10 August 2012 ~ 0 Comentarios

Rome surprises you

by Carlos Alberto Montaner

terrazza dei papi

(FIRMAS PRESS. Rome). We flew to Rome to present the Italian edition of The Colonel’s Wife. It is a novel that takes place, to a great extent, in this chaotic and marvelous city. It is in Rome where the protagonist, Nuria, has a brief adulterous affair with an old Italian professor, Valerio Martinelli. Nuria is the wife of a colonel in Cuba’s Special Forces. She loves him but decided to explore the forbidden zone in her emotions. The couple meet at the Mecenate Hotel, across the street from the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. There, in a suite, they have some absolutely torrid love encounters, described in sweaty detail. Martinelli is a consummate erotomaniac.

As I knew that hotel only through references, we decided to stay there to find out how close reality was to fiction. I asked for the suite in the novel, but it had been taken (I was told politely) “by an Argentine couple.” I lamented the news but we accepted – I was traveling with my wife – another, very pleasant suite facing the church. That night, a surprise.

While dining on the hotel’s top-floor terrace, we were approached by the couple. They identified me through the photo on the book jacket. Then they told me their story: they had met in a book club during a discussion of The Colonel’s Wife. They fell in love (both had just divorced their respective mates, one of the purposes of the book clubs’ existence) and decided to repeat the bedroom feats of Nuria and Martinelli. “How did the experiment work out?” I asked them. They laughed. “Superbly,” they answered. They walked away, embracing at the waist. I never thought I’d end up emulating Masters and Johnson.

My second surprise came at the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento Italiano, one of the city’s most prestigious museums, attached to a side of the monument to Victor Emmanuel, in front of the impressive ruins of Imperial Rome. The museum was exhibiting a selection of the works of Cuban-American Julio Larraz, one of the best and most renowned contemporary painters. You have to see his works and see them in that museum. The exhibition began with a video of Larraz’s life and work. How, where and why he paints.

Larraz, who left Cuba as a teenager and grew up in New York, began his artistic life as a caricaturist and illustrator at The New York Times, Vogue and other great American publications, but then, devoted entirely to painting, lived in Paris and Florence, finally settling in Miami. What makes him a great painter? Everything: his composition, the characters, his supreme irony. Fortunately, he has not lost the caustic humor of his period as a caricaturist, and his female nudes, his overpowering military officers, his corrupt politicians, even his still lifes, exude a critical tone subtly akin to mockery. Extraordinary.

The third surprise is Rome itself, the incredible Italians. We had arrived from Madrid, where the economic crisis is lived with pessimism, as if it were the end of the world, and found ourselves in a city where nobody seems worried. As a fellow journalist who is an expert in history and the national character explained to me: “We Italians have been in crisis since the Fifth Century of the Christian era. To us, a crisis is the natural way of life.”

That’s true. We forget that Leonardo, Michelangelo and the entire Renaissance existed amid disorder, slaughter and civil wars. We’re unaware that, for three centuries, while Italy lived through an intense economic decadence, the Commedia dell’Arte dominated the stage in the West. When Spain was the political and military power in Europe, its best painter, Diego Velázquez, traveled to Italy to soak up the techniques of the Venetian and Florentine masters.

It’s as if the Italians had learned to shirk the adversity they always find in the public sector, while their civilian society maintains its astounding artistic and – why not – scientific creativity. 

There’s a reason why people talk of the eternal Rome.

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