Sylvia and I are taking our coffee at a table facing Piazza Luca Balsoforie. Today she is wearing one of her more interesting t-shirts. This one displays Penelope in profile and beside her a dozen lines of The Odyssey, in large Greek letters.
A scruffy bearded man in soiled shirt and trousers saunters by. His dark cap is down over his forehead, his eyes peer out of the shadow cast by its brim. He carries a cigarette pointed upward, held by his thumb and forefinger. He saunters insouciantly. No, this saunter is thoroughly insolent. He appears to be utterly disgusted by everything he sees.
Sylvia waves, “Leonardo! Come sta?”
Leonardo tosses his cigarette. Saunters toward our table. He bends over, peers at Sylvia’s t-shirt. He suddenly begins to recite the lines in a deep, dramatically resonant voice. He pronounces each syllable with care and great love, as if on stage, precisely as Homer himself meant them to be spoken. When he concludes, Sylvia says, “Magnificent.” She gives him a couple Euros, and Leonardo says grazie and saunters off.
At Sylvia’s villa we stand before a small framed portrait hanging in the corner, among a group of other pictures. “This was taken not long after Dottore Leonardo took his post at the university in Rome,” she says.
The image is startling, evocative. When I was a boy a painting of a heavily bearded Christ with eyes hidden in dark shadow hung in the church’s sacristy. Monsignor said that if you stared at the darkness long enough, the Lord’s eyes will suddenly appear to open. “It’s a trick of the brain,” Monsignor said. “Or a miracle. Whichever you prefer.”
Sylvia says it is such a pity that illness took over Leonardo’s mind five or six years ago. He knew six languages, and was a brilliant scholar of ancient Latin and Greek literature. He wrote essays for all the learned journals of Europe. But now? The poor man is on heavy medication and lives with a dozen flea-infested cats in a small flat in Monterone. He has a daughter, named Ionica, who lives up North, near Venice, and never comes to visit anymore.
“He tried three times to kill himself,” Sylvia says. “Sometimes he tells me, ‘Sylvia, you know, the voices say terrible things!’ And I tell him, ‘When you hear them, Leonardo, you must shout, shoo! Shoo! Go away! Like you do to a dog.’”
That evening I see Leonardo sitting on the steps of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Loretto, a bottle of beer at his side. He looks up and down the street, his face bronzed by the light of the setting sun. A cigarette burns short in his dirty fingers. His blue plastic sandals are disintegrating. The backs of his heels are callused and crusted with dirt, his toenails are long, white, and curved downward. He tosses his butt aside. Then rises and shuffles slowly up the street.