July 13th, 2002

Gold-edged Wings

An expectant crowd gathered at the entrance of the Basilicia di Santa Maria di Loreto. Near the steps band members in white shirts, maroon ties, and black trousers chatted and smoked, their gleaming brass instruments in their hands or under their arms. Stone bas reliefs of mitres and crossed keys flanked the massive wood doors. Above them a banner proclaimed the celebration of the “Giubileo di Ischia,” the island’s jubilee.

Everyone threw away their cigarettes when the Bishop appeared in the doorway with his entourage of priests, seminarians and acolytes in red-trimmed white surplices. His Eminence, gripping a staff topped with an ornate gold crucifix, descended.

A dozen men carrying a platform bearing a life-sized statue of La Madonna Della Libra in a flowing blue robe followed. A circle of stars—tiny electric lights—surrounded her head. Two young men carried purple velvet pillows with embroidered gold rope edges, and on the pillows were large, rusted keys. Two Carabinieri in sharply creased black trousers with scarlet bands along their length guarded the assembly.

Clouds of yellow and white confetti and red balloons floated down from the roof of the basilicia. Little children looked up wide-eyed from their strollers, and their mothers too looked up, smiling.

The band began playing, and strolled casually up Via M. Verde, not in formation but in a loose group. The Bishop, his entourage, the Blessed Virgin rocking on her platform, and a crowd of older men and women followed. Ahead, leading the procession, a man carried a large pole; on its top was a globe sprouting pink flowers. Every now and again he had to lower the pole so as not to strike the overhead wires.

I’d heard about the procession—a commemoration of the three “coronations” of the mother of Christ. The first was pronounced by Pope Benedict in the 18th Century. The second in 1937, by Forio’s own Cardinal Lavitrano, who rose to be Archbishop of Palermo, and who greeted General George Patton when he arrived during the war to liberate the country. The third came in 1987.

I walked along the narrow sidewalk of small, dark gray granite blocks in a repeating fan pattern. The band played “Noi Vogliam Dio,” We Need God, a strange and haunting music in a very slow, syncopated tempo. Trumpets, trombones, French horns, clarinets, flutes and snare drums.

On the sidewalks people stood respectfully. Old and young men and women, and many children. A tourist raised his video camera. A handsome young man put his arm over the shoulder of a slim blonde girl, in tight black trousers and a maroon sweater.

At the bottom of the hill, near the port, the procession stopped. From the end of the breakwater came the whump of mortars hurling shells, and a few seconds afterward the air reverberated with powerful explosions, and the sky filled with brilliant starbursts and puffs of smoke that drifted slowly in the wind.

In the crowd a child raised her little arms and covered her ears with her hands, and wailed. Her father lifted her up, held her in his arms. He spoke reassuring words while the explosions continued. Explosions powerful enough to be felt as puffs of wind on my face. The child wept, and her father continued to speak soft words of reassurance. Don’t worry, it is all right. Daddy’s with you! Hush, child, it will be all right. See the pretty lights?

Vittoria told me many times about the constant fireworks displays on Ischia, the racket goes on all the time, she said, they’ll set off the explosions on nearly every religious holiday, twice, three times a month. She said she hated that terrible noise. And right there in the crowd surrounding me was Vittoria, as a child, in her father’s arms.

The procession slowly continued, and I followed. We passed the tables and chairs of Bar Maria, sheltered by trees, where many years ago W.H.Auden and his lover Chester sat and had quiet discussions. Then past a strange fountain that consisted of a low wall enclosing a pool and a fifteen-foot tall pile of porous rocks covered with various species of green ferns and thick, rich, emerald moss; the rocks dripped water from an underground spring.

Then past the Farmacia’s sign displaying a stylized red cross and a green cadeseus. The supermarcoli, and The Cinema delle Vittorie, owned by a physician whose office was around the corner. Past Bar Europa, and the tiny piazza with a scattering of green benches, surrounded by massive thick-trunked palms with huge pineapple-shaped tops from which arched the rustling fronds. Past a blue door with a bright brass knocker in the shape of a hand.

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We wound through the village until we arrived at the steps of Santa Maria del Soccorso. The front door of the chapel was open. The sky darkened to a rich blue. A long, narrow rose cloud crowned Mt. Epemeo; below its peak points of light shimmered in a field of deep, dark green.

Small waves made a gentle rushing sound as they broke against the rocks at the base of the high promontory on which the chapel stood. The Bishop used a megaphone to give a homily to the crowd while the band stood off to the side. When the Bishop concluded, the procession again resumed, and headed back to the basilica.

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I went into the chapel and sat on a polished wood bench. Ship models rested high on ledges to the right and left of the main altar. Sailing ships, with meticulously detailed masts and rigging. Fifteen miniature angels lined the arch above a side altar. They were dark, shiny brown figures against the pure white of the walls. At the top of the arch, an angel held aloft a large cross. She was the chief angel, the most favored.

When I first saw Soccorso in the pages of a book Vittoria had brought me in New York, I told her that when—IF—we married it had to be in that beautiful little chapel. I loved the magnificent white stucco Moorish architecture accented by a single palm near the entrance.

“Getting married in such a lovely place would be perfect, don’t you think?” I asked.
“Oh, I love those angels,” she said, “especially the one at the top.”
I was going to ask her, “Why do you change the subject?”
But instead I said, “You see yourself as that little angel?”
“Don’t you?” she replied.

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After a while I went outside to the courtyard and walked toward the rear of the chapel, past a rough-hewn stone cross mounted on a tiled pedestal. The yellow-orange sun was almost touching the sharp edge of the horizon. Waves breaking on the dark rocks far below made a soft, rythmic, rushing sound.

I leaned forward until the stone and iron railings to the left and right disappeared, and I saw only the sea, as if I were suspended in the air above it. Wave crests reflected the light of the sun and became a pitying of doves. An endless multitude of gold-edged wings.