Aug 08, 2023, 05:55AM

Glimpses of Darkness

Contemplating crime and death in Italy and Massachusetts.

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After a stay in Tuscany that included a visit to a marble quarry, we finished July in Rome, where our son competed in the International History Olympiad, with events including finals in the Catholic history bee, held in St. Peter’s Square, and a footrace in the Circus Maximus, where the participants’ starting positions were determined by their scores on an exam about Ancient Rome. A day trip organized for contestants and their families to Pompeii was a highlight, surprising in how large the archaeological site there is and how well-preserved its ruins, having been excavated from volcanic ash.

At tourist sites in Italy, particularly in Rome, I was on guard against the pickpockets, about whom warnings shouldn’t be ignored; several students in the competition fell victim over the week. I made myself a hard target, with my wallet and phone in a pouch looped to my belt and secured, at the zipper, with a carabiner. Nothing happened in my case, though I’d resolved that if anyone squirted ketchup on me, and someone else then rushed in to “clean” me up, I’d not hesitate to use an elbow strike or leg sweep.

Separate from the history competition, we had an excellent tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, led by Tara Bos, a vivacious young art historian with bright red hair who’s studying her seventh language (Romanian). We paused by the Tomb of Pope Alexander VII, with its striking sculptural monument by Bernini, in which Death, face hidden, holds out an hourglass, while Truth puts a foot upon the world, obscuring England in a swipe against Anglicanism, and though I’m part of the latter as an Episcopalian, I took no offense.

The previous week, my wife and I spent a few hours in the charming Tuscan town of Pietrasanta. An artists’ colony, ithas modern sculptures in some of its old churches, and we walked through a yard where sculptors work. At a café, we chatted with a man at the next table, who when asked said he was as an artist, with success enough at it to take care of his family. Looking him up later, I found that Christian Lemmerz is a world-renowned sculptor, in whose work the human skull has been a prominent theme.

Death came quickly to the people in Pompeii when Vesuvius exploded. Casts showing the final positions of some of them were made by injecting plaster into the voids left after their bodies had decayed inside the volcanic rock. One senses this ancient town was not a bad place to live. Wandering among the houses, one sees courtyard gardens that had water features. There are mosaics on walls and floors, as well as marble-covered counters; one establishment was a bar, with a menu still scrawled on the wall. Houses had street-facing rooms that served as shops. Crime was a concern, though. Asked about one room, a docent said it likely was where a guard had been stationed.

In today’s Rome, neither urban ills nor a heat wave overshadowed the dolce vita exemplified by Gelateria da Constanza, near the Colosseum, where our server, Valeria, another upbeat young woman with red hair, made us milkshakes while advising on flavor combinations.

Returning to the U.S., jet lag weighed against the relief of no longer having a language barrier. (I’m not one to assume foreigners speak English, but I’d very little Italian to work with; a few times, my Spanish filled a gap when English wasn’t an option.) Shortly after arriving home in New Jersey, we were off to New England for boarding-school visits. A stop in Marblehead, MA, was charming, particularly the area around Fort Sewall, though the nearby city of Salem was underwhelming, with the history of its witch trials subsumed in tourist gimmickry.

We stayed at a hotel in Revere Beach, a pleasant area with much recent development. A friend had warned us to be careful in parts of Revere, but this neighborhood was on the upswing. The crime I witnessed was at the free hotel breakfast buffet, where a pudgy blonde woman, either a guest or passing for one, stuffed numerous apples and yogurts into her stylish knapsack, looking around surreptitiously. If Death’s hourglass ran out, and her position got captured in ash, what would she have to show for herself?

—Kenneth Silber is author of In DeWitt’s Footsteps: Seeing History on the Erie Canal and posts at Post.News.


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