By Juilene Osborne-McKnight
Grand Prize Bronze winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards
They have cleaned the fountain in the Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. This means that it no longer works. Water spills over the basin and down the sides.
On the lone dry step, the King of the Gypsies has taken his throne. He is young – well, younger than me, which qualifies enough of the world these days. He wears a patchwork coat of many colors and a pair of old pajama pants. He carries a tall staff whose top is adorned with feathery rags in profuse colors. Some days I see him begging; in early mornings on my way to work I have seen him asleep in doorways. But I have also seen men kneel before him and buss both of his cheeks.
Full disclosure requires me to say that I have invented his lofty title. He may not even be a gypsy, let alone a king. He may be just a tattered leftover hippie. But this is the problem with traveling and teaching in Italy while residing permanently in a fiction mind.
Italy flips the fiction switch.
The winding medieval streets echo the footfalls of the Gypsy King. He is running, his staff held high, his feet flying over the rain-wet cobblestones. The backpack was easy to nick, lying there against the chair. And stealing is never wrong if it helps the tribe.
He hopes that there is something in the pack worth selling. He ducks under an archway, yanks the zipper and fumbles inside the bag. One jacket. Worthless, but it will fit some member of his family. An iPad. Password protected. Too bad, because it has a camera. It might have fetched a hundred euro. Something else, heavy, in the bottom of the bag. He reaches in, fishes it into the weak yellow light cast by the streetlamp. And then for the first time in his life, the wild Gypsy King knows the slow thunder, the hot wrench of fear.
In Trastevere every resident owns a dog or two and there are no laws regarding scoopers. The resulting offal is smeared into the pavement by Vespas and street cleaning machines; the walker must be constantly vigilant.
Tourists must be vigilant against the gypsies too. Italian cities like Milan have outlawed them completely, but gypsies are omnipresent in Rome. Near Colosseo and at the train station, they will reach into purses and pockets. At the trattorias of Trastevere, they beg tableside.
One day a gypsy came to my table. She began to weep, instantaneous and soggy. She pointed to her mouth. I offered her bread, but she waved her hand in disdain and stalked away. A half hour later she returned. She pointed imperiously to my basket of bread and to my Irish friend Rosie’s chicken. Neither of us had enough Italian to ask her if bread and chicken would persuade her to leave us alone. I handed the gypsy the entire basket of bread; Rosie gave her a parsley-dotted chicken breast. The gypsy slapped the slab of chicken between two slices of thick Roman bread and strode away, now fortified for the real work of the begging.
Sounds fictive, doesn’t it? But no, this is straight reportage.
When considering how and why Italy spurs the fictive imagination so easily, this may be the first clue: here the truth is far, far stranger than the fiction.
St Luigi de Francesii
We have come to the French Church of Rome where I hope to feel some mastery of language. I have been stuttering through my Italian for weeks; thus far, I can order food and buy tickets for the Metro.
In French, I stand a chance of having an actual conversation, a thought beyond pasta and biglietti. In French, I might hazard a metaphor.
Beside the door, at the Cathedral desk, sits a bespectacled Oriental man who speaks flawless Parisian French. We converse about French Masses and stained-glass windows and I feel a deep sense of personal victory. I wonder if he feels the same each time he speaks the language. I wonder how he learned it and where and why.
Before my mind can begin to spin his story—the escape from China after Tiananmen Square, the hidden year in a French monastery—our friend Mike, professor of Roman art history, leads us to the front corner of the church where a crowd clusters around an Italian guide who holds an iPad aloft. On the iPad, I can see a shadowy angel.
Behind her in the murky corner are three indistinct paintings, but she inserts a euro into a little machine and a light flickers on.
The paintings are Caravaggios.
Unprotected by glass or guards, adorning the walls of the chapel, are The Calling, The Martyrdom and The Inspiration of St. Matthew. There is no gate, not so much as a rope between us and the painting.
In The Inspiration of St. Matthew, an angel floats above the Saint, his brooding wings the dark gray and black of Roman ravens, his white robe swirling around him in a cyclone of fabric. Matthew, garbed in deep yellow-orange, is kneeling on a rough-hewn stool. Characteristic of Caravaggio, the saint’s feet are dirty.
I know that Caravaggio was a man with anger issues, that he tried to instigate fights around Rome, especially when he was flush. I have read that eventually he killed a man and spent the rest of his life on the run. I know that he often painted peasants, harlots. Of course, he was the master of chiaroscuro.
Professor Mike tells us that these paintings are some of Caravaggio’s earliest and that he was living in the home of a Cardinal just behind the church. And then he makes the mistake of saying that The Inspiration of St. Matthew is not the original painting, that the Church would not hang the original painting because it was theologically incorrect. Volatile Caravaggio was required to render an entirely new painting. He did so. In one month. Just like that, I have forgotten our Oriental gate man. I am standing in a room with Caravaggio.
“Damn their eyes! Damn their money-grubbing souls.”
He slaps the dark background on the blank canvas, gestures with his brush at his model.
“Theologically incorrect! As if they know theology in their rich palaces, their gold and marble churches. Jesus consorted with harlots! Taxmen. Poor people in bare feet.”
He gestures at the model. “Bare feet! Can you ever imagine one of them with their crimson robes and their excellent wines in their bare feet?”
He is so agitated now that the stabbing brush sends droplets of paint flying through the air. The model steps aside as one deep burgundy droplet lands on the bench where he has been kneeling. He swabs at it with a cloth, rearranges his knee on a dry spot, draws his saffron robe around him. He has learned to remain perfectly quiet during these tirades, still as an object.
He has been modeling St. Matthew for months now, one tableau after another. Caravaggio pays well, but it is surely the money of the Church. The artist’s studio is dark and cluttered, his living rooms noxious with the smell of leftover food and unwashed clothing. The light is feeble, edging in through a single window, as if fearful of the artist.
Not surprising, because his rages are titanic, thunderous.
Now he swabs his brush through the delirious orange on his palette.
“I will give them theology. God lives among the dirty and the poor. I will give them a pigeon-winged angel.”
He laughs suddenly, a gusting of wind.
“What say you, my Matthew? Should I send you a raven or a pigeon?”
The model realizes that an answer is required of him. He sighs. “Either would be fearsome,” he says. “Or any angel.”
The artist regards him for a moment, his head tilted, then he nods, a smile spreading across the wide face.
“Of certainty,” he says. “Of course.”
The light in the alcove snaps off. Sometime, while I was Mittying away, the Italian guide and her charges have disappeared. In fact, everyone has disappeared. I am standing alone in the shadowed alcove. I regard the three paintings from my solitary darkness. Through the light from the rainy window, one thing stands out in each painting: the hand of Christ, the whirling robe of the angel, the gleaming body of St. Matthew’s murderer. Each looks as though it has been lit intentionally by the wan light from this very window.
Back in my appartamente, I discover that the original St. Matthew and the Angel was destroyed by bombing in World War II. I feel a terrible sense of personal loss. I search it out on the Internet. Trapped in its digital world, the original painting still tells its story. St. Matthew is a bald, gangling peasant, his arms work-roped, his feet dirty, his face in the presence of the angel confused, frightened. But the leaning, childlike angel has white, white wings.
Once it was the opulent Port of Rome, before the sea packed its bags and moved away, rendering the city obsolete, a beautiful ruin.
In my increasingly fluent Italian, I ask the fellow at the ticket window for a price break for my students (C’e un premio ridotto per mi studenti?)
Non non Professoressa.
They pay full price.
Language may not be the ticket to the world after all.
But three of them have accompanied me today and I am hoping that they will feel the same magic that I felt on my first visit.
The day is glorious, that Roman blue and green that is too dazzling for any camera and my students are perishing with hunger. We select our lunches and carry them outside to sit in the sunshine. We linger and tell stories, always stories.
One of my students met Pope Francis the day before. He practiced everything he wished to say, but when the time came, he sputtered out, “You have a nice church.” With good, self-deprecating humor, he tells us the story and we roll in our chairs with laughter.
Tourists from quieter countries eye us with suspicion, but the dogs of the place know a generous table when they hear one. Without warning, they line up beside us, an old yellow dog with a pronounced limp and a white mastiff bigger than a lab. We feed them and they lie down beside us in the sun. I consider them a good omen.
After lunch, our papal storyteller launches himself down a weedy, unkempt hill toward a low-slung brick archway. I watch as he leans his six foot plus frame down below the arch. He turns and looks up at me. “Professor,” he says, “I think you should come down here.”
I hesitate. Are there ticks in Italy? Should they keep me from finding a story?
“Really,” he says urgently. “You need to look down here.”
The ceiling is low; a series of descending arches fade away toward a circular room off in the distance. In its center is a vague white statue, positioned beneath a weedy porthole, pale light gleaming down on marble.
I lower my head and duck-walk my way toward the statue, nearly crawling through the low-slung passageway. When I am close enough I stand and gasp. My student has discovered a Mithraeum.
Mithras was a god of the Roman soldier; he gave hope to men who had been trained to die. The all male religion, which began in Persia, was practiced in secret temples, learned in hidden schools. It included seven very secretive levels of initiation, followed by feasts. Much simplified, the young god Mithras slays a white bull; the bull’s death brings fertility to the Earth. For performing this task, Mithras is taken into heaven, where he serves as a mediator between god and man.
Our discovery is particularly spectacular this day because I have been teaching a course called Caesar vs. the Gauls – from the Gallic point of view – but heavy with the trappings of soldiery on both sides. We have discussed both Mithraism and Druidism.
Here, deep beneath the earth, the boy Mithras sits astride the bull, yanking back hard on its neck. His right arm is raised, but the hand that holds the knife is gone. His curled marble hair is green with mildew. Spider webs dangle from the porthole above his head, catching the light, his frail and gossamer crown.
My student says, “Didn’t you tell us that there were Gallic slaves in this city?”
She has soaked the copper hair and braided it tight to her skull. Wet, it looks darker. She hurries along the cryptoporticus beneath the villa. Rumor among the slaves is that Great Caesar – no greatness among her people – is to be honored at a banquet.
Aeius forces her breathing to calm. Nothing can let them suspect what she is; her kind are the first to die under Caesar. Her markings are hidden, deep beneath her robes.
Her task is to protect the boy. To that end, she reminds herself to bend her knee before Caesar. The boy has never known his father, the great Chief of the Arverni, who languishes in the prison of Caesar. The boy must not be discovered for any slip on her part.
As she rises into sunlight, she sees that it is Lexis Barbatus, the bull worshipper, who stands guard at the door, his uniform gleaming in reds and metals. Barbatus pays her too much mind. She suspects that he spies for Caesar. All his questions probe.
“Ah lovely Aeius,” he greets her. “You have hidden the copper hair?”
“My master has asked me to serve at the feast.” She keeps her eyes lowered. She remembers to speak in broken Latin. Barbatus is not deterred.
“What will you say to Great Caesar?” he asks her.
“I am too lowly for Caesar,” she answers.
She mutters toward his sandals, “I am only a slave.”
She does not tell him that she knows his secret, has seen the boy astride the bull in his hidden temple below the ground. She does not tell him that her people knew of this religion long before Barbatus knew.
He lifts her chin.
“But perhaps not always a slave, eh?”
She wants to spit in his laughing eye. She longs to lift her hand, to intone the words that would fell him like his slaughtered bull.
She wants him to know that Caesar is not the only Power.
But she schools her face, thinks only of the boy.
I step from the cave into sunlight. Does history press its weight on everyone? Sometimes, I swear that I can hear them, see their shadows moving among the stones. The longer I stay in Italy, the harder it is to shake the past away, to carry on as though it is not whispering above us, below us, still animate in the air.
In my first sweltering week in Rome, I went to the Forum. I walked the Via Sacra, where Caesar himself walked, likewise St. Peter, St. Paul. My running shoes slid across the smooth stones, slipped into ruts left by chariot wheels. Flowering weeds bloomed in front of the Cloaca Maxima, the first sewer to drain this swamp, to allow the Romans to descend from their seven hills, to forge their terrifying Empire.
Later, deep beneath the Earth, carved into the soft tufa of Rome, I passed my hand across grave after grave in the catacombs of the early Christians. Carved on the walls were the tributes of family members to a beloved daughter, a martyred son. Past a labyrinth of hallways, up a tipsy set of stairs, we entered an oval chamber. Here the Christians would hold feasts above the tombs. Dies Natalis, they called them, making the day of death the day of birth instead. A tiny stone, early graffiti really, says simply On this day I ate here with Peter and Paul.
And there, of course, is another novel—the befuddled saddened Peter, still bereft at the loss of his Lord, Paul with all his moral certainty, his charging energy. Together. At a dining table. In a catacomb.
Stories are out walking around, waiting to be seen, to be heard, to be told. All of us who tell them know that to be true.
In Italy, time sends postcards.
When I had been here for a while, I went to St. Peter’s Basilica very early in the morning.
The square was empty.
Inside, the space was momentarily a Church, not yet transformed as a tourist site. I wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pieta alone. The Madonna leaned above Jesus in the early morning light. Her tilted face was so young. Her right arm was taut against the flesh of her son’s back, her face resigned to bearing up her broken child.
There is a story that the young Michelangelo was in the Vatican when he heard someone attribute his Pieta to the Milanese artist Gobbo. Angered, Michelangelo sneaked into the church at night, a lamp of candles around his head, and by that meager flickering, carved his name across the Madonna’s chest. Knowing that this would infuriate the Church, he had prepared a cart and donkey and he fled away in darkness. Later, he came to think of his vanity as a sin, but what he knew then was this; the Madonna had been inside the marble and she had called, not to Gobbo, but to him.
He bends above the looking glass. His is a face of angles and planes. The bent nose, the wide domes beneath the high bones of the cheek. The work has aged him.
Once, when he was young—an apprentice still—there was a boy who watched him practice at a dog. “How did you know,” the child asked, “that the dog was hidden in the stone?”
Perhaps the only one who ever understood.
Now, his shoulders are crooked, permanently bent. His neck aches. Four years beneath the arch of that ceiling. Old as Jeremiah. More years still of chipping, chipping, chipping at the stone, but what must he do? “Can you see me?” they ask him. “Can you tell my story?”
He hopes that he has done just that, at least.
Because the work, at last, is holy.
It is past midnight and he is tired. He yanks his velvet dressing gown of green around him, reaches for his work boots. He longs to lie down for just a moment, rest across his bed.
He regards the raw marble before him for a long silent time. Then, he nods once, sighs.
He rises with his chisel in his hand.
Juilene Osborne-McKnight is the author of four Irish historical novels, I am of Irelaunde, Daughter of Ireland, Bright Sword of Ireland, Song of Ireland, all from MacMillan, and the recent journalistic history of Ireland, The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans, from Pelican. Since 2013 she has been a travel writer and photographer for Calkins Media in Pennsylvania.