings in the apse were early Rubens, probably things he knocked off in his spare time.
This is one of the riches of Rome: so much of the artwork is not in museums but is right there in little churches and palazzi. The Palazzo Altemps still has partial statues from antiquity to which the great Bernini decided to sculpt his own Baroque additions (not exactly modern restoration methods). Perhaps the most stunning experience is encountering Caravaggio’s paintings on the walls of side chapels in several churches.
There are a few works of art that change you for life. You’ll still get the kids up and off to school, and you’ll continue to pay your bills, but some subtle change will have reconfigured your soul.
Michelangelo’s David in Florence is such a work. You walk around and around that perfect man and try to get it into your head that the sculpture started out in Michelangelo’s studio as a block of raw marble. So too his Pietà in Saint Peter’s: the Mary that Michelangelo sculpted looks so young and tender that you want to reach out and console her in her mourning.
Caravaggio’s paintings of St. Matthew have the same power. In the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, the church right by the Piazza Navona, two of Caravaggio’s most moving paintings stand face to face in a small chapel. On the left, The Calling of St. Matthew just looks like some guys at a gaming table in a bar or on a street corner, circa 1602. Jesus has just walked by, turned on his heel, and pointed to Matthew, calling him. Matthew looks up from the table, shocked by the call. Jesus is pointing at him, and so is John. Matthew, too, is pointing at himself. In his surprise, he has raised his arm to point at his chest with his own finger. You can practically hear him saying, “Who, me?” In a moment of everyday life we have the very essence of a vocation—of a “calling.” When you’re called like that, you can only go. Already we know that Matthew’s days of drinking and gaming with his friends have come to an end.
Facing that painting is Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Art historians talk about the diagonal construction that gives drama to the scene. And they discuss Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro in every painting, including the ones in San Luigi dei Francesi, that sharp contrast of light and dark that other painters hated at the time but which absolutely grips the viewer.
All of that is significant, of course, but I believe the reason that The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew has such power, whether you are Christian or not, is that Caravaggio again captures the drama as an explosive movement. He invests this still painting with a stunning degree of motion, which is as typical of Caravaggio as chiaroscuro. In this particular painting, Caravaggio has chosen the moment just before death. Matthew knows what’s coming, and just as he is about to be clubbed, an angel dives down to offer him grace. But the most captivating detail is a terrified young child who whirls away in terror; the child actually appears to push against the air in an attempt to escape. You can feel the rush of wind, as though the violence is actually exploding from the center of the canvas.
When the Catholic Church embarked on a program of art that would appeal to the emotions in an almost sensationalist manner in the hopes of blunting the rise of Protestantism—the movement we now call the Counter-Reformation—it had a lucky find in Caravaggio. As a painter, he had the touch of genius: he painted his canvases without making studies first and used people from the neighborhood as subjects. A cocky way to proceed, maybe, but it certainly worked. And he painted Biblical scenes as though they were happening in his own day, in modern dress.
But was Caravaggio a believer?
I doubt it. Caravaggio was to Baroque painting what Rimbaud was to French poetry in the nineteenth century. Call him a peintre maudit. Either he believed and knew he was going to hell—and didn’t care—or he didn’t believe for a second but also knew he didn’t need to believe in order to create great religious paintings. I think it was more likely the latter. There are few people who, like jazzman Chet Baker, look into the abyss and actually like it. Caravaggio was one of these.
But genius that he was, Caravaggio was also a scoundrel. There were the murder charges and the knife fights and prison time, and the way he always had to stay one step ahead of the authorities who were after him. Palermo had a wonderful canvas of the Nativity that Caravaggio dashed off for quick cash while he was escaping from Malta where he was a wanted man. That is, they had it until it was stolen from a church in 1969, probably by mafiosi, never to be seen again. Nothing about Caravaggio’s life suggests that he was the least bit concerned with the teachings of the Church or salvation. Maybe to him his work for the Church suggested a quid pro quo: You make the paintings, we’ll absolve you of your sins. But more likely, Caravaggio knew who had the money to hire fine painters, and he could do religious subjects if the price was right. After all, The Calling of Saint Matthew is just a tavern scene with one key addition. The churchmen may have told themselves that this was an example of how God turns everything to His own ends—even a scoundrel like Caravaggio ended up doing paintings that would call the faithful to God—but meanwhile, Caravaggio, like Boccaccio’s Ciappeletto, may have felt that he was having the last laugh.
The “hearts and minds” program of the Catholic Church was a great rolling out of art, literature, theology, architecture, and pure coercion (i.e., the Inquisition) to stop the hemorrhaging from the Church. A stick and carrot approach. The stick was the burning of non-Catholics as heretics. But the carrot—what a sweet carrot it turned out to be. The commissions flowed to the greatest painters, sculptors, and architects of the time. And nothing was too outlandish, nothing too “over the top.” There is a sense of raw emotion when you stand in the middle of a Baroque church flooded with light at midday.
They say that the great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini used to go and sit for hours in his own church of Saint Andrea al Quirinale. And why not? The joy to that space is palpable. Few were the people who could afford such luxury in their own living quarters. But a visit to the church was free, even if it came with a few strings (like confession). Bernini’s churches are nothing like the long Gothic cathedrals of the late Middle Ages. They are joyous and magnificent but not so large that you feel dwarfed in them. The Baroque churches were not designed to remind you of an all-powerful and distant God. They were there to bring you in and surround you with the great martyrs and figures of the church who had started life just like you, as simple believers.
When it comes to Baroque architecture in Rome, there are two names to remember: Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. Tour guides like to play up the supposed hostility between the two, who were almost exact contemporaries. It was only natural for them to jockey for papal patronage, and when one was in favor the other was usually out. Borromini, from northern Italy, was the more difficult and serious one, and he only did architecture. Bernini, a Neopolitan, was everywhere, and he was not only a great architect (Louis XIV even had him do some designs for the Louvre), but is second only to Michelangelo as a sculptor (he painted as well—and even wrote a play). To Bernini we owe the great piazza in front of St. Peter’s.
Myself, I refuse to take sides. If Borromini was a tortured soul, you would not know it from his churches, which are about the play of form and light. Just down the street from the church where Bernini used to go and sit for hours is one by Borromini, the Chiesa delle Quatro Fontane, with a front facade that positively undulates. Timothy Leary had to drop acid to imagine things like this, but Borromini simply turned to God. In another of his churches, St. Ivo alla Sapienza, best seen in the late afternoon when the sunlight catches the tower, Borromini combines convex and concave shapes and then tops the dome off with a twisted tower that swirls into the air in the shape of the soft ice-cream cones the trucks sell in the summertime. And at the top of the twisted spire are carved flames that positively shoot into the sky.
I have sat in Bernini’s church, just as he did. I can’t help but wonder what Bernini looked at when he sat for hours in the church he had designed, and what did he think about?
If you tilt your head back and look up at the cupola, you will begin, bit by bit, to see details that are not immediately apparent. Putti string garlands from one window to another—something I didn’t realize until the fourth or fifth time I visited the church—and above every cornice are figures who dangle their legs in the air. When the sun catches the dome, the light inside makes the figures glow with an almost lifelike warmth. And of course there is St. Andrea himself, sitting on the cornice at the front of the chapel, his hands waving in the air in ecstasy.
People have asked me once or twice why I, an atheist, loved so much to visit Rome’s churches. And they often asked if I would try to visit every church in Rome. The first question did not merit a long response. Beauty is beauty in whatever form it presents itself. To the second question the answer was: of course not! After all, there were nearly a thousand churches in Rome, and some were not worth more than a single visit while others, no matter how many times I entered them, always held some new secret of beauty for me. I never knew what I might find.
At the Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti I was always curious about what I took to be a sculpture of a penitent woman sitting on her heels, set up close to the altar. It was in a part of the church where the public could not go, so that I could only see her from behind. An open prayer book lay before her on the floor, and her long white robes and the curve of her shoulders gave off a sense of peace and beatification. Then one day when I visited the church she was gone. I went back a week later and she had not been put back. Then one day, in March, there she was: the penitent woman again, placed exactly as before.
I walked up behind the statue, as close as I could get without stepping over the rope that stretched across the aisle. And to my surprise I noticed something now that I had not realized before. The statue was not a statue but a real person: a nun of some sort! I watched her for as long as I could, looking for some movement, but she did not move at all. She was truly as still as stone.
Walking back through the city I marveled at how one person, out of the billions on this planet, could dedicate herself to sitting on her heels, motionless, in a Roman church, in some sort of devotion to her God. Was she mad in some way, or perhaps marvelously sane?
I knew there were tales of mystics in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who had floated in midair while praying. There were people who claimed they could leave their bodies and then return again. Who knew where that woman was while her body turned into a human statue?
On my way back home, I stopped into two more churches. Nothing interesting. Nothing, at least, that could compare to what I had seen in the Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti. One woman who was kneeling at a prie-dieu had set her cell phone there beside her, just in case God called. And one beggar at the door of a church asked for money and emphasized that she was Italian and not an immigrant.
By late winter, I had settled into the city—into my neighborhood, into my daily patterns, into my work. I would pick up a quick piece of pizza at Roscioli a couple of times a week, especially if I had to cross town to go from the French Library to the Vatican on my lunch hour. As was typical in Italy, the fellow behind the counter at Roscioli would cut off a slice from a large pizza, weigh it, and determine the price accordingly.
“La mangi subito?” he would ask, the question being entirely perfunctory: “You’re eating it right away?”
When I said yes, he would cut the piece in half, fold it against itself and wrap it in butcher paper.
If a friend stopped by for a quick, cheap meal, we would duck into the Filetto di Bacalà just down the street and have deep-fried cod with a salad of paperelle and a stein of beer.
I took my espresso standing up at the corner bar nearest the flower stalls on the Campo, and Gino, the barman, knew that I would always leave a euro on the counter rather than asking for the twenty centesimi change that was due me. To reciprocate, he would slide his copy of La Repubblica across the counter for me to read while I flipped back my coffee so that I could catch up on the news at the same time.
One of the great pleasures in Rome was the long, involved process of searching out the best places for cheeses, meats, vegetables, wines, etc. For example, I had discovered a little shop just blocks from the Pantheon that sold only Sardinian products. Un bugigattolo (a hole in the wall), it was stuffed with sardo wines, cheeses, and cold cuts. I soon became a faithful customer. The Argiolas wines were wonderful, and the cheeses quickly became an addiction. I could have gone through all my money there. At the end of March, Alessandro, who ran the place, was still getting fresh wild asparagus from Sardinia, long after the vegetable had disappeared from the mainland. It cost a fortune of course, as it did everywhere. At twenty euros a kilo, Alessandro’s price was considered within bounds, and only hours after he placed the thin sprouts in a jar in his window, he would sell out.
I walked over to get some provisions one unusually warm spring day. As I passed through the Piazza della Pigna, I stopped. I had been through the piazza many times before, but somehow only this time did I realize how beautiful the little square was. This sort of thing often happened in Rome. A place you thought you knew would suddenly present itself differently, and it was as though you were seeing the beauty of it for the first time. The building before me radiated a soft ochre, warm and dry as the day itself, as though country earth had swept down from Umbria, leaving a thin film on the walls. And there in one corner was a beautiful loggia, clogged with large, leafy plants that I had never noticed before.
In the corner of the piazza was a tiny baroque church, the Chiesa di San Giovanni della Pigna. It was a church of no importance really—one of those little ones that never made it into the guidebooks, not even into the Michelin Green Guide to Rome. I saw that it was open, and the coolness of a church enticed me on that hot day. I walked across the square and pushed the door open.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light. When they did, I saw that the church was really no more than a chapel: a narrow nave with two rows of pews and an altar at the east end. There was a woman praying in the fourth row. She turned and looked at me briefly, then went back to her prayers.
It was just a chapel, but a lovely one. The granite columns gleamed; the walls were meticulously painted; the lighting around the altar was perfect. The scale was human. This was, I thought, the very antithesis of the magnificence one found in St. Peter’s.
Over the altar was a small cupola, at the top of which was painted a dove, the symbol of the Holy Ghost. How many churches in Rome have a dove painted in the center of the cupola? There must be hundreds of them. It is a cliché, really. And yet there was something different about this dove. It seemed to float down from the soft glow of the illumination behind it. Little ripples passed over the clouds as it winged redemption to the person standing below. I watched it float over me with its promise of grace and peace.
In the four corners just below the cupola were the four evangelists. There was John, glancing over his shoulder as though God had just whispered the Word to him quietly, the way a good friend might. Matthew, on the contrary, looked up at the dove, just as I was doing, waiting patiently in the sure knowledge that it would bring him grace.
I could not see the other evangelists without stepping onto the podium where the altar was. When I did so, and looked back at the two remaining evangelists, Mark and Luke, I saw that they had their eyes focused on me. There was no avoiding their glance. They had me in their sights. I had the impression that Luke almost nodded. Luke, after all, derived Jesus’s genealogy from Adam and Eve. He saw Jesus not as a Jewish king so much as a man of all people, ready to take on the sufferings of others. It occurred to me that when a priest said Mass here, the two evangelists, Mark and Luke, were staring straight at him.
I stepped off the podium. The woman who was praying glanced at me again, then went back to her rosary. Ave Maria, piena di grazia, il Signore è con te. As I walked back down the nave, I had the impression that I was somehow lighter. I felt as though I was hardly touching the floor.
Was this the sort of epiphany that believers experienced? I felt at peace with myself and the world, wrapped in the beauty of that small chapel. I knew of course that earlier centuries had reported many miracles, and I had always considered such things nonsense. After all, all the good miracles—lame people suddenly walking, the dead being raised again—always took place in the past when there were no cameras to record them. Now the best anyone could hope for was to find the face of the Virgin Mary in a pizza crust.
I picked up a newspaper on the way home—La Repubblica—and stopped at a café for an espresso. By now, I had forgotten all about the experience in the little church in the Piazza della Pigna. But when I opened the paper, the world of the Church came back to me, though now in a very different light. There, on the front page, was an article about pedophile priests. It had recently been revealed that the late Pope Benedict XII, formerly the Cardinal Ratzinger, had protected a pedophile priest in Michigan who had molested over two hundred deaf-mute boys. In a matter of seconds, the article erased the beatitude I had experienced in the chapel. It did not help that I knew all the Church’s arguments—that the church as an institution of this world was flawed (what they called the “church militant”) but that this did not taint the redemption and salvation it offered. Those arguments did not wash in the context of a Pope who, fearing a public relations problem, protected a priest who had molested hundreds of boys. Even as the scandals were coming to light in Germany and Ireland and the United States, people who had been sexually abused in Italy were just beginning to overcome their fear and to speak out, despite the strenuous efforts of local church officials to silence them. As I read the article, I wondered how many children in centuries past had been abused by priests. The number, of course, was uncountable.
For me the news almost shattered the delicate beauty of the little Chiesa di San Giovanni della Pigna. How could the Church have been a haven for those who were so completely corrupt and who, under the shield of being the “hands of God” (as one Italian pedophile priest told a boy as he fondled him), could ruin people?
I closed my paper and paid for my coffee. On the walk home, I was glad that I had not succumbed, however momentarily, to the seduction of the beautiful art in the churches. The world did not need the bluff of miracles and propaganda. What it needed was the truth.
In the apartment, I threw open the doors to the little balcony that gave onto a pit and I shooed the pigeons away. I uncorked a bottle of Argiolas and set out a plate of cheese and salami. Along with all the ill in life, this world was also filled with so many pleasures. The joy of a beautiful chapel was nothing more than that, but it was a joy nonetheless. And the fruits of Sardinian peasants were delicious, even if the price in downtown Rome would scandalize sardo farmers. There were small scandals and there were large ones.
A month after my first visit to Ugo, I went back to see him in the hospital again. I knew the way now, so I went alone.
They had moved him into a room with one other patient, though this was still in cardiology. The other man was extraordinarily fat.
Both men were dozing when I came in. With such a big man in the bed next to his, Ugo looked tiny, like he was fading away or even shrinking into the bed. I was sure he had lost another kilo, even though the nurse on duty told me that they were making him eat.
Ugo hadn’t shaved—or hadn’t been shaved—for a couple of days.
“Ciao, Ugo,” I whispered. “Come stai?”
He opened his eyes and looked at me slowly, as though only gradually bringing me into focus.
“Ciao, Lorenzo.” He smiled wanly. “I have been better.”
I pulled up a chair between the beds. The fat man was breathing deeply. He seemed sound asleep.
“The nurse says you are eating a bit,” I commented brightly.
“If only I wanted to eat,” he said. “But they make me eat something every day.”
I sat down with my back to the fat man.
“That’s an improvement,” I commented.
“And the psychiatrist came . . .” Ugo said.
“Poi . . . ?” I asked.
“We talked,” Ugo answered, looking up at the ceiling.
I waited to see if he would say more. The man in the bed behind me began to snore—short, blubbering sounds.
After a moment I asked Ugo if he wanted me to crank his bed so that he was sitting up a little more. He nodded, and I poked around until I had found the mechanism and figured out how it worked.
“So what did you talk about with the psychiatrist?” I asked.
Ugo moved his head around a little. “Different things,” he said.
“But—anything in particular?”
For a second Ugo just looked straight ahead, as though debating whether to speak or not. He glanced over at the other fellow to make sure he was sound asleep. Finally he turned his head toward me.
“Senti . . . ,” he said quietly. “Listen . . .”
Ugo paused. I nodded. Then he went on almost conspiratorially.
“Let me tell you something. About three months ago, something happened to me. Something that has never happened before,” he said. “Something that—how can I say it?—left me feeling ashamed.”
I had the impression that there were tears starting to form at the edges of his eyes.
Ugo looked at me, dead serious.
“Is he asleep?” he gestured with his head toward the other patient.
I looked at the fat man. He was out cold.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” Ugo responded. Then he began to speak—to speak in a decided, and surprisingly strong voice.
“I’m a Roman, as you know,” he said. “I have lived in Rome all my life. I was a boy here during the Occupation. I was a lawyer in Rome for my whole career. I have seen everything . . .
“I have seen people swindled. People have tried to swindle me. I once had two Sicilian sisters who tried to sell me an apartment they didn’t own . . .”
I wondered where this was going.
“ . . . and only afterwards did I realize that there weren’t two sisters, there was just one . . . The same woman played both parts, just to complicate things and distract me from the real issue .” He looked at me.
“You see?” he went on, “It was designed to distract me from the fact that the documents were false.”
“Okay,” I said. “But does this have something to do with what happened a few months ago? Or with not eating?”
Ugo turned his head away and stared at the wall for a moment. He took several deep breaths, as though gathering his strength.
“Nothing,” he finally said.
“Will you tell me anyway what happened a few months ago?” I asked.
Turning to me, he whispered, “I don’t know how to say this. I feel ashamed about the whole thing.” Then he took a breath and said, “You see, about three months ago, for the first time in my life, I got swindled.”
“Non so se capisci . . . ,” he said. “I, a Roman! I, who have lived here all my life and have seen everything! Incredibile! How could such a thing happen? I fell for a scam! Una trufa! A scam run by a fellow young enough to be my grandson . . .”
I could see that he was debating whether to tell me the details or not. When the silence got long, I asked, “Did you tell the psychiatrist about it?”
Ugo shot me a hard look.
“Of course not!” he said. “How could I tell him about that?”
“But if you think that it has some relationship with your not eating . . .”
Ugo got angry now. “How do I know what relationship it has with other things? All I know is, I got swindled! I haven’t told anyone about it.”
The other man in the room was snoring a bit quieter now.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” I suggested.
Ugo sighed again. “Maybe I could . . . You’re from another country . . . You aren’t from here.”
“It might do you some good,” I ventured.
Ugo’s brow furrowed. “Just double check that he’s completely asleep,” he said, looking over at the fat man.
I got up and walked around the other side of the man’s bed. “Like a baby,” I said, then I came back and sat down.
“Okay,” Ugo said. “I’ll tell you what happened.”
Then he looked straight up at the ceiling and started talking.
Ugo told me how he had been sitting on a bench one bright afternoon in late autumn. As he was sitting there a Mercedes passed, then backed up to where he was. The driver looked at him briefly, then started to drive off. But the car reversed again and stopped right in front of Ugo. Then the driver rolled down the passenger window and called out to him.
“I can’t believe it!” the guy said.
At first Ugo didn’t realize the man was talking to him.
“Hey!” the man in the car called again. “I recognize you!”
“Who, me?” Ugo said.
“Yeah,” the guy answered. Then he laughed. “Of course, you don’t remember me. You wouldn’t recognize me—I was just a kid of about nine or so when you last saw me.”
Ugo looked at him. “Do I know you?”
“Well,” the man laughed again. “You did when my father worked with you. He brought me to work with him a few times. I was just a kid then.”
“I worked with your father?”
“Yeah,” the guy was getting out of the car. “I remember you from when he brought me to his work a few times.”
Ugo thought for a moment.
“Do you mean Carlo?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “Exactly! I’m Carlo’s son! Marco.”
They shook hands.
“I really can’t believe it,” Marco said. “My father will be so pleased! I mean, what are the chances?”
Then Marco looked at the Mercedes.
“I wish I had time,” he said. “I’d love to take you for lunch. We’re in the import-export business now, my father and I. In Germany. We deal in leather coats. I have a load of them in the trunk that I’m supposed to drive to Frankfurt today. My father is waiting for them.”
He started toward the car.
“But, you know, my father will be so pleased that I saw you! Listen,” he said, opening the car door, “let me give you a leather jacket. Please! For you! My father will be so glad!”
He pulled a leather jacket in clear plastic from the back seat, and gave it to Ugo.
“Please!” he said, holding up his hands. “Take it. It’s on us. It’s a pleasure. You can’t imagine how pleased my father will be.”
The next thing Ugo knew he had the jacket in his hands.
“But I have to run,” Marco said. “My father is waiting for me in Frankfurt. I really wish I had more time.” He shut the car door and started around to the driver’s side. Then he came back. “Hold on a second,” he said.
He put his hand on Ugo’s shoulder.
“Could I ask a small favor?” he said. “I’m almost out of gas, you see, and I don’t have any cash on me. I don’t want to lose time looking for a bank machine. Why don’t you spot me fifty euros and we’ll send you a check as soon as I get to Frankfurt? I want to get onto the highway as fast as possible.”
Ugo nodded. “Sure, I guess so,” he said.
“We’ll send it right back,” Marco said again. “My father will really be so pleased, you know. He’ll want to get in touch right away.”
Ugo opened his wallet. He had a hundred euro note in it and a twenty.
“Well, just give me the hundred, if you don’t have a fifty,” Marco said. And he started to reach for the bill in Ugo’s wallet.
“That’s when I realized what was up,” Ugo said. “When he reached for the hundred euros. Me ne sono reso conto.”
“You realized that . . . ?” I asked.
“I realized that I didn’t know Marco from Adam, and he didn’t know me.” Ugo looked at me a bit helplessly. “It all happened so fast, you see. I couldn’t quite think straight. But when he reached for the hundred euros, I knew it was a scam.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“I gave him the twenty-euro note I had,” he said. Ugo took a breath. “I think he knew at that point that I had figured things out because he jumped in his car as fast as possible. And before I knew it, he was gone.”
He stopped there. When the silence got long, I asked, “And that was the end of things?”
“Yes,” Ugo said.
“And what about the jacket?”
Ugo sighed again.
“The jacket?” he said. “I threw it in the back seat of my car.” He sighed again. “I didn’t even open it to look inside. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I’m sure the jacket is made of plastic.”
I stood up and walked to the far wall of the room, then came back.
“He probably runs that scam four or five times a day,” I said. “In different neighborhoods.”
Ugo looked at me.
“Undoubtedly,” he said.
“He probably has a whole supply of plastic jackets,” I said.
Hugo nodded. “I’m sure he does,” he added.
We sat there for a moment in silence. Then he spoke again.
“You see,” Ugo went on. “The jacket is like the fake Sicilian sister with the apartment to sell,” he said. “It was there to distract me. It added a distraction.”
“Right,” I said. “It disarms you. He gives you something before he asks for anything.”
“Exactly,” Ugo said wistfully. “It’s pretty clever.” He sighed yet again. “But I should have seen it from the beginning. I’m Roman, after all.”
I touched his shoulder. I realized what he was thinking. He was an old man now. He knew he had become a target. He had become vulnerable. The proud, savvy Roman lawyer had become the victim of a con man. Marco, or whatever his name really was, had preyed on an old man and his memory. Marco probably only chose retirees.
As though I was reading his thoughts, Ugo spoke again.
“I didn’t want to say that I didn’t remember him,” he said.
I had the impression that, for a second time, he was on the verge of tears.
“And yet what?” I asked.
“And yet, I never really had anyone who worked with me,” he said. “That was the strange part. That was the part that confused me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I always had my practice all to myself. I said ‘Carlo’ because another lawyer named Carlo had an office on the same floor. But we didn’t work together. I never had an associate, you see.” Ugo turned his eyes to me. “But, you know, it all happened so fast . . .”
“It can happen to anyone,” I said.
“I just threw the jacket in the back of the car,” he told me again. “I don’t even want to look at it.”
I was about to make a comment when a nurse came in.
“C’mon,” she was saying to the snoring man. “Time to wake up!”
I said goodbye to Ugo and kissed him on both sides of his face.
“The next time I see you, I expect it to be back in your house,” I told him. “But to do that, you have to eat.”
“I’ll try,” Ugo smiled a little.
I turned and looked at Ugo one more time. He looked small, almost like a child in the bed. I didn’t know whether I was happy for him or sad, but he lay there, breathing regularly. His profile was noble, like an old Roman general in repose. An exhausted Roman general.
As I rode back into town, I thought about Ugo and the many years he had lived in Rome. He had been through cataclysmic events, like the Second World War. And personal tragedies, like the death of his wife. He had had successes, and no doubt there had been failures as well.
But what had hurt him in the depth of his soul? A seemingly minor, banal event: to be taken by a fast-talking con artist. To be swindled out of twenty euros. How strange life was. Something in that truffa made Ugo feel that he no longer belonged, that he was no longer an astute Roman, but one of the others—one of the people who could be taken advantage of. That was a humiliation, and a life of humiliation was not worth living.
Had Ugo given up on life? He had given up on eating, that much was for sure. The one exception was the milk he had Nenil bring him. He had returned to the very first nourishment we have in life, as if perhaps that could cure him—could rejuvenate him.
The subway was crowded, and I studied the people crammed into my car. How many of them, I wondered, thought about whether they wanted to live or to die? How many of them thought, as they shot through the dark tunnels underground, that they lived in one of the most marvelous cities in the world—one on which the greatness of the past was eternally stamped?
I wish I had a sense of the overall shape of Rome, but I have never been able to form a clear image of this enchanted, labyrinthine space. I have not seen it from the air, and I suspect that the only people who have are professional pilots. Because when you fly into or out of Rome, you enter and exit at the airport Fiumicino that is a half-hour’s train ride away from the city, over on the Mediterranean coast. Not that it is exceptional for an airport to be situated a distance from the city center, but in many cities, when your flight takes off, it banks, and in the distance you can see the skyline of the tallest buildings: from LaGuardia you see the Empire State Building, from O’Hare the Hancock tower, from San Francisco the Americana Building.
But Rome does not have an Eiffel Tower or a skyscraper. In fact, it has no tall buildings whatsoever. Rome has allowed only one modern building to be built in the central core since the Second World War, and that is a low-rise structure built around the Altar of Peace Augustus Caesar erected in 13 BC, primarily to protect the Roman arch from the elements. If a flight were to bank over the city and fly low enough, you would be able to recognize St. Peter’s square and the Coliseum, but to the best of my knowledge flights never do that. They turn out over the sea, or skirt the coast, unable or unwilling to invade the airspace above Rome.
The traffic—that is, the cars and motorcycles—may race around the streets of Rome, but the city itself dwells in another time entirely. It has seen not only centuries pass by, but millennia. In other cities they build large underground parking garages, but in Rome there are almost none. The second you begin to dig into the earth, you run into the ruins of all the ages of man. This is why the subway hardly touches the central core of the city; even so, when they were building it, they had to stop every six inches to let the archeologists excavate. While countless people have come and gone, the city has remained. Buildings have stood for over two thousand years, buildings that are entirely unimpressed by changing fashions, political scandals, and Alfa Romeos. There are buildings in Rome that stood by and placidly watched Alaric ride through in 410, slaughtering Roman citizens and bringing the Roman Empire to an end. And there are buildings that observed as Emperor Charles V allowed his troops to pillage and rape with abandon in 1527 as part of a dispute he had with the Pope. Still more buildings witnessed the Nazi occupation, and those of the Jewish ghetto stood starkly empty of their occupants after the Jews were deported to certain death in Auschwitz.
But if one cannot form a picture of the city as a whole, the neighborhoods are definitely distinct from one another: here is the stolid Patri beyond St. Peter’s; here is lively Trastevere on the other side of the river; there is the Villa Borghese with its high park overlooking the rooftops and the glamorous snobbery of the Via Veneto just beside it.
Rome is nonetheless a city of domes—domes and cupolas—of which the most famous is of course St. Peter’s. And St. Peter’s is the biggest, the brightest, and the most impressive. But there is one building, generally recognized to be an eyesore, that stands higher, more massive, and (there is no other word for it) whiter than any other marble monument in the whole city.
This is the memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II, officially named Il Vittoriano. It is a massive building for which a whole neighborhood was destroyed, and it is made of whiter-than-white marble that contrasts sharply with the colors of Rome. After nearly a century the all-too-white quality seems not to have toned down at all.
Tourists regularly climb to the top to enjoy the view. But if you try to find a native-born Roman who has been there, you will be out of luck. They simply don’t go. In fact they hate the structure. People on the left will tell you that it’s a precursor of Fascism. People on the right will compare it to Stalinist-era buildings in Moscow. And all of them join in the pejorative names Romans have for it: “Typewriter” is the most common, followed by “Wedding Cake.”
A week before I left Rome, I went to see Ugo one final time. His daughter, Susanna, had told me that he was now in the Ospedale di San Giovanni, and I assumed that this meant the one in the Piazza del Laterano. She said that he had been moved to the hospital after he had his stroke—really, after they realized that a stroke was what he had had.
It had been raining for two days straight, and the city was washed clean. But that morning the sun was shining with the kind of golden light that you usually see only in paintings of the Resurrection or the Assumption. I got up early because visiting hours were very limited, and I had resolved to walk to the hospital.
The walk took me past the Typewriter and the Coliseum. Tourist groups were already beginning to gather at both places. People on their way to work were running to catch buses, and the traffic came barreling down the wide avenues that converged on the Piazza Venezia. A few children’s groups were on outings, and twice I saw a teacher telling a student that he was to stay right by her side; boys were the same the whole world over, I thought.
The last time I had spoken to Ugo’s daughter had been two weeks earlier, and it had already been clear then that Ugo was nearing the end, though whether it was still a matter of weeks or months, nobody knew.
I got to the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano faster than I expected. It was not quite visiting hours yet. The broad piazza spread before me, lined with stately buildings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the far corner stood the Cathedral itself.
I did not see anything that looked obviously like a hospital, but many people were coming and going from the doorway of a bright yellow Renaissance palazzo just beside me, so I thought I might as well ask there. As I entered the doorway, I saw that the frosted letters on the glass spelled OSPEDALE. I hadn’t expected to stumble on the hospital right away, and it took me a bit by surprise.
Because visiting hours had not yet begun, I decided I might as well find a little café and have a quick espresso at the counter before heading in. Turning back to the piazza, I spied a hole-in-the-wall café down a side street.
I went in and ordered a coffee, which the owner served me with a glass of water. As is almost always the case in Italy, the coffee was superb: creamy, frothy, almost a coffee syrup, slightly bitter. I marveled yet again at how such a simple, ubiquitous element could make life in Italy rich and worth living.
As I downed the coffee, the owner, a burly man with his shirt open on a hairy chest, leaned on the counter from the other side.
“Going to visit someone in the hospital?” he asked almost confidentially.
I was startled. “Yes,” I said. “How did you know?”
“I’ve seen the look on a person’s face a thousand times,” he said, bringing his hands together and shaking them in front of his chest—the Roman gesture for suggesting that something is obvious. “Just before visiting hours. A person who isn’t from the neighborhood comes in wearing that look—I know immediately.”
“I can imagine,” I said.
Now he leaned over the counter.
“Va male?” he asked. “Is it serious?”
I set the cup down. Suddenly I had a lump in my throat.
“He’s dying,” I told him. “An old friend. He was a great man.”
The barman reached over and patted me on the forearm.
“Friends die,” he said. “We all do.” He made the sign of the cross on his chest.
“I know,” I told him.
He sighed, and then said, “But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
“No,” I agreed.
When I reached in my pocket for some coins to pay for the coffee, the café owner waved me away.
“No,” he said. “Niente. You pay me another time. Right now, you just need to go see your friend.”
I thanked him and stepped out into the street. The sun still had the warming power of the late summer, even though we were well into autumn. I walked back to the door in the middle of the yellow palazzo. I half hoped that this hospital would turn out not to be the right place. After all, when I had looked up the address I had noticed that there were at least three hospitals in Rome that came up as Ospedale San Giovanni. If it turned out to be some other hospital far from the center of the city, I would at least be able to tell myself that I had made an effort to go see Ugo.
There was an information desk inside. I stopped there to ask for directions. The two women there were deeply involved in a conversation, and they took the time to finish it before paying attention to me. One of the women turned to me and apologized for making me wait.
“You go out this door,” she said, “and then follow the path straight—straight the whole time—until you come to the main building. You’ll see a large entrance.”
“Poi?” I asked. “Then?”
She laughed. “Then, once inside, you’ll see another information desk and you should stop and ask again there.”
I did as told, and after a couple of wrong turns I found Ugo’s room. Through the glass in the door I could see a young man and woman on either side of a patient’s bed. They were massaging his legs and talking to each other as they worked. The patient was thin, stiff, and staring off into space. The young man and woman were talking affably, and at one point she laughed at something her colleague said. It occurred to me that they were probably talking about what they had done over the weekend.
For a moment I was not sure if the patient was Ugo or not. It could have been any of a number of old men wasting away. The meager chest rose and fell in slow, rhythmic breathing. Several bags of liquid dripped fluids into his arms.
But as I studied the man’s face through the glass, I realized that it was indeed Ugo. In the thin, almost mask-like face, I recognized the traits of the handsome man I had known. There was no question about it.
“Is that Ugo Vitagliano?” I asked when I entered the room.
The woman had a blank look.
“Who?” she asked.
“I’ve come to visit Ugo Vitagliano,” I said.
She looked down at the patient again, and then back at me.
“This is Ugo Vitagliano,” she said.
Somehow we were unable to pass the simplest information back and forth. Everything we said made sense, but it was all slightly out of order, so that the questions and the answers did not quite hook up.
The masseuse nodded. “Just wait outside until we are finished,” she then said in a surprisingly kind voice.
I went back out into the corridor and stood where I could see through the glass again. They finished with Ugo’s legs and began on his forearms and hands, patiently working down each finger, articulation by articulation. The two masseurs had gone back to talking. They seemed to be good friends, and I imagined that they often worked on patients together. Maybe they were lovers. The man said things that made the woman laugh several times.
Finally, they tucked a pillow behind Ugo’s head and then lifted his arms and carefully placed them on another pillow that they set on his stomach. After they had posed him like this, they came through the door.
“You may go in now,” the woman said.
I started to push the door open, then turned back to her.
“Scusi,” I said. “Excuse me.”
She stopped, a little reluctantly.
“I’ve been told that he no longer recognizes people,” I said. “Is that true?”
I saw instantly that my question made her ill at ease. Now I knew why she had not wanted to entertain it. She made a small gesture, sort of a helpless gesture.
“I wouldn’t really know,” she said. “I didn’t know him.”
She no doubt knew that she was answering my question, though she could not quite bear to do so directly.
“Thank you,” I said and I turned back to the door.
I went around to the far side of the bed. Ugo was staring up and a bit off to one side. I set my hand on the railing of the bed. Ugo did not move. He seized up once or twice, and a raw sound came out of his mouth. Then his head settled back down again.
“Ugo,” I whispered. He did not react.
“Ugo!” I tried again, a bit more forcefully. “Ugo, it’s Lorenzo. Il canadese!”
Ugo’s breathing continued exactly as before. His chest was sunken—I could see that—but it rose and fell regularly. His eyes had a vacant look. I realized that the Ugo I had known was no longer there.
“Ugo,” I said.
But that was all I could say. Something welled up in me now, and I could no longer speak without my voice breaking. I felt tears come into my eyes. I was weeping, weeping for the loss of the man I knew. Weeping for what could no longer be recovered.
I turned around and walked out onto his balcony, thankful for the chance to lean on its railing and look out over the grounds. For the chance to compose myself.
The sun was surprisingly strong—the kind that could still make plants grow and flowers turn their heads even in the wintertime. Even if Ugo never saw the balcony only a meter or two from his bed, I was glad that it was there. On a nice day like today, the staff was able to open the balcony doors, and the fresh air and sunlight streamed in. It did not matter that Ugo would not be aware of the balcony and the sunlight. It did not matter at all.
I turned around and came back inside. I was resolved now to say goodbye to Ugo. Whether he heard me or not, whether he understood any of it or not, I needed to say goodbye.
“Ugo,” I began again. “Ugo, I’ve come to say goodbye.”
I felt something heave in my chest—something heavy and humid—and I fought it down.
I whispered, my lips close to Ugo’s ear. I felt that the other patients in the room—there were two of them—were watching, paying attention, and I wanted this to be between just Ugo and me.
“Ugo, this is the last time I will ever get to see you,” I said.
I swallowed and wiped my eyes with my palms.
“I’m leaving soon, Ugo,” I whispered. “I’m leaving Italy and going back to Canada.”
Ugo continued to breathe regularly, to convulse from time to time, to stare up and out.
I had to turn and go back out to take another deep breath. From the balcony I could see the Church of St. John in Lateran, and the figure of one of the apostles holding a cross was in silhouette against the bright morning sky.
I went in again. This time I set my hand lightly on Ugo’s shoulder. I could see that when they shaved him each morning, they had carefully worked around the moustache that had always given him a rather dashing look. I thought how this same body was that of the man who had shared dinners in restaurants with me, who had once driven up with me to see the little picturesque villages around Grosseto and then invited me to a famous restaurant called Caino, where we had a lunch with more wine than we should have had, given that we had to drive back along roads with hairpin turns. I remembered how he had talked excitedly of the history of Rome and told stories of his older brother’s adventures during the Resistance.
Now he lay almost still, shrunken in the bed. I wondered if anyone at the hospital realized what a lively, intelligent, handsome man he had been. I wondered if anyone guessed that he had had a beautiful wife whom he loved enormously.
“Ugo,” I whispered again, “I’ve come to say goodbye.”
He seized up a bit, then the muscles relaxed again.
I listed some of the things I was thankful to him for. I told him how he had opened up Rome for me, filling in areas like an artist putting colors on a canvas, whether it was details about the history, or comments on the places, or observations on the Roman character. I mentioned the patience he had had with me when, especially at the beginning, I could not find the right words in Italian. “Say it in French,” he had sometimes said, since his French was quite good. But I would not do so, and he waited patiently as I struggled with the Italian language.
When I got to the end of my list, I patted his shoulder slightly. I could feel the tears coming again.
“I just wanted to thank you for everything and say goodbye,” I repeated.
Ugo did not react. He was not going to react, I knew that.
I took a deep breath. There was nothing more to say. It was time to leave.
As I left Ugo’s bedside, the young man almost across from him in the room looked up from his book. The fellow looked like he shouldn’t be in a hospital ward at all. He looked normal, healthy, happy even.
“Lei è il figlio?” he asked. “Are you his son?”
I shook my head.
“Almost a son,” I said. There was something gentle, something kind in his question.
“I’m an old friend from Canada,” I added. “I leave the country in a few days.”
That was the extent of our exchange. A few steps more and I was through the door and into the corridor. I did not look back, either at the cheerful young man or the immobile Ugo.
I started to retrace my steps, but somehow I got turned around, and it took me ten minutes of walking up and down different hallways until I found my way to the front door again and out into the sunshine.
I walked back toward the main entrance. I was carrying something heavy and dark in my chest, as though it were full of ink. I needed a place to go—a place to breathe, to absorb it, to repose before reentering the stream of the day. I wasn’t yet ready to walk down through the city, with its crowds and tourist groups.
I knew where I was going. I crossed the square and walked up the long walkway to the Chiesa di San Giovanni in Laterano. I knew that this was the one place I could be alone with my thoughts. It was not a matter of praying, but simply of reflecting, releasing my emotions into the great space of the nave.
Sitting down on one of the chairs in the nave I watched the people. Beer-bellied German tourists, their belts buckled under their guts, were snapping pictures; several nuns in blue were talking amongst themselves in a side chapel. A young couple, clearly in love, walked through the church hand in hand, as though it were a theme park.
I watched them and thought how mysterious it all was. Each of them would die one day, and no one knew what his or her death would be like. A friend of mine said once that there are two great mysteries in life: love and death. It is true: we don’t really understand either one.
I have always looked at crowds in a city and marveled that each person—rich or poor, owner of a mansion or without a home—will find a place to crawl off to and sleep each night. It seems amazing to me that in a city of millions of people, there are also millions of little crannies that people find and claim as their place to sleep. There has to be one for each person, whether it is cardboard in a church doorway, as is common among the homeless in Rome, or a luxurious bed in a magnificent hotel.
And so it is also with death. Each and every person will have his or her own death. Each man and woman will have to die, and no one person’s death will be exactly like anyone else’s. Moreover, there is no logic to a person’s death—no necessary relationship to how the person lived his or her life. Some very good people will have a long, protracted death agony, and some despicable ones will die calmly in their sleep.
How strange, I thought, that the churches of Rome had such magnificent beauty, the product of people who coveted the power and riches that religion could bring. And yet, at the same time, the Church had always taught people that none of the things of this world really mattered.
As I passed the bar where I had ordered an espresso earlier, the owner was wiping down tables on the sidewalk to prepare for the lunch crowd.
“Allora?” he said when he saw me.
“È difficile,” I told him. “He isn’t going to live much longer.”
“Eh!” he answered in that little burst that means in Italian that something is obvious or that the person agrees.
“Sit down,” he said, pulling out a chair. “Sit down, I’ll bring you something.”
He went inside and came back a moment later with a beer whose froth was sliding down the side of the glass. As he set it down on the table before me, he also handed me a photo.
“Lei sa chi è? You know who that is?”
I could guess, but I thought it was better for him to tell me.
“Mia moglie,” he said. “My wife, may she rest in peace.” He made the sign of the cross on his chest again. “We were in a car accident, the two of us in the back seat. In one of those old Cinquecentos, you know? Many years ago now.”
He took the photo from my hands and looked at it as he spoke. “She died in that accident. As for me, I was laid up for months in that hospital across the street where you just were.” He looked at the picture, looked at her, as though he were talking to her, not to me. “She was the one who died, not me. It wasn’t fair at all. You see, she was a much better person than I am.” He paused, then, but after taking a breath he went on. “Yes, I was the one who should have died in that accident. Everyone who knew the two of us knows this.”
Now he tucked the photo in his shirt pocket and leaned over to wipe down the table beside me.
“But that is the way life is, eh?” he said. “She was the one who died, and I was the one who lived. Who knows why. But here I am with a bar, and people like you come in to get a coffee or a drink before you go visit a loved one. Maybe the good Lord wanted me to run this bar for people like you. We don’t really understand a damn thing, do we?”
Saying no more, he draped his rag over his wrist and headed back into the bar. I slowly drank my beer, watching the people going up and down the street. Down the block there was a steady stream of men and women entering and exiting the yellow palazzo.
Rather than asking for the bill, I simply left what I knew was more than sufficient there on the table. As I stood up, I could see the owner in the bar watching me. He had the discretion to let me leave without any more talk. He saw that I had paid and he would come collect the money after I had left. I waved and he waved briefly back.
Then I was walking back through the city. People were going about their business, living their lives. I saw a woman who was impatient with her son and pulled at him roughly. I saw some smartly dressed businessmen stirring their coffee as they talked over their affairs on a terrace. I saw wealthy Russians smugly getting into a car with diplomatic license plates. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, back in the sixteenth century, that we all live as though we thought death would never happen to us. We would live very differently, he said, if we kept death before us always, if, as he put it, we always “had death in our mouth.”
I wondered why the groaning form of the wasted man in Room number 16 in the cardiology section of Corpo E caused tears to well up in my eyes, yet no other person in the hospital filled me with the same sorrow. If the man I saw being given a massage had turned out to be someone else, wouldn’t I have kept on walking? The fact that the life was leaking out of that body would have meant little or nothing to me. What was it about the fact that I knew that I was standing beside the remnant of what had been Ugo Vitagliano, and that Ugo Vitagliano was leaving or had left me and everyone else who had known him and that he would not be coming back? Why was this so painful to accept when I was actually standing before his body? Why could the physiotherapists calmly talk and joke over the body of my dying friend, but I could only weep? I did not feel any reproach that this was so, but I knew that if they had known Ugo it would have been impossible for them to hold the same conversation.
Rome had seen so many people come and go. So many armies, so many heroes and villains. Rome did not have time, care, or concern for one Ugo Vitagliano, avvocato, breathing his last days or hours in the hospital of San Giovanni in Laterano. Who did? A handful of old friends. A daughter. A stranger—me—to this country, to this city. As I came around the front of the Typewriter, I remembered that it was Ugo who had first told me its nickname over lunch in his apartment on the Via Cavour. Ugo had first explained Rome to me, had made sense of it for me. I carried part of his vision in my own eyes, and now it was for me to keep it for him—keep it and, eventually, to pass it on to others. I owed him that much at least.
I got back to my little apartment and, since the sun was still shining, I threw open the shutters. In a few days I would be getting on a jet and leaving Rome. The ten-year stretch of arriving and heading straight to the Via Cavour was over. I had no idea what would become of Ninel, the Russian lady. And I did not even know where Maria was, who took care of Ugo and his place for so many years. As for Mariano, I would probably never see him again.
The next Rome would be a different city for me.