April in Paris is the sequel where the Parkers become more involved with these characters and others of their acquaintance.
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An Etruscan Spring
April in Paris
By Lorna J. Shaw
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Lorna J. Shaw
All rights reserved.
Douglas Parker sat at a table in an outdoor cafe in the Piazza di Spagna. He sipped his cappuccino and watched a swarthy workman wrestle a huge azalea bush into an old wooden barrow and wipe his hands on his leather apron. Now he was in Rome, in a cosmopolitan metropolis completely foreign to everything he had ever seen and every place he had been in his sixty years. Was it only four days ago that they had left behind the heat and dust and odours of Kenya? Four days since they bade goodbye to Michael and Dorian and Julianne? Four days since, they had arrived in Rome with its noise and traffic congestion and odours, heavenly odours of pasta sauces, sausage and garlic, and bread baking in ovens at the rear of shops? He glanced at his watch and wondered how much longer Margaret would take to complete her shopping, all those gifts for the family and a few friends back home. He drained his cup and drew a guidebook from his pocket.
They had arrived in Rome at sunset. By the time they had cleared customs, night had settled over the Eternal City. The taxi had deposited them at the Columbus Hotel on the Via del Conciliazone, an imposing edifice of at least fifty years, quite new by Roman standards. The shabby baroque furniture in the lobby and their room bespoke of other, kinder days.
Margaret had perched on the bed and gazed up at the intricate moldings around the high ceiling. The room seemed cold in character as well as temperature and she reached over to touch the radiator below the window. It was stone cold.
"It isn't the Ritz, is it," Doug murmured as he came out of the bathroom drying his hands on a towel.
"No. But what do you expect for a quarter of a million lira?"
They had rested the following morning, and after a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room, they had made two decisions: to find a restaurant with a more reasonable fare, and to take a bus tour of the city that afternoon.
The bus, in fact was a van, large enough to accommodate six people as well as a driver and tour guide. Two German couples who spoke no English had settled into the front seats. "This is great," Doug muttered as Renaldo, the tour guide, had pointed out various landmarks along the way, most of the time in German, because it took too long to repeat the information in English. The van driver, Michel, had sped up the Via del Conziliazone toward the Vatican City, careened right with such alacrity that Doug whispered "I bet this fellow's descended from a charioteer."
Margaret had smiled grimly. "I hope we get out of here alive!"
The tour had led north into an elegant residential area and paused at a point in Monte Mario to look south and eastward across a dusky panorama of domes and rooftops, St. Peter's Basilica, the Vittorio Emanuel monument, the Coliseum and glimpses of the winding course of the Tiber River. The van had descended through green avenues of cypress to cross the river and made a wide circuitous route through the Borghese Park. Doug consulted his guidebook and said quietly to Margaret, "This was once a malarial swamp. Some fellow named Hawthorne described it as a place where 'fevers walk arm in arm and death awaits'."
Margaret looked at the page. "Hawthorne ... I think he was an American, a novelist ... Well, it isn't a swamp now ... Look. ... There's a family having a picnic."
The van had entered a busy street and they learned that they were now about to enter the old city through Porto del Popola, 'the gate of the people, the route of conquerors and kings', Renaldo explained. Because the traffic had grown considerably, their guide now had time to repeat himself in English, and he pointed out the features of the huge piazza, the obelisk, the fountains, as Michel had forced an entry into the melee of cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians on the Via del Corso. White-gloved policemen stood at the intersections to enforce the system of traffic lights amid honking horns. They shouted Italian obscenities at recalcitrant drivers emphasizing the words with white-fingered gestures. By the time they had traversed the Piazza Venezia and viewed the Vittorio Emanuel monument which Roman citizenry dubbed "the typewriter" or "the wedding cake" because of its garish facade, Doug was chuckling. He leaned toward Margaret and said, "I like this Hawthorne's sense of humour. When he saw this place he bemoaned the sight and sighed 'Even the ruins are ruined'!"
Renaldo was now pointing south to the Coliseum. After another hair-raising escape from a collision, Michel had stopped at the entrance and Renaldo led his white-faced group through one of many arches into the arena. As Doug listened to the German explanation he looked about and decided that here, before him stood a perfect ruin. Some of it was still intact. They climbed several rows of seats to gain a perspective of the many ringed tiers, once, accommodating thousands upon thousands of spectators. The floor had disappeared, but below stood the supporting pillars and evidence of the cells where the hapless gladiators or prisoners had awaited their fate. Margaret took his arm and shivered as the shadows fell across the crumbling walls. "You can almost hear the cries, the clamour.."
Renaldo came alongside. "A huge building, yes? Everything else is small. The engineers, the builders, they make a perfect job. They even make a canvas covering to shield the crowd from the sun." He pointed toward the centre of the arena. "And they make a wooden floor so tight to flood with water so they can enact sea battles with ships."
Doug raised his eyebrows. "Really!"
Renaldo nodded. "Yes, but mostly we remember this place for the fights. Here, men were thrown to the lions in the morning, and to the bloodthirsty crowd in the afternoon. The gladiators ... Their combats ended in death. The emperor chose but it was the roar of the crowd that made him turn his thumb to the ground ..."
Doug nodded. "Two thousand years have passed but the gruesome history remains."
Margaret asked. "How many Christians were murdered here? ... And does their blood still cry out for vengeance?"
Renaldo stared at her briefly and said, "Many years ago, the church sanctified this ground because of the blood of the martyrs." He turned and clapped his hands. "Shall we go on?"
Michel was waiting to take them on beyond the Baths of Caracalla where they had turned onto the narrow Appian Way and jolted very slowly over the ancient stones, the road where Caesars' armies marched toward the sea and set forth to conquer distant peoples.
They came to the catacombs. Renaldo had herded them toward a yawning stairway and they had descended into a labyrinth of tunnels and shafts where the bones of saints had once been interred. Many of these bones now, reposed in museums, and below the altars of churches and cathedrals. Margaret plucked Doug's sleeve in the dim light and confining space. "I'll wait for you at the top of the stairs," she said, and fled.
He came to her some time later and they returned to the city along a broad thoroughfare. "Well, that was interesting," he said. "Interesting but gruesome, skulls and bones, but they have to use their imaginations to identify the saints. No one kept dental records then." The bus slowed momentarily as the traffic increased.
"The site of the Circus Maximus," Renaldo had said as they whizzed past an empty field.
His tour group stared with glazed eyes at the long green mound where in former days a quarter million Romans gathered to watch the chariot races. Crowded narrow streets delayed their return to the hotel and the sun was setting beyond the dome of St Peter's at the end of the street before they said goodbye to their companions and paid Renaldo and Michel a generous tip.
Doug took off his shoes and stretched out on the bed. "I think we can do as well with the guidebook, as paying those fellows for their services."
Margaret turned on the water in the bathtub and came back into the room. "I think so too. Let's try it tomorrow by ourselves."
A cold drizzle in the morning changed their plans and they had taken a cab to the Vatican Museums instead. Unprepared for the immensity of the exhibits, they bravely bought the five hour itinerary that would guide them through almost five miles of display.
"We'll never see everything," Margaret said.
"We can try," Doug replied and led her by the hand into the Egyptian gallery.
Four long hours later, they came to the Sistine Chapel and waited in line to enter. An overwhelming collection of sculptures, paintings, tapestries tumbled in their minds. The immortal works of art had been breathtakingly beautiful. "Wasn't the Laocoon unbelievable?" Doug said remembering the sculpture of giant serpents slaying the Trojan priest and his sons.
"Yes," Margaret replied. "There was such strength, such anguish ... And I never realized that marble could look so much like skin. I almost thought the Apollo would draw a breath."
"The Etruscan Museum was good too," Doug said. "I understand that the museum in Tarquinia is even better though."
"I'm changing my mind about museums," Margaret said. "I had no idea they could be so fascinating."
He smiled. "So I'm a good influence on your cultural leanings."
She smiled at him. "I guess so. Of course, these are exceptionally good museums, the finest in the world. But take the library here for instance. It's not at all what I imagined. I thought it would be gloomy and full of books. But instead we found a beautiful bright hall with vaulted colourful ceilings and walls. And there in glass topped tables were manuscripts from the middle ages, Henry Tudor's petitions for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon; Mary, Queen of Scots' lacy hand requesting justice and her final pleas for mercy."
The queue had moved slowly into the Sistine Chapel, now restored after almost five hundred years of accumulated grime. The wait was worth it to gaze upon the kaleidoscope of colour overhead and on the walls. The vibrant scenes of creation and judgment overwhelmed them with the intensity of the drama, the history of man, his fall, his redemption, unfolding before their eyes.
Doug rubbed the back of his neck. "I ache just from looking at it. Poor Michelangelo. It says that he worked here 'in great toil and weariness of body. I have no friends and don't want any. I haven't time to eat.'
"The agony and the ecstasy," Margaret mused. "His genius must have been a torment but think of the rapture of giving life to this concept. Just look at how a bearded God reaches down and stretches his finger to Adam."
"And yet he never considered himself to be an artist. He always signed his work named Michelangelo, sculptor only! And consider his physical pain too, working here day after day, head bent back, arms outstretched, paint spattering his beard and eyes. It says he was desperate to quit the commission but the Pope Julius would not allow it. He endured four years of forced labour but what a gift he gave to the world!"
Leaving the museum they had crossed the street to a trattoria. Crowded, because of the inclement weather, the restaurant was warm and noisy. Margaret sipped her steaming tea. "I wonder where I have been all my life," she said. "I realize I know so very little about what has happened in the world. And the artists who have left their work for us to see today ... I couldn't have imagined anything like this in my wildest dreams ... The talent, the genius of these people. The Laocoon must be over two thousand years old ... It's too much to grasp with one's mind, isn't it."
Doug swallowed another piece of his panzerotti. "The chef who made this is a genius too. It's a work of art."
She laughed. "Are you tired to go to St. Peter's today?"
He shook his head. "Not if we take a cab."
The obelisk and fountains were barely visible across the teeming piazza as Margaret and Doug hurried through the colonnade, ignoring the outstretched hands of derelicts who sought shelter from the rain. The Swiss Guard had also taken refuge elsewhere and there was no one to protect the tourists from the beggars and gypsy children who found the Bernini promenade an adequate location to secure funds.
Climbing the broad steps to enter the basilica, they stopped suddenly, awestruck by the opulent interior of the old building. The massive pillars, the colossal cherubs, the brilliant gold statuary overwhelmed them. The monumental dome soared high overhead, supported by four huge twisted pillars. A bronze canopy hovered far above the papal altar in the center of the building. Guidebook in hand, Doug steered toward a chapel on the right and they beheld another of Michelangelo's creations, the Pieta. Margaret stared at it with a critical eye. "Jesus looks so small, wasted, emaciated ... I always thought he would have been much more, more robust. And his mother looks so young ... I don't know whether I like this ..."
Doug frowned. "You have to remember, dear, that Michelangelo didn't copy this sculpture from a snapshot. And maybe he didn't have a bigger piece of marble ..."
She shrugged. "I know I'm being silly. And it is beautiful. Look at the veins in Jesus' arm, and the hole in his hand. It is truly amazing when you look at it closely ..."
They ambled across the tiled floor, heads tilted backwards to see the soaring columns, the golden window above the altar, a bronze throne and above it a wood and ivory chair purported to have belonged to St. Peter. The bronze statue of the old saint watched over the worshippers, the toes on one of his feet worn to a nub by the fervent kisses of the faithful pilgrims for centuries.
They had descended into the grotto and tombs below the papal altar. The excavations had extended beneath the foundations of the basilica built during the reign of Constantine in the fourth century. More treasures, priceless chalices were on view in the sacristy.
They ascended by elevator to the base of the dome for a view of the church. Margaret declined to climb to the top of the dome on a claustrophobic stairway so Doug went on alone to view the panoramic view of the Vatican Gardens and the city. "The rain's stopped," he said on his return "and the view was spectacular."
Wearied from the previous day at the Vatican, they had slept late and then taken a cab to the Piazza di Spagna for brunch. Doug had trailed Margaret through the shops before returning to the piazza while she chose from the selections of silk and woolen scarves. Her shopping now complete, she touched his shoulder. "How was the cappuccino?"
He rose to help her settle the bags on an opposite chair and signaled the waiter for service. They sat contentedly through the late afternoon watching the tourists mingle with the people who worked in the offices about the square. "I read that this place used to be unsafe after dark."
She raised her eyebrows. "Used to be? Isn't it still?"
"There's not much of a problem now. I understand the government has really cracked down on the gypsies and the petty thieves. No. It says that once upon a time, if a fellow walked through here after dark, alone, he stood a very good chance of being shanghaied into the Spanish navy, never to be heard from again."
Margaret stood up. "Let's go. I want to climb the Spanish Steps before dark."
Returning to their hotel, they walked along the square through aisles of vendors of roasting chestnuts, and Ethiopians on the Pont D'Angelo selling fake Gucci bags, carved elephants and plastic GI Joes. Levantine centurions posed outside the Coliseum with gleaming daggers poised at the throats of Japanese tourists. Amputees and stooped beggars extended brown palms in the shadows of the ornate, gold-encrusted basilicas and shrines. Gypsies played violins on the subway while their women carried sickly babies and tin cups; myriads of T-shirt venders, postcard hustlers and merchants of alabaster Davids, Pietas, and discus throwers, all conducting business amid the fumes of diesel engines, speeding scooters, honking car horns, police sirens and the wail of the ubiquitous ambulances. Sighing, Margaret said, "Nathaniel Hawthorne was right. Even the ruins are ruined! Oh dear. Now I'm getting a sore throat."
The Parkers had found respite in the winding shadowy alleys which opened suddenly onto bright piazzas with splashing fountains and red geraniums and yellow marigolds dancing in the sunlight; the little sidewalk restaurants with steaming cappuccino and heavenly scents of baking bread in the panificio near their hotel.
Excerpted from An Etruscan Spring by Lorna J. Shaw. Copyright © 2015 Lorna J. Shaw. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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