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Of most importance in this story are: German dictator Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party, who established the Third Reich; and Italian fascist dictator Benito ...
Of most importance in this story are: German dictator Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party, who established the Third Reich; and Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who together pursued territorial expansion and proliferation of gold, expensive artifacts and the great masters painting, while spreading shadows of suffering, persecution, death and destruction across all of Europe.
Sophia's talent started to blossom when she was a very young girl. Perhaps, she inherited her talent from her father, who was a fine leather craftsman making beautiful purses and shoes for the expensive shops in Milan. He expanded his small factory during WWI to include the manufacture of leather boots for the armed services. Prosperity and riches came shortly after this transition, and the business continued to grow making it possible for Sophia to attend the finest schools in Italy, which included private art lessons from a few of the prominent artists in Rome at that time. All her teachers agreed she was extremely talented; but, now, in her early twenties, she is still waiting to be recognized as a master artist. A few of her artist friends are already prominently known ... and they are all men. She wonders if it is because she is a woman that her talent will not be recognized by art collectors. With this sad thought, she flopped into a cushioned sofa.
The second floor apartment in the two-story building, which she shares with her cousin Marlena, is comfortable and adequate for their needs. The dining room has been converted into an art studio; and with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bath, and within walking distance to the Vatican, it is comfortable and convenient. For the past two years Sophia has worked for the Vatican in a position to restore paintings and maintain artifacts ... a position which is demanding of her skills. Many of the senior Cardinals including Pope Pius XII have praised her work as being inspired by God. She regrets that she has never been permitted the privilege to paint a portrait of the Holy Father ... with his reason being "It would be better to sit for a male artist." And nothing more has been said.
Sophia continued to snuggle into the pillows on the sofa and closed her eyes to reflect upon a letter which she had received two days earlier from Nikolaus Mostaert, curator for the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The two had met the previous year when Nikolaus visited the Vatican to see the new acquisitions by contemporary artists. It is, however, the extensive art collection by the great masters of the Renaissance period ... from the 15th century into the 17th century that he prefers.
She recalled the lunch they shared at one of the sidewalk cafes outside Vatican City, when he was quite complimentary of her expertise in the restoration of fine art paintings. He particularly admired her copy of the "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci and the "Allegory of Painting" by Jan Vermeer. Her lips curved into a big smile when she remembered he said, "You were brave to attempt a forgery of the painting by Vermeer from his later period, as his technique was a much tighter-knit texture and extremely more difficult to capture on canvas than one of his earlier paintings."
Her thoughts drifted to remember his hubristic personality where his arrogance and egocentric mannerisms were magnified by his desire to control the conversation regarding the masters' paintings. She believed that if she were a man, he would be able to accept her analysis of the masters' techniques. Once again, she regretted that she was not born a man.
Quietly, Sophia started to sob realizing that she must persevere to be recognized as an accomplished artist in a masculine profession. She has dedicated her life to that end, sacrificing a relationship with a man she truly loved.
Her reverie was broken when she heard laughter in the hall ... and that had to be Marlena and Mario. She quickly dried her eyes to open the door.
Marlena took one look at Sophia's red, puffy eyes and declared, "Have you been crying again? Sophia, you really must find some happiness in life!"
Sophia ignored Marlena's caustic comment, but in a sincerely friendly voice addressed Mario. "I'm really happy to see you again. Marlena told me you were home." She took a long look at him and asserted, "You look quite handsome in your uniform." She added with a question, "Where have you been all these many months? Marlena and I have been worried."
When Mario walked to Sophia to kiss her on the cheek, she noticed he had a severe limp with his left leg. He sat down on the sofa next to her and rested his injured leg on a footstool. Slowly, with belabored thoughts and in a low mellow voice, he unraveled his story: "Well, I guess my journey began the afternoon when I heard Mussolini's rousing speech that he delivered from his second story balcony. There must have been hundreds of people gathered to hear him profess Italy's need to set a course to be recognized as a major power in the world. He loudly declared, 'Viva Italia' and with his dark, piercing eyes he called, 'From today onward, we are all Italians and nothing but Italians.' Well, by the time he ended his speech, the crowd would have followed him anywhere."
With a side thought, Mario mentioned, "There were many Fascists in the crowd wearing black shirts and yelling 'Viva Italia', and I guess I just got swept up in the excitement and wanted to contribute to Italy's greatness." Mario bowed his head to continue, "I know he is a Fascist dictator, but stop to think for a minute what he has accomplished for Italy." He continued to praise Mussolini. "We were a divided country, but his reforms for public works programs, improvement of job opportunities and public transportation...." His sentence trailed off, "Well, it is overwhelming what he has accomplished for us."
Mario stopped to massage his leg, which was giving him great pain and asked Sophia for a glass of water. He glanced up to watch her walk through the art studio into the kitchen and boldly declared, "My Lord, Sophia, where did you get the van Gogh painting?"
"Oh, it's mine." She quietly answered.
"That must have cost you a fortune!" Mario asserted.
"No. It's mine," and faltered to say, "I painted it."
"Good Lord, it looks like an original van Gogh."
With a nod of the head, Sophia accepted the compliment; said nothing and handed the glass of water to Mario.
The two women sat quietly waiting for him to continue his story.
"The next morning, I enlisted into the army. After only a few weeks' training, we were all sent to invade Ethiopia. Our forces met little resistance against Haile Selassie's poorly equipped soldiers, as we had superior weapons, a sufficient supply of ammunition, and we controlled the air." He held his head down and slowly murmured while wiping his moist eyes, "and we used chemical weapons ... poison gas. I started feeling sorry for our enemy... and I read in the papers that the League of Nations severely condemned Mussolini for these tactics."
Marlena interrupted with a question, "Mario, how did you get hurt? I can tell at times by the expression on your face that your leg must be very painful."
Mario did not want to relive this part of his story, but he slowly continued. "It is a recent injury and I was lucky to receive expert medical care in the hospital here in Rome. The doctors said I will always have a limp, but the pain should subside shortly." He did not divulge how he was injured, but let it suffice that the injury was sustained during hand-to-hand combat.
There was nothing said for a few minutes as each one was deep in thought, when Marlena broke the silence with a question. "Are you going to be expected to return to active duty?"
"No. My leg will never completely heal for active duty, but I have been assigned to work here in headquarters." With a nonchalant thought, he mentioned, "Perhaps, I was selected for the position because I graduated from college with a political science degree." He paused and then continued, "I really think my father, who is a major in the elite guard and travels with Mussolini, requested that I work in the office here in Rome."
Marlena jumped out of her chair, yelling, "Did you say you are going to stay in Rome?"
"Yes!" Mario was quick to answer.
"Then we can be married immediately." Marlena announced.
With a big smile on his face, Mario jumped up; grabbed Marlena to kiss her and both fell backward onto the sofa when Mario's leg crumbled beneath him. Both started to laugh, kissing and hugging with the realization they can get married right away.
The two lovers, who were lost in their own little world of happiness, continued to ignore Sophia; and after a few minutes, she left the living room to find something to eat for supper in the kitchen. She sat at the table with her bowed head in her hands wallowing in the doldrums of self-pity. It was extremely difficult for her to watch Marlena and Mario's happiness, which reminded her of the man she loved ... and she started to cry.
She reached in her waistcoat pocket for a handkerchief, but pulled out the letter from Nikolaus, which she carefully reread wondering why he wanted to meet with her tomorrow at noon.
The morning air was crisp and invigorating as he walked the short distance to Vatican City. A small line of tourists had already started to form for those waiting to be permitted inside to visit the extensive museum, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica with its beautiful, large nave, and St. Peter's Square. Nikolaus recalled previous years when the number of tourists in line waiting to enter Vatican City was always much longer and it could take two hours to be admitted. He attributed the lack of tourists in Rome to the growing political upheaval of Fascism and the growing threat of war.
Nikolaus was privileged to be able to gain entrance through one of the side doors and visited with a few of the clergy on his way to the artist Raphael's room and then beyond to the Sistine Chapel, where he could stand for minutes on end gazing upward to the beautiful ceiling. He marveled at the painting executed in fresco. He could only imagine Michelangelo's talent and patience required to paint on a surface that had been freshly applied with water-based pigments onto moist lime plaster.
Time always passed too quickly when Nikolaus visited the Vatican, but this morning he was eager to meet with Sophia. He left St. Peter's Square with his long legs taking quick steps as he did not want to be late for lunch at the designated café. He sat down at a table where he could see everyone who entered. His mind was racing with thoughts of their first meeting last year and he was concerned he may not remember what she looks like. He envisioned: Let's see: she is quite tall, with long hair black as ebony, brown eyes, olive complexion and ... here she comes!
He stood up to greet her. "Good morning, Sophia." Nikolaus was quite pleased he remembered her and continued, "I wasn't certain that it was you, because your hair is short."
"Oh, yes...." She ran her fingers through her hair and acknowledged, "I think the shorter length makes me look more professional." She was surprised he was tall and quite handsome, as she only remembered he was arrogant.
Sophia sat at the table and was the first one to start the conversation, explaining she had to return to the Vatican within two hours as she was working on a painting by Raphael that had been damaged and she wanted to have it restored by evening. She vented her anger again in repeating the incident of clumsiness when a custodian let a ladder slip onto the painting digging a bad scratch onto the canvas surface.
The two ordered lunch immediately and maintained a cheerful conversation while they ate. Nikolaus was quite interested in Sophia's childhood years when she became absorbed in studying art, which also provided an opportunity for him to learn more about her personality and disposition. He was concerned that at their first meeting she was quiet, very serious, and expressed her views in an authoritative manner. He was pleased to learn she smiled quite often when discussing her younger years. In fact, he noticed her whole countenance brightened and he thought she was quite attractive with stunning brown eyes that sparkled when she smiled.
He wanted to be certain they would be able to work closely together before he revealed his purpose in coming to Rome to see her.
* * *
Most of the lunch crowd had left the café, leaving only a few tables occupied. Nikolaus' apprehension in discussing his purpose for meeting with Sophia had been eliminated. He liked to see a happier side to her personality and he also liked her firm reprimand when admonishing the custodian of his responsibilities. He was satisfied they would be able to work closely together.
He began slowly ... almost with faltering speech. "I'm afraid the world as we know it is slipping away ... and I believe war is inevitable world-wide. You've seen it with Mussolini in Ethiopia ... and he won't stop there." In an almost inaudible voice, he continued, "Hitler's Nazi Party is swiftly growing and conditions are ripe for World War II."
Sophia listened intently, but did not want to believe war was on the horizon. Her world consisted of maintaining priceless art treasures; and she realized all valuable artifacts, gold, jewels and anything worthy of stealing would be in jeopardy from conquering armies that thrive on the rich spoils of war.
Nikolaus adjusted his necktie and opened the top button of his collar, as he felt stifled for air to continue. "I would like to offer you a position in the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam."
Sophia gasped and was totally surprised. Her eyebrows raised in her forehead making her eyes look even bigger and in an excited voice asked, "What did you say?"
"Listen to my proposal of employment." He was eager to continue. "I have been curator for many years and have been fortunate to acquire many fine paintings and archival articles for the museum. The entire second floor consists only of van Gogh paintings and there is one room where hundreds of original handwritten letters from family and friends expressing their sympathy following his suicide are displayed. The position I am offering you is to be the conservator in residence ... working full time. You will be responsible for the care, restoration and repair of archival and museum articles. I have one other who works only part time."
"I am speechless, but why me? There are many talented young Dutch artists in Holland who would be eager to work in the van Gogh Museum." She questioned.
Nikolaus pondered awhile wondering how he should answer. "There is another side to the position. Now, hear me out." He slowly began, "As I mentioned earlier, I believe war is imminent; and if I am right, my museum will be pillaged immediately and everything will be carted away by the victors ... and their vicious plundering will rival the Vikings of years ago." With a determined expression, he looked squarely at Sophia suggesting, "I would like you to copy the masters' paintings in the museum. I have seen your copies and they are magnificent. I believe there are very few true artists today who can tell the difference. You have even identified the artists' little idiosyncrasies, which magnify their techniques making it difficult for their paintings to be copied."
Excerpted from Dreams and Shadows by Jeannine Dahlberg Copyright © 2012 by Jeannine Dahlberg. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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