Chapter One: Rome, November 1943 Chapter One Rome, November 1943
Marina Tozzi crossed Piazza di Santa Maria, hugging her parcel to her chest. The late-afternoon sun reflected off the gold-flecked tower of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, giving Marina a glimmer of hope.
The Nazis may have made it impossible to get food, turning even the most honest Roman citizens into experts on the black market. They may have prompted all the young men to join the Italian army, leaving the streets filled with mothers missing their sons, young women longing for their husbands. But they couldn’t dim the famous Roman light, the light that had drawn artists to the city for centuries.
Marina would know. Her father, Vittorio, was an art dealer who spoke endlessly of the great artists who once resided in the city: Caravaggio, Bernini, Michelangelo. Some historians claimed they had come because they had been sponsored by wealthy Romans, or had sought camaraderie with other artists at the workshops. But her father insisted it was for the light. Nowhere in Italy, not in Venice nor Florence nor Naples, was the light as spectacular as in Rome, strands of gold caressing the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, as if the whole city had been touched by God.
The piazza had been quieter in the two months since the Germans arrived but not entirely empty. It was against Romans’ nature to stay indoors. Even with armed Nazi soldiers roaming the streets, friends gathered before curfew for a quick gossip. Marina watched her neighbors lounging on their balconies or standing under ancient arches that had survived the Allied bombs.
As she turned onto her street, there was a popping sound and Marina smelled an acrid odor, like the few times her father had left a pot of pasta too long on the stove and the bottom of the pot burned. After her mother died ten years ago, her father had taken over the cooking. Now twenty years old, Marina was eager to help him. But he still insisted on making the pasta himself. It was his great love, besides Marina and the art gallery. He was happiest when stirring a pot of pomodoro sauce, grating the Parmesan, adding oregano and a touch of olive oil.
The door to their house was flung open, the pungent smell coming from inside. She was about to run up the steps when she heard voices. They were shouting in German. Her stomach clenched, her fingers gripping the precious anchovies she’d procured for her father’s favorite pasta sauce.
She had traded a silk purse for the fish at the market. Her father would be angry if he knew. He didn’t like Marina going without the little luxuries that were important to girls. But Marina wanted to surprise him. The gallery had sold a painting by a new artist that morning and her father had gone to deliver the money to the artist himself. Marina worked at the gallery too, while taking art history courses at the university. They were going to celebrate the sale that evening with pasta and a bottle of wine.
She stepped behind a bush, hoping that she was wrong, that the unfamiliar voice belonged to a neighbor. Then she saw them. Two German officers scurrying out the door like rats departing a sinking ship. Their pistols were at their sides, a thin line of smoke trailing from one of them. The men ran around the corner, their heavy footsteps clattering on the cobblestones.
Marina waited to make sure there weren’t any more soldiers, then darted inside. The house appeared as she’d left it that morning. Her father’s overcoat hung on a peg, and his boots sat beside a pair of slippers.
In the kitchen, the table was set with two place settings. Since the occupation, they only used the dining room to entertain clients. Somehow it was cozier to eat in the kitchen, as if the warmth of the oven, the familiar smells of garlic and olive oil would keep them safe.
The burnt pot sat on the stove. Perhaps her father got called away by a knock at the door, forgot the pasta was simmering, then after the visitors left went to his bathroom to wash and shave. That’s where he was now. The Germans had simply been making their rounds. Her father was upstairs dressing for dinner.
She turned off the stove and ran up the staircase. The bathroom was empty, and there was no one in the bedroom.
The house had a basement where her father stored paintings. There was never enough room at the gallery, and he often brought pieces home.
She crept down the two flights of stairs, more carefully this time. The staircase to the basement was narrow, and she didn’t want to risk twisting her ankle.
She turned on the bare light bulb at the bottom of the stairs. Five feet away, the body of a man lay on the ground. Blood seeped from his chest and his arms, and his legs lay at odd angles. The man was young, with a head of thick, dark hair. She didn’t recognize him. Who was he, and what was he doing lying dead on the floor?
She glanced around the space and all thoughts of the man fled. Another body was propped up in the corner. It was hunched over, as if someone had kicked it. Blood pooled on the floor underneath, and it wasn’t moving. Even with the face turned away from her, she knew it was her father. And she was almost certain that he was dead.
She rushed over and laid him on his back. His chest was perfectly still; there was no heartbeat. He was holding a small bag that fell to the ground. A wad of lire tumbled out.
Footsteps echoed on the basement staircase. Perhaps the Germans had come back. She scooped up the lire and hid under the stairs.
“Marina,” a male voice called. The footsteps stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “I saw officers running down the street—is everything all right?”
It was their neighbor Paolo. Paolo was a widower like her father. He often joined them for dinner and talked obsessively about the war: the Allied landing in southern Italy in July and the uprising in Naples in September. The war was turning but not fast enough. Two months before, when German troops marched in and occupied Rome, no one knew how long they would be in charge. But the spirit of Roman citizens continued to burn like the candles at St. Peter’s Basilica.
There would be no more dinner conversations with her father, Marina realized. No more pasta with anchovies. A sob caught in her throat.
“Paolo,” she cried, stepping out from her hiding place beneath the staircase. “I saw German officers leaving the house, so I crouched in the bushes until they were gone. I searched the house and found…”
She waved at the bodies. Words failed her, and the sobs became an ocean of tears. Her body convulsed into shivers.
“My father and this man are dead,” she said, when she could speak. She turned to Paolo, her eyes wide. “Who is he, Paolo, and what was he doing in our home?”
Paolo moved closer to the bodies. His face turned ashen; tears formed in his eyes.
“It’s Enrico,” Paolo said. “Your father had been hiding him in the basement. I warned him that it was dangerous—the Germans had started searching neighborhoods close by—but your father wouldn’t listen.”
Enrico was the artist whose painting her father had sold that morning. But he hadn’t lived with them; he had a room near the gallery.
“You’re wrong,” she said firmly. “Enrico had his own place. My father was going there today, to take him the money for his painting.”
“Vittorio lied to you.” Paolo’s voice was low. “Enrico fled the Jewish ghetto a few days ago. He was staying here.”
Marina looked at Paolo sharply. The gallery sold paintings by well-known artists, but her father also loved to help beginners who showed talent. Sometimes if their paintings didn’t sell, he quietly bought them himself. And plenty of hungry artists had joined them at their dinner table, but they were never invited to spend the night. Marina was a young woman; her reputation must be considered.
“What do you mean, he was staying in the basement?”
“Enrico was Jewish. When the Germans emptied the Jewish ghetto, he escaped and had nowhere to go,” Paolo said. “Vittorio offered him the basement.”
A few weeks before, the Germans had rounded up all the Jews in Portico d’Ottavia, the ghetto where Jews had lived since the sixteenth century. Twelve hundred Jews were put on trucks and taken to Tiburtina station, where a train waited for them. No one had heard from them since.
“I spoke with your father this afternoon. He sold Enrico’s painting to a German officer. The officer didn’t know Enrico was Jewish, but he returned to the gallery because he forgot his gloves and overheard Vittorio talking.” Paolo rubbed his brow. Grief washed over his features. “Your father was worried that the officer might follow him home, but the German didn’t come. Vittorio must have thought it was all right, that they were safe.”
Marina realized she was still holding the wad of lire: the money for Enrico. She didn’t want it. She wished she could toss it out the window, that it was a grenade and would fall on a German soldier.
“Oh, Paolo.” She crouched down next to her father’s body. “It’s my fault. I stopped at the market to buy anchovies for the pasta. We were going to celebrate the sale. If I hadn’t stopped at the market, I might have been here when the Germans arrived. I could have warned my father, maybe he’d be alive.”
“Or maybe you’d be dead too,” Paolo returned. He looked at her kindly, his own misery set aside in order to comfort her. “Vittorio would have said that you were meant to buy the anchovies. That God was watching out for you.”
Marina’s head swam, and the room became a terrible blur. She put her hand out to steady herself and sunk to the floor. She felt as if someone had torn out her insides, as if her heart had been crushed inside her chest. She didn’t want to think about God. She wanted to think only about what she had lost, the one person she could count on. The only man she loved and trusted.
“He can’t be dead.” She gulped, tears pressing against her eyes. “My father can’t be dead.”
“I’m sorry, Marina.” Paolo patted her arm. “I loved your father; we were neighbors for thirty years. When my wife died five years ago, I asked him how he still managed to get up in the morning. He said the answer was helping others. Enrico wasn’t the first Jewish artist who stayed in your basement. There were others.”
Marina tried to remember if her father had acted differently over the last few months. He often made more food than the two of them could eat, yet there never seemed to be any leftovers, she realized. Marina had assumed her father was anxious about the occupation, that cooking calmed his nerves. She never thought to wonder where the extra food went.
“My father was operating a safe house without telling me?”
Marina had heard about safe houses, of course. Hundreds of Allied prisoners of war who had escaped from southern Italy made their way through Rome on their journey to the Swiss border. Romans hid them in their homes. Without the safe houses, many of these soldiers would have been discovered and put in prison. But she’d also heard some were hiding Jews, many of whom were starving. Rationing was fierce all over the city, but it was worst in the Jewish ghettos. There, even pasta was impossible to find, and a loaf of bread cost three times the normal price.
Everyone knew operating a safe house was dangerous. Just the previous week, Marina and her father had been walking in Trastevere and saw German officers drag a man and woman into the street. They were shot in front of everyone, their bodies loaded into a German truck. Marina and her father watched long enough to hear a neighbor whisper that the couple had been hiding Jews before Vittorio had quickly dragged Marina away.
How could her father do such a thing? Risk his life—her life—without telling her?
“My father and I didn’t keep secrets from each other. How could he tell you and not me?” she demanded.
If she kept asking questions, maybe she could hold back the pain that shot through her like a fire burning out of control.
“I only found out by accident. I came over to return a book I had borrowed and found Vittorio and an artist in the living room. The man was holding a towel; he had just taken a shower,” Paolo replied. “If he told you, he would have put you in danger. Vittorio loved you more than anything. He would have died himself before he let anyone hurt you.”
“But he did die.” Her voice broke.
Her eyes were wide and frightened. Her body felt as if it didn’t belong to her—it went from being on fire to cold as ice.
“How will I live without him, Paolo? He’s the only person who’s been there my whole life.”
“You will find a way, Marina. You must. But you can’t stay in the house. I’d invite you to stay with me, but it’s not a good idea for either of us.” Paolo paused, considering. “If the German officers searched the house and noticed a young woman’s bedroom, they may come back.”
“Come back?” Marina was puzzled.
“They would assume anyone else in the house would be part of this—they could come back to arrest you and question you about other safe houses and their networks,” Paolo explained.
“Even if I knew anything, I’d never tell them.” Marina sat up straight. She had to find somewhere else to stay. Marina thought of her two best friends at the university, Selena and Inez, both art history students too. And there were other family friends from childhood. But if she was being watched by German officers, she would be putting them in danger.
“Is there somewhere you could go? A cousin in the country, a friend in Florence or Venice?” Paolo suggested.
The mention of Florence sparked Marina’s memory. “My father’s friend Bernard Berenson has a villa outside Florence. He’s an American art collector,” she answered. “My father saved his life a few years ago. He always said he would do anything for him.”
Marina had last seen Bernard when he came to Rome a few years ago. He was older than her father, in his sixties. Marina remembered him being tall and thin, with gray hair and a distinguished beard. He was an intellectual and enjoyed discussing books and music as well as art.
Bernard would take her in, she knew. But she couldn’t leave the gallery. It was as important to her as it was to her father. He had been teaching her to run it. One day it would be hers.
“But I can’t leave the gallery,” she said stubbornly. “And all my father’s things are here.”
“You mustn’t go near the gallery,” Paolo warned her. “The rest isn’t important. What matters is that you are safe. That’s what your father would have wanted.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Memories of her father flooded her mind: dressed in his black suit after her mother died, the only time she had seen him weep openly. The hours they spent together working at the gallery. The day she got accepted at the university, when he appeared with a new dress and a briefcase he’d bought her: something frivolous and something serious.
“I need his things,” she said vehemently. “I’ve lost my father; I can’t lose everything else too.”
“One day you can come back for them,” Paolo said. He looked old and gray, as if the events of the last hour had aged him. “The war won’t last forever. You’ll return to Rome.”
“It’s already evening,” Marina remarked. “How would I get to Florence? It might be too late to leave tonight.”
She had to find the courage to go. There would be no dream of running her own gallery, of continuing what her father started, if she was dead.
“There’s no time to waste. You need to leave now—your life depends on it. You can catch a train to Florence,” Paolo said.
“What if there aren’t any trains?”
“You have papers, and the trains are still running,” Paolo urged her. He reached into his pocket and took out a handful of lire. “Take this for the ticket. I’ll send more money when you’re settled.”
“I can’t let you do that.” Marina shook her head.
“I’m fifty years old. My wife is dead, and both my sons died fighting in the civil war in Spain. I wake up every morning afraid that my neighbors have been shot by German soldiers, or that Allied bombs have destroyed the churches. And there’s nothing I can do about it.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. “Vittorio said the only way to keep going is by helping others. Let me at least do this.”
Marina remembered the wad of lire she was holding. She knew there was more money hidden in an envelope in her father’s study. It was for emergencies, but she was certain this counted as one.
She handed the lire back to Paolo and looked at his weather-beaten cheeks, the skin sallow from months without fruit and vegetables.
“It’s not safe for you either.” She frowned. “The Germans might search the whole neighborhood. You should come with me.”
Paolo smiled thinly. “Don’t worry about me. I can stay with a relative until things die down. The Germans will move on, there are plenty of houses in Rome for them to loot.”
Paolo sat beside her. Marina leaned forward and kissed him on both cheeks.
“You were a good friend to my father and to me,” she said. “I won’t forget it. And I won’t forget what the German officers did to my father and Enrico. One day I’ll return and find them. They will pay for what they did.”
Paolo stood and started up the basement stairs. He turned around.
“The best thing you can do is move forward. By the time you come back to Rome, I hope the Germans will be long gone.”
Marina choked back her tears and kissed her father’s brow. She hated leaving him. Upstairs, the sun cast patterns on the living room drapes. She had always loved this room. The furniture was simple. Deep leather armchairs, a table next to the window, a mantel with photos of Marina. It was the paintings on the walls that drew her attention. A still life of a bowl of pears that was so vibrant, Marina could almost taste the juice. A view from the Orange Tree Garden of Rome, showing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica bathed in a topaz glow.
The paintings reminded Marina of her mother, Gloria. Gloria had been an artist and died from influenza when Marina was ten. Marina had considered becoming an artist too. She’d spent hours in the attic, covering her mother’s old canvases with paint. But she discovered she enjoyed the business side of art more. She loved learning how to spot a piece that would become valuable, working out why some paintings pulled straight at the heart.
She had developed an eye that was as discerning as her father’s. Marina’s great love was Renaissance art. Since the occupation, clients had brought in paintings to sell that had been in their collections for years. It was better to sell them than have them seized by the Nazis. Her father had been teaching her how to tell the real paintings from the fakes.
Her mind went fleetingly to Nicolo, whom she had met working at the gallery. He was the first boy she ever loved. She had believed Nicolo loved her too, until he betrayed her. She’d told Paolo that she and her father didn’t keep secrets from each other, but she had kept her relationship with Nicolo secret from him. It didn’t matter now. Nicolo was long gone.
She moved into the kitchen. She hadn’t eaten all day, and she didn’t want to faint from hunger on the train. She took a loaf of bread from the bread box and opened the fridge. Inside was a bottle of wine. Where had her father found wine?
Fresh anger boiled up inside her. Until now she had hated the Germans for making life so uncomfortable. Professors at the university had lost their jobs; the curfew made it impossible to see friends at night; food had become scarce.
But now she hated them with a passion she had never experienced before. Her father had done the honorable thing. Great Jewish artists had existed for centuries. What if Enrico was the next Pissarro or Modigliani? Her father would have done the German officer a service by selling him the painting.
She hurried upstairs to her room and grabbed her papers, then threw a few things into the suitcase she kept under her bed. Downstairs in her father’s study, the curtains were closed. A book of Donatello’s sculptures lay open on the little table beside her father’s armchair. Her father liked to flip through it after dinner with a digestif—a glass of amaretto or a Galliano served in the crystal snifter that had been a wedding present years ago.
Marina took the emergency lire from the desk drawer. It was quite a large amount and would last her for a while. A letter was folded inside the envelope. It hadn’t been there before. She read it out loud.
My dearest Marina,
If you are reading this, something has happened to me. To be honest, I’m not surprised. The war has ruined so many lives. It has ripped apart countries, separated loved ones, left young women as widows and children as orphans. How could I expect to be different?
But I have led a long and good life. First, I was blessed with your mother. She made me happy for more than fifteen years. With her I learned what it means to love. And there was you. Not only were you a sweet and beautiful child, you have grown to be a young woman whom I love and admire.
Our mutual love of art is the greatest joy of my life. You already know more than they can teach you at university, more than I can pass on to you at the gallery. You see through a painting all the way to the artist’s soul. Accept and nurture that gift, and you will always be able to take care of yourself.
Remember too that we are Italians. Better yet, we are Romans. Rome has been here for centuries. The Germans can no more easily take away its wisdom, and its beauty, than they can extinguish its famous light. One day the war will be over and the streets will again be filled with laughter, the clink of glasses, the scent of perfume in a woman’s hair.
You are young. There will be time in your life for everything: lovers, a husband, children, the career that you so desperately want. You will have it all, and I will be watching over you. No one deserves it more than you, my dearest Marina, because for twenty years you have made me the happiest father alive.
Your loving father, Vittorio
Marina folded the paper and slipped it back in the envelope. She wouldn’t let herself cry. There would be time to cry later. She would walk into the piazza with the courage and strength of the lions that had once fought at the Colosseum.
She picked up her suitcase and walked out of the house, closing the front door behind her.
There was a train to Florence that night. She would be on it.