“No one has mastery before he is at the end of his art and his life.”
On that bright morning in November—the first day I saw her—Anna Lea Lelli wore the outfit that distinguished her on the streets of Rome: a long cape and beret. The beret emphasized her craggy jaw and prominent Roman nose. Under her Scottish wool cape, Lea wore a gray suit in gabardine and a cream-colored silk blouse with French cuffs and pearl cufflinks. Just the right amount of cuff showed under the suit, no doubt perfectly tailored to her years ago. At her neck was a silk scarf, on her hand a carnelian ring carved with the face of Mars. She held a cane with the silver head of a horse, the patina worn from the warmth and pressure of her hand.
I don’t know why I was drawn to her that day in Rome. She was eighty-three years old. I was thirty-two. We were clearly from different worlds, with nothing apparent in common. My husband and I had gone to live in Rome for what we thought would be one whirlwind year. Now that year had passed, and I felt I hadn’t really touched the heart of the place. I was in love with Italy, and wholly taken with the music of the language, but I wanted something deeper from my experience.
Lea was giving a tour of the Palazzo Farnese, an imposing palace from the sixteenth century that happens to house the French Embassy. Unlike other guides, who talked too much and said too little, Lea was more concerned that people see the right light on the frescoes. On that day in 1982, she tugged back the heavy satin draperies to let an arc of Roman sun splash the ceiling of frescoes created by Raphael. The guards were unhappy, but looked the other way. They knew Anna Lea Lelli.
As Lea moved around the room, reciting poetry and history, I saw that she belonged to another era. I felt that I could learn from her something I dearly wanted to know: how to penetrate this overwhelming, noisy, and vital city. With damp palms and dry throat, stumbling on my restaurant Italian, I summoned whatever gravitas I could muster and asked Lea if she had a calling card. Her penetrating gaze did nothing to restore my equilibrium. From a thin pocketbook, she removed a fine cream-colored card with her family crest, name, and address:
Via Lorenzo Magalotti, Roma
“You will come for tea,” she said, one eyebrow arched high. Then she started down a flight of stairs, her cane tapping in slow rhythm on the veined marble floor.
It was a week before I had the courage to call. After taking a bus across town to Lea’s building, I introduced myself to the doorman, who showed me to the antique elevator with its elaborate system of levers and pulleys. Finally… clackety, clackety, clackety, clackety, I inched up to the fourth floor. I stood before Lea’s massive entrance—with a dozen yellow roses in my hand—and took a deep breath before seizing the paw of the brass lion door knocker. Lea answered right away. As she ushered me in, I noted a heavy charcoal portrait of Dante Alighieri, patron of the house, on the entry wall. The other guardian, Lea’s family tree (dating back four hundred years), was mounted near Dante. Lea liked to show visitors that wintry brown tree, sketched out in pencil and watercolor, and tell them: “We were poor poets, mediocre artists, and excellent soldiers. The soldiers in the service of the Church of Rome for over four hundred years.” I stood entranced before that family tree, but Lea gestured to the living room, where an old-fashioned silver tea service had been set out for us.
It was only during our second visit that Lea began to inquire about my Italian studies. She could hear that I was a beginner, she said, but my accent was very natural. She studied me again with that penetrating gaze I never got used to and, in her refined English, said, “We have a space for you in the Dante class that meets here every Monday.” Motioning to me to pour her another cup of tea, she said, “You are young, but you have the quality of devotion. Devotion matters to Dante.”
We sipped our tea in silence for a moment. Her compliment had been unexpected, and it made me thoughtful. What did she mean by “devotion”? What kind of devotion could a Dante class possibly require? As if she had heard the voice inside my head, Lea explained just how devoted I’d need to be: “You must first learn Italian. Then you will begin to learn the Italian of Dante. Our class meets once a week for three hours. Of course, the class must go on for three years, a canto a week….” Lea’s voice dropped low, as if she knew she might scare me off.
Feeling nervous and struggling for common ground, I asked, “Have you read the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare?”
“Yes, I read Shakespeare as a child. And I said to myself: If it is this extraordinary in translation, I must learn English to read it! Poetry is music. First of all, music. But I had to learn English to have that music. Just as you will learn Dante’s Italian to have Dante’s poetry.”
On that day, Lea gave me a tour of the common rooms of her apartment. Books dominated the landscape. Heavy encyclopedia sets and art books of every kind: architecture, painting, sculpture, gardens. There were books on every available surface, both in the large, open living room and in her library: books with pieces of torn paper sticking out, books in leather with elegant bindings and handmade watermarked paper, and books with spines so weak they seemed to crumble further in the light.
In the middle of the library stood her imposing desk, covered in papers, books, and photographs, in the kind of dusty disarray that is known only to its keeper. The beautiful old desk had dozens of drawers, large and small, all with polished brass handles. There was a bust of Dante on the desk. A pearl-handled letter opener. A calling card from the director of the Vatican Museum. A photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt inscribed with affection. A datebook for the scheduling of Lea’s tours, written with a measured hand not for “Forum” or “Vatican” but for “Apsidal mosaics in the Byzantine style” or “Churches of the Renaissance Popes.” The library opened onto a wide terrace filled with flowers in terra-cotta pots, and on a chair beside the desk, I peeked at folders brimming with old newspaper clippings, but our time was over, and Lea escorted me to her door.
When my husband, Patrick, and I took Lea out to explore Rome, Lea sat in the front seat and snapped her wrist to the right or left like a general commanding Patrick where to drive. Raised by her father after her mother’s death in childbirth, and trained as a competent horsewoman, Lea navigated the city in unconventional ways. She ignored most traffic signs and took us down any street she desired, confident that she could talk her way out of disputes with the Carabinieri, the military police.
Lea was a rascal—by turns stern and playful—her exquisite Italian masking a wicked sense of humor and a well-honed aversion to all things bureaucratic. This remarkable woman was a curious amalgam: a radical Catholic intellectual and aristocrat, trained formally as an archaeologist, who had lived with her female partner for over thirty years on a quiet tree-lined street. Raised by a cavalry officer for the Vatican, in a home with servants who took partial responsibility for her care, Lea grew into a woman who would come to value the life of the mind above most other endeavors. Even as Lea was, by necessity, frugal in her later life, she never forgot her aristocratic upbringing.
During World War II, Lea had been active in support of democratic causes in her country, putting herself in direct opposition to the fascist regime of Mussolini. The clearest example of her activism was the founding of the National League of Italian Women, an organization with a plan to promote universal education for children, especially girls and young women. She had authored withering tracts against fascism, and had the temerity to smuggle her plan out of Italy, into the hands of the allied countries. It was tantamount to treason. Anna Lea Lelli spent thirteen months in a prison camp outside of Rome as a result and, without her precious books, spent many hours reciting poetry that would keep her soul from withering in those dreary conditions. I wouldn’t learn these details about her until a few years into our friendship.
Maybe it was due to her time in prison, or her instinctive mistrust of Italian ministers of culture—who, she felt, capriciously rotated closures of their most important monuments to the public—but Lea sometimes wanted to show me parts of Rome that were said to be off-limits. Taking advantage of Italians’ natural affinity for Americans and their vain love of titles, Lea cooked up a scheme to make me a professoressa, whose important documents had been lost in the mail, in order to see the Auditorium of Maecenas. We stood arguing with the guards. On cue we would gaze heavenward, our palms wagging in exaggerated frustration: “Ma cosa volete che facciamo, signori?” (“But what would you have us do, gentlemen?”) until we got a special permesso from the Ufficio della Commissione Archeologica Municipale to see whatever we wanted to see.
My journals from that period (1982–1985) attest to the frenzied pace at which my mind was moving as I spent more and more time with Lea. There are notes and quotations, scrawled hurriedly in pencil, as though I recognized the implausible gift of Lea and my short time with her. “Must find Marguerite Yourcenar book: Memoirs of Hadrian. Read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Go to Medici Riccardi Palace—knowledge coming from the East to Florence. Giovanni Bellini: when did Flemish art begin to influence Italy?”
My journals are also full of material from the Dante classes, which I’d begun attending without fail each week. My Italian was still not good enough—I probably only understood twenty-five percent of what was being spoken in class. Yet I was thrilled to be studying in this way. I covered yellow lined notebooks with Italian verbs fully conjugated, with books to read, with questions to ask.
The friendship that gradually developed between Anna Lea Lelli and me challenged me at every level. I was out of my depth most of the time. It wasn’t easy being befriended by Lea, as her friends called her. We were both impatient. I wished that Lea were less domineering. She wanted me to slow down and pay attention—not be quite so American.
Lea would taunt me at times with references I didn’t know. She loved to sing a certain phrase from The Marriage of Figaro with a gleam in her eye: “Figaro qua, Figaro la, una cosa per volta, per carità!” (“One thing at a time, for heaven’s sake!”)
The other maddening situation was how important the right use of language was for Lea. In Italian, as in many languages, there are different forms used to indicate a more formal—or perhaps respectful—way of addressing someone, as well as an informal form, something people use with family, friends, or children; in this case: lei and an informal tu. Both mean “you,” but one pulls a person closer, while the other maintains a certain distance. Lea used both with me at various times. I felt flummoxed by this frequently occurring shift in her moods. Was Lea teasing me? Was she keeping some distance because she wasn’t yet sure of our friendship? I observed how Lea controlled situations with her precision in language. It certainly kept me on my toes.
The Dante class itself was another example of how important language was to Lea. Sometimes it felt like the very air she breathed was heavy with significance. If my Italian had a hint of something less than aristocratic, she would draw herself up and say, “Le vocali, le vocali! Vowels! Vowels! You must not speak with your mouth half closed like Americans do. Italian must be spoken with coloratura. Apri la bocca! Open your mouth! La poesia va letta con coloratura!” My face was red with frustration; Lea’s coloratura made my jaws ache.
It has been said that to study the Divine Comedy, (sometimes called simply the Comedy) in depth is to study a compendium of human knowledge up to the point of Dante’s life. When Lea first told me that the Dante class would take three years, I hadn’t really grasped the significance of it. Now I did. Dante’s Divina Commedia consists of one hundred cantos, divided into three realms: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Lea’s classes were divided in such a way that it took a full year for each, allowing for holidays and studying one canto per week.
I soon learned that our class was three hours long in order to allow each student to read out loud, have their vowels called to task, and share their research. Because the material is dense and annotated throughout, Lea devised an approach that would allow each of us—there were five students in total—to contribute. We would each in effect become an expert in some significant aspect of the Comedy. Elizabeth, a friend of Lea’s from the American Embassy, took a particular liking to Ovid and his Metamorphoses, so she explained the mythological references. Genevieve wanted to advance her studies of Virgil and Homer; she focused on classical themes. (When we came to Ulysses in canto XXVI of Inferno, she led the discussion.) Another student, Antonio, wanted to brush up on his Italian history, especially key figures of the period. When we were baffled by references to Guelphs and Ghibellines, Italy’s constantly warring city-states, we turned to him. Biblical citations and medieval theology were intensely scrutinized by Clara, the other American in the group—a friend of a friend, I presumed. And I sought out physical places in Rome and Florence—and throughout Italy, when I could—that were mentioned in the Comedy and brought pictures, postcards, and maps to class. I even took my own pilgrimage to Dante’s final resting place in Ravenna.
After I had known Lea for two years, Lea’s partner planned a monthlong trip to the United States and asked me if I could stay in the apartment. Someone was needed to make sure Lea was all right, and to do some of the cooking on the weekends when Carmela, the cook, and Filomena, the housekeeper—in Lea’s employ for decades—were both off. Patrick and I talked about it, and I agreed to stay.
I didn’t realize at the time that this experience would mark my differences with Lea as never before. Coming weekly for Dante class was one thing, but moving into a close-knit female household was something else altogether, and there were times when the apartment felt like a medieval convent, the sound of silence marred only by the turning pages of great books. Sometimes I had to escape, under the pretense of some errand, to breathe in less rarified air.
Once in the fray of Roman streets and alleys, dodging impudent, buzzing scooters and pint-sized cars with irritable horns, I would go to my favorite pasticceria, Il Cigno, and down a cappuccino and cornetto. Then, quivering with excitement and caffeine, I would go back to the simple, patrician building; pass by the old doorman, who always wanted to talk about the weather and the price of pasta; punch the red button for the antique elevator; and creak haltingly up to the fourth floor. I knew I’d find Lea there, reading under the dubious light of one forty-watt bulb. I knew she would be surrounded by her beloved books and under the care of Filomena and Carmela, who kept her frugal household. I knew I would have to slow way down.
Filomena and Carmela contributed to my sense of awkwardness. I got off to a bad start with Filomena because I made my bed. She appeared, stout and ruddy, at the door of my room the first morning and began muttering in a heavy Sicilian dialect. I had merely neatly arranged my bed and fluffed the pillows. I gathered that she went to Lea, because Lea came to see me, serious and somber, an elder statesman addressing the Forum about a vital issue.
“You will positively ruin my household,” she said, her face pinched. “You don’t want to cause work for Filomena, I see that. So shall you be lazy in your mind and vigorous in housekeeping? You must use yourself well. Filomena will do this work for you. Use your time here differently.” And she turned and went back to her studies. I heard her cane tapping all the way down the long, dark hall. I was red-faced and stunned. Never having had a servant in my life, this patrician point of view, coming from a woman who counted her pennies, was completely new to me. It seemed undemocratic, and indeed it was. But I soon figured out that as long as the servants were in the house, Lea was giving me an opportunity to experience a different kind of life, one devoted to disciplined study.
Now I understood: I was here to educate myself in the tradition of this home; yet, in the process, I had violated some sacrosanct balance of power.
Sharing a kitchen with Carmela was also daunting. In Carmela’s kitchen, frugality and economy reigned supreme. Lea didn’t have much money, but proper dining would never be sacrificed. Carmela’s day began at sunrise, when she left her own apartment with her mesh shopping bags and began eyeing fresh melanzane and pomodori at the outdoor market. She scrutinized every piece of fruit with her august eyes. She smelled every fish and squeezed its flesh when the vendor wasn’t looking. After she had made her selections for the day, she arrived at Lea’s flat about a quarter after nine and hurried to the kitchen. Every piece of fruit would be washed and laid out on a cotton tea towel, then put on a ceramic platter and turned daily to avoid bruising. By ten o’clock, Carmela was cooking for lunch, the main meal of the day.
Lunch was a routine that Carmela and Lea had enacted for over forty years. Carmela brought the food into the musty green dining room on a tray. She took off her frilly apron (the kind with one useless little pocket) and put on white cotton gloves. Then Carmela served lunch: she ladled the broth, forked the linguini, stabbed the meat, all wearing those white cotton gloves. I learned to use silver finger bowls—small bowls filled with water for the diner to rinse her fingers after handling food—at Lea’s house, and to wash my one perfect piece of fruit at the table for dessert. I tried, unsuccessfully, to peel my fruit in one long, circular coil and then eat slices of it off my knife, like Lea did. And I learned to finish off lunch with a tiny cup of strong espresso and a few pieces of bitter dark chocolate—a ceremony I wish I still had the stomach for. After that, Lea lumbered to bed for a nap and I stayed awake, vibrating.
If there was any leftover food in the kitchen, even a tablespoon of something, it was placed in a tiny dish or cup and covered with an equally tiny saucer. On the weekends, when Carmela was gone, I hunted in the small, square icebox for the makings of a meal for Lea and me. Often, I found myself balancing these slippery saucers in one hand while calculating what I could make from a dab of swiss chard, some sautéed garlic, three grapes, and one modest medallion of beef. Nothing was ever wasted.
Although each Dante class has left a long-lasting memory, I especially recall one day, during which Lea first challenged my knowledge of Italian, and one canto in particular: the canto in which Dante’s beloved guide, Virgil, must leave.
The peachy gold Roman sun is on the window’s edge; soon it will move to the table and illuminate the stack of books and the magnifying glass with the long brass handle that Lea uses to see small print. She picks up her glass and peers at the worn leather book, then looks at us, her small group of students.
Lea’s favorite canticle is Purgatorio. She loves it for its humanity. Far from the high drama of the Inferno, and not yet to the esoteric theology of Paradiso, Purgatorio is Dante at his most human, his most devoted to his guide, Virgil.
“Now we are at the canto when Virgil leaves Dante. He has brought Dante through the Inferno and up the mountain of Purgatorio. But he can go no further. Beatrice will come and lead Dante to Paradiso. But now”—her voice is hushed, an actress on the stage—“now we are faced with a Dante who must go on without his Virgilio, without his beloved master and guide. He must pass through the fire of purification, and then he will find himself alone.”
“Tratto t’ho qui con ingegno e con arte….” Lea speaks Dante’s words with reverence:
I have brought you here with skill and with understanding.
Henceforth, your own wisdom must be your guide.
See the sun that shines on thy brow, see the grass, the flowers and the trees which our earth brings forth of itself alone…
Lea stops, her blue-gray eyes penetrating. “Ci sei? Are you there, Susan?”
“Allora, continua!” (“Well then, continue!”)
“Sì.” She stamps a petite foot with that Sì and gives me a scowl as if I’d been daydreaming.
I continue by heart. In the two years we have been together, I have surprised myself by memorizing passages of the Divine Comedy: “Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno.” (“No longer expect word or sign from me.”)
“Free, upright, and whole is thy will, and you’ll do no wrong if you but do its bidding.”
“Avanti!” (“Keep going!” Lea urges me.)
“Per ch’io te sovra te, corono e mitrio.” (“Therefore, I crown you sovereign of yourself.”)
“Brava,” she says again, quietly this time. Her eyes are shining at me. In all my days, I will never forget that “Brava.” And how hard I worked for it.
Because of that day, at times in class, Lea will turn to me with a prompt: “Tratto t’ho qui…” she will say, looking at me to finish the passage.
She sees that I love the poetry, I love the sounds—now that I can speak with more coloratura—and that I comprehend the philosophical yearnings of a man who was “[i]n the middle of the journey of life … where the clear and easy way was lost.”
“Poetry is not yours,” Lea says, “unless you cannot express those feelings, except in those words. Now, Dante… he is the man with one million facets: the tragedy, the comedy, the lovely descriptions of small places. He is polyphonic. And for that, we never tire of his company.”
For a moment, her eyes soften and become distant. “You see, the Purgatorio is deeply personal. All the emotions are deeply, personally felt. And every time you read it, you come to some different shades, you see—depending, of course, upon the different stages of your life.”
Two years into my study, Dante was beginning to speak to me, too. I was beginning to grasp the overall structure of the Comedy (so called because it has a happy ending). For Dante, all sin was a result of some kind of disordered love—that is, wanting or loving the wrong things, or wanting and loving the right things in the wrong way. There are no shortcuts in love. None of us can bypass our own shortcomings and come to this vision in any other way.
We come to maturity through love.
One day during the month I was living with her, when the Dante class was over and Lea had gone to her room for a nap, I went into her office to look around. I wanted to know more of her life than she had told me, more of her stages, as she put it. In the torn folders that were scattered on a chair, I found newspaper clippings, in both English and Italian, mainly from 1945 and 1946.
My eyes went first to the front page of Il Nuovo Giornale d’Italia dated 19 dicembre 1946. The headlines were all in exclamation: “18 million Italians fighting and dying for the French cause in Indochina!”; “An urgent appeal from Naples, promises from President De Gasperi fail to stop a second day of strikes!”
I scoured through all the remaining articles: Anna Lea Lelli speaking at Smith College, Barnard College, teaching the history of art at The Master’s School, Dobbs-Ferry-on-Hudson, New York. There were articles that discussed her thirteen-month internment in the prison camp outside Rome.
Along with these astonishing discoveries, I found articles on Lea’s formal training as an archaeologist under Rodolfo Lanciani, who was credited with the early excavations of the Roman Forum. There were photographs too, and plaques. A plaque from the American Embassy for years of service. Thanks from the offices of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, various senators, and the Apollo 11 astronauts, all of whom came to visit Rome and were escorted, entertained, and challenged by Anna Lea Lelli. “President Johnson,” Lea’s quote in one particular article from 1969 said, “you talk as though democracy is a panacea. I’ll tell you one thing democracy will never give you: The Sistine Chapel.” I wondered if she made President Johnson nervous with her steely gaze.
The following day, Lea and I went to the Forum. Lea liked to go when she knew that fewer tourists would be there. As we walked towards the Curia, the Senate House of the early Republic (where—according to Lea—senators voted by walking to the right or to the left of the small iconic building), Lea stopped to pull a weed from the path as though she were in her own garden.
Her chin was tilted up, and she leaned lightly on her cane with her delicate hand. “If we could build a tripod on which to support our Western civilization, it would be the ethos of the Jews, the thought of the ancient Greeks, and the essence of Roman law. This is what I think about here, in this place.
“Do you know what I want?” Lea continued. “When my time comes, I want to die here. Here on this ground.”
We had a spartan dinner of leftovers that night. Lea was tired from all the walking, and I was too. We went into the living room around 7:30 to sit together.
Lea, always devoted to reading and poetry, held her book in her right hand and a magnifying glass in her left. She read to me from Virgil’s Aeneid: “I sing of warfare and a man at war. From the seacoast of Troy in early days, he came to Italy by destiny, to our Lavinian western shore, a fugitive, this captain….”
At times her lips would move slowly with the reading, as if she was tasting the blended flavors of the words on her tongue. I studied her face in the soft light. Her skin was almost like parchment now, fragile and fine. I thought how beautiful she was, even more beautiful now, at eighty-six, than in the pictures I had seen when she was younger. All the vigor of her disciplined mind, her pure joy and childlike love of beauty, even her deep-rooted elitism—she was a distilled essence. She looked up and saw me studying her. Her eyes softened and she scrunched her mouth at me like she did when she was amused.
Lea looked down at her book. “You know,” she spoke quietly, “I find the world, more and more, moving towards the verb ‘to have’ than the verb ‘to be.’ It is how much, instead of how. To want to know how—that is devotion.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. There was a wind outside, a wind that found the sliver of open window and bullied its way in. My blankets didn’t seem enough in the face of such a wind, and my fingers moved anxiously along the edges of the satin binding. I felt alone in the emptiness of a restless night, suspecting that Lea was restless too. For a time, I tried to whisper Dante, but even that made me feel more concerned for my friend.
I walked down the long hall to the living room and saw the light still on. I passed the serving cart where we had poured a nightcap hours earlier. Lea was still sitting on the couch, her book fallen shut and her reading glass on the floor.
“Lea?” I said. “Lea!” When she opened her eyes and looked at me, it was without knowing me at first. Her eyes were dim from too much wine; she had taken out a scrapbook of pictures. Even before I moved towards her, she stopped me with one pale hand raised.
“All I have is what I have given away. And poetry.”
It is her time now, I thought. In this ungrateful wind, in this deep edge of night, she knows what she has. She has fought for a life on her terms and is not afraid to be alone now. I covered Lea’s delicate shoulders with my wool robe and left her. Back in my bed, listening to the wind, I wondered what I would reap in my time. And how I would sow for it now.
Dante’s great poem of sin and redemption ends in rapture in which Dante cannot see with his eyes, but perceives his progress by the increasing light around him. “The glory of Him who moves all things is the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” These are Dante’s last recorded words. The poet for whom words had never failed before was struck dumb. He tells us simply that only love remains. Love has taken Dante down into the hollow cone of hell, around the circular terraces of Mount Purgatory, and straight up into the whirling spheres of Paradise.
From my diary marked April 6, 1985, the year we left Rome to return to the United States, I find this entry: “Today, I spent Lea’s 87th birthday with her. There are only a few of us here; not the Dante class, just a few close friends. Lea has tossed a ribbon over her shoulder, and holds her glass of champagne high for toast after toast. She is wearing an elegant long skirt of deep maroon taffeta.”
On that day, Lea showed me how to join arms the way the Greeks do when they drink ouzo. As we sipped our champagne, she said, “Non ti so dire quanta gioia me fai.” Yes, the informal. The way friends talk to each other. “I can’t tell you how much joy you give me,” she said.
I thought that my apprenticeship with Lea was the study of Italian literature. But it was more than that—it was an apprenticeship in a way of life. Even more, it was an apprenticeship in love. In the days that I watched her blue-lined hands and the gray, wiry strands of hair that escaped from her small head like naughty children, I thought about how I loved her. I thought about how fearless she made me.
And in that fearlessness, I felt, for the first time, the seeds of compassion for my own growing old.
Lea died in the spring of 1992. She had continued to teach the Dante class, continued to give tours, and—I imagine—continued to pull weeds from the grounds of the Roman Forum.
I was back in California by then, making a living wearing business suits and high-heeled shoes of the type Lea would have probably disdained. I was traveling for business in a world where efficiency and pace counted for more than almost anything else. My years in Rome, the Dante class, the long talks with Lea about life—all that seemed so far away.
The day Lea died, Patrick left a message for me. A friend from Rome had called. Lea had given a tour of the Forum that morning and then had collapsed in her library in the afternoon. She’d almost had her wish. Our friend had gone to light a candle in the Church of Santa Sabina, one of the purest and simplest of Rome’s churches, built from a Greek temple with twenty-four exquisitely matching Corinthian columns. Simple and enduring, and Lea’s favorite.
I remember Lea when I remember to take the time to learn something well, when no half measures will do. Sometimes I still search my kitchen for tiny dishes to put the leftovers in. Occasionally, I remember the economy of one piece of fruit. I’m not as solitary as Lea, but I turn off the phone and ignore the doorbell more than I like to admit. I’ve accepted that, in a world of rushing and doing, I am a contemplative soul. Without Lea and the Divine Comedy, I probably would not have understood this as well as I do.
I sit with my torn and spineless copy of Purgatorio—reading through faded notes and dog-eared pages—until I find those passages that Lea once brought to life for me. Those passages of polyphony that made Dante such good company and were Lea’s favorite. There, on the terraces of the souls who are not allowed to look backwards, who trot by, muttering things like “Haste, haste, lest time be lost for too little love,” I find what I want: poetry that is alchemy. A muscular, redemptive kind of poetry, meant to explode inside with transforming beauty. Poetry that is hard-coded into the words, Dante’s words.
Era già l’ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ’ntenerisce il core
lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio,
e che lo novo peregrin d’amore
punge, s’e’ ode squilla di lontano
che paia il giorno pianger che si more…
—Purgatorio, Canto VIII
(It was that hour that turns back the longing of seafarers and melts their hearts.
The day that they have bidden their sweet friends farewell.
And the new pilgrim of love is pierced when he hears the bell in the distance,
the bell that seems to mourn the dying day…)
Because I was awkward in Rome, and Lea saw my devotion, the line is not “they have bidden their sweet friends farewell”; it is c’han detto ai dolci amici addio.
It is the music that Lea gave me.
Photos by Patrick Troccolo
Susan R. Troccolo is active as a community volunteer and writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in VoiceCatcher, Open to Hope, Culinate, and the award-winning anthology Aging: An Apprenticeship. Troccolo’s collection The Beet Goes On: Essays on Friendship and Breaking New Ground has been called whimsical and wise, “the perfect gift for anyone who needs an immediate dose of humor and life-wisdom.” The essay “All I HaveIs What I Have Given Away” is adapted from Troccolo’s 1992 documentary Homage: A Story of Anna Lea Lelli.