“No one has mastery before he is at the end of his art and his life.” —Michelangelo
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.
The room was full, though not as jammed as the time I’d visited the summer before, when the space felt hot with the exhalation of hundreds of miserable souls. It was still full enough that I bumped into people and they bumped into me as we moved around with our heads bent uncomfortably backwards. A couple of women sat on the floor and leaned back to stare at the ceiling more comfortably, but an official, known unofficially as a shusher, indicated that they should rise. He and other shushers moved through the crowd of upturned faces whispering “shush” and “silenzio,” reminding us that the Sistine Chapel is a place of worship and not an art gallery.
“The painter wanders and loiters contentedly from place to place, always on the lookout for some brilliant butterfly of a picture which can be caught and set up and carried safely home.”
– Winston Churchill, 1948, Painting as a Pastime
Hoisting our backpacks, my students and I start up a narrow staircase that points us left and right. In November 1820, John Keats and his friend Joseph Severn climbed these stairs to two small rooms above the Spanish Steps, ready to stay until the end, which they knew wouldn’t be far away. Nevertheless, they rented a piano. Getting that piano back downstairs must have been a nightmare. Not to mention the armloads of drapes and rugs, and the sheets and the pillows, and the mattress, stained with sad rings of blood. But it was the law: all movable furnishings of a consumptive’s sickroom, even the wallpaper, must be burned. And then, on a late February day in 1821, would have come the carrying-down of Keats’ small body itself: a twenty-five-year-old man, five feet tall and wasted to the weight of an adolescent, the luminous eyes closed for good.
By PAOLA PERONI
Last year, Antonio Greco committed suicide after attempting to kill his wife with a hammer. The doctors refused to speculate on the prognosis of his wife, hospitalized in critical condition. When we heard the news, I said I was only surprised Antonio had waited so long to try to kill Maria.
i want to travel with you like light, all over
wine and gondoliers, round pink-faced foreigners, street lamps
my hand in your black hair
and because we’re often laughing, we laugh
at how precious the buildings are in this drunken city
like piles of leaves we jump inside them
Shick-a-shawing down Linea A, three stops from Cipro, Rome, I overheard a violin poorly played. Now and again, I curse my perfect pitch. A quarter tone drawled between D and D#, pulled headlong from a heavy-held bow like a dead rabbit from a hat. It was a nuisance. But I looked over to behold a blue-eyed boy crowned with thick brown hair and matching freckles.
Richard Wilbur first visited Rome with the American Fifth Army that liberated the city, just behind the fleeing Germans, on 5 June 1944. By 10:00 p.m., his division, the 36th Texans, in trucks, in jeeps, and on mobile artillery, followed the tanks of the First Armored Division into the southern outskirts of Rome, where it paused, expecting to camp and rest within Cinecittà—then, as now, the sprawling center of Italy’s movie industry. Ever the explorer, Wilbur wandered into an abandoned viewing room and found, already loaded into an editing machine, a costume drama set in the Roman Empire. He turned the hand crank and watched a Fascist version of ancient history until his disgust overcame his curiosity. Around midnight, the 36th received an order to cross the city, mount the Gianicolo (Rome’s westernmost hill), and be ready to chase the Germans into Tuscany. But Wilbur’s signal company interpreted the order loosely, slept in, and didn’t cross Rome until the next day, setting up their Message Center inside the Vatican gardens.