The rag doll story has more to it than I told Jack in my last e-mail. But what’s the surprise? On this island, things are never what they seem. Something interesting always can be found lurking beneath the surface. Which is perhaps why Isola d’ Ischia, and this particular village of Forio, has attracted so many writers, poets, artists and musicians since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
A couple weeks ago, when I described Vittoria’s doll to Sylvia, she told me I ought to go to the village flea market the very next Sunday, and look for a fellow by the name of Franco Mazzella.
“This charming man is an expert on antiques, artifacts, art, and so on,” she said. “Plus he knows absolutely everybody of importance—both here and in Naples, Rome, Milan.”
I introduced myself as a friend of Sylvia. Franco nodded. “Yes, she has spoken to me about you,” he said. “But everyone in the village knows about the American writer who lives up there on the mountain. You are a photographer as well?”
“Yes,” I replied, raising my Nikon. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” Franco said.
“Sylvia says you are interested in learning about a doll?”
“Yes. My friend in America describes it as a sort of a flat cloth thing, and I imagine it might be like a quilt that bears a bas relief image of an infant’s face on it. Also she says it has some rather detailed embrodiery on its dress.”
A white-haired woman in a long fur coat approached Franco’s table, and asked to see a pair of antique silver tongs inside one of his display cases. Franco handed her the utensil, and called her attention to the 17th century Florentine silversmith’s name engraved on it.
“Quanta costa?” she asked.
“Cento Euro,” he said.
The woman frowned. “Grazie, no.”
Franco put the tongs back into the case.
“How do you determine the price of any object?” I asked. “Does it depend on what you think the customer might be willing to pay?”
Franco laughed. “Oh, no. There are established prices that all of us in the village association follow. I keep a close eye on these things.”
“You are in charge of this entire operation, then? All these other merchant’s tables?”
“I am. But you were interested in the origin of the doll?”
“Yes. My friend learned recently she had been adopted as an infant. The doll was a gift from her biological mother.”
“This sounds to me like a ‘Maria Bambina,’” Franco said. “These were made in Naples between 1780 and 1820.”
“Do you mean it’s a representation of the mother of Christ when she was an infant?”
“Yes, The Madonna.”
“And such a thing might a sort of offering of divine protection for the baby given up for adoption?”
“The practice was very common in Naples in the old days. And still is.”
Another woman came to the table and peered into the display cabinet. She pointed to the silver tongs. Franco handed them to her. She examined the shining object carefully. Again, he called her attention to the silversmith’s engraved name. The woman asked its price.
“Cento Venti Euro,” Franco said. He turned to me and winked.
“No. E troppo,” the woman said. Franco returned the tongs to the case.
“Do you have a picture of your friend’s piece?” he said.
“I expect it soon,” I replied.
“When it arrives I would be happy to look at it. Meanwhile, you must take a photograph of somebody very important and famous, who will be here in a few moments.”
“Can you tell me his or her name?”
I had no idea who Rocco Barocco was. Franco explained Barocco was a fashion designer. Elegant women’s clothing. Men’s fragrances. Sunglasses. Handbags.
“The man is a genius and is respected not only in Italy, but around the world," Franco said. "An extremely talented and wealthy man.”
“Why is he coming here to the flea market?”
“Because he is interested in saving the whales.”
“Whales? You mean those big mammals that swim in the ocean?”
Franco explained that as a favor to one of his dear friends, that woman over at the next table, Rocco agreed to design some items that she could sell to raise money for various conservation projects. "Do you see those handbags with the whales cavorting? They are Rocco’s design."
“You say he is coming here soon?”
“Yes. Any minute. Perhaps you can put Rocco’s photograph and a story into a magazine or newspaper in America. I am sure that everyone would be interested in reading about this great man’s latest endeavor.”
“Excuse me?” still another elegant woman said loudly. “May I see those silver tongs?”