Novak has over seventy-five sculptures in public spaces, corporate, and private collections. Examples of his work can be seen in the Photo Gallery section of his website toppingthedome.com.
A Historical Novel
RICHARD F NOVAK
In 1831, after an underground network called the Carbonari had failed to start a revolution in central Italy, the writer and political activist Giuseppe Mazzini formed a new secret society, La Giovine Italia or Young Italy. Its purpose—to continue the campaign for unification of Italy, the peninsula comprising multiple independent kingdoms of which the largest were the Papal States, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Two Sicilies, Lombardy-Venetia, and Sardinia.
In 1834, Mazzini, joined by the fearless warrior and future Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, had planned a revolt in the city of Genoa and the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. Betrayed by one of Mazzini’s close companions, the short-lived revolt was a failure.
Mazzini fled to Switzerland before settling in England, where he continued to write his seditious ideology. These books and pamphlets were smuggled into Italy and distributed to the Young Italy groups that had expanded throughout the peninsula.
Garibaldi, sentenced to death in absentia, had also escaped. First to France and then to South America where he became a feared mercenary in both Brazil and Uruguay.
Neither man had abandoned hope of returning to their homeland to participate in a final campaign to unify Italy.
With the death of Pope Gregory XVI in June 1846, Mazzini sensed it was time to expand the work of Young Italy. The ultraconservative Gregory had ruled for fifteen years and rejected any modern innovations or change. Anyone disagreeing with his autocratic reign had been imprisoned.
Into this climate of fear and little hope for progress in the lives of the people of the Papal States a new pope, Pius IX was elected on June 16, 1846. Would he continue Gregory’s policies? The people of the Papal States and Young Italy anxiously awaited the answer.
The large crowd surprised Charles when he stepped out onto the street. When he had moved into his new studio earlier, the street had been empty. Now, on this hot July afternoon Romans fresh from their afternoon riposo or siesta filled Via Sistina. Some gathered in groups of three or four engaged in animated conversation. Others were reading what looked like an official proclamation posted on the wall down the street. Whatever it said, Charles knew it must be important to cause such a commotion.
He made his way toward the cluster of people facing the poster and nudged past the excited Romans pushing, shoving, and stretching their necks to get a better view of the notice. When close enough to read it he saw an official proclamation from the new pope, Pius IX, or Pio Nono as the Italians called him. Dated July 16, 1846, it announced an amnesty for all the political prisoners of Pio Nono’s predecessor, Pope Gregory XVI.
This unexpected good news seemed to come as a shock to everyone. An American expatriate in Rome Charles paid little attention to its politics, but a year ago his friend and fellow sculpture student had disappeared. Almost certainly Piero was in one of Gregory’s prisons, but he never had been able to discover where or why. Now, Charles felt he might see his friend again.
He needed to know more and decided to head for the Caffé Greco, unofficial headquarters of the artists of Rome and an unrivaled place to hear the latest gossip. Perhaps someone there knew more about the released prisoners.
It had been a year since he had arrived in this city with awe-inspiring ancient ruins scattered everywhere and galleries full of spectacular paintings and sculpture. Aside from the perplexing politics, an incongruity still puzzled him. This feast for the eyes existed in a maze of narrow, dirty, garbage-strewn streets where naked children played, urinated, and worse. In warm weather people spent their entire day in the streets. The mannerisms of a typical Roman were dramatic, and all conversation embellished and delivered with exaggerated gestures.
Intermixed with this conflict of the senses were mothers sitting on benches breastfeeding their children or young lovers, arm in arm on the edges of fountains kissing, reinforcing the reputation of a ‘romantic’ city. Romans offered no excuses for this striking contrast of the spectacular, repugnant, and romantic. After all, no other city in the world could match its history and treasures.
By comparison Charles’s home of Washington, the capital of the United States, had few monuments, no art galleries, plain churches, and a puritanical culture. Comparing ancient Rome to adolescent America was impossible, but it didn’t matter. He couldn’t think of a better place to be a sculptor.
He headed up Via Sistina to the top of the Spanish Steps. More beggars, vendors, and tourists than usual crowded the famous ascent to Trinita dei Monti church. This opening proclamation of Pio Nono—perhaps opening salvo would be more appropriate—had sparked a celebration throughout the city. He wove his way down the steps, and across the Piazza di Spagna to the Via dei Condotti and the Caffé Greco.
When he opened the door, the boisterous voices indicated a full house which was unusual for this time of day. All the seats were occupied and he hoped he hadn’t missed the best of the witty conversation and latest gossip. Men standing between the tables bathed in thick cigar and pipe smoke made it difficult to see. Charles spotted his friends deep in conversation in the second of the three rooms of the cafe. They didn’t notice him as he approached and bumped into the chair of his good friend William Smyth.
At first annoyed, Smyth turned around, looked up, and recognizing Charles smiled and said, “Charles, where have you been? We’ve been here at least two hours. Have you heard the news?”
“I was busy moving, but I did. I read Pio Nono’s proclamation. It’s hard to believe all the political prisoners will be released.”
“But it’s true, and everyone is celebrating. Sit down and join us.”
Finding a chair in the crowded room took time, but he managed and grabbed an empty cup from another table. Smyth, a painter from London, and Everett Brown, a fellow American sculptor had all come to Rome around the same time. Good-humored and a serious student of Roman history and architecture, Smyth had introduced Charles to the ancient ruins of the city and the art treasures hidden in the smaller churches.
Brown, a Harvard-educated intellectual from a wealthy Boston family spent most of his time reading and discussing philosophy and politics with whoever would listen. It was a running joke that he’d actually come to Rome to teach the classics.
Charles meanwhile, concentrated on his training and development as a sculptor. He admired the wide range of interests of his two friends and mentors, but he couldn’t afford the luxury of any other interests. His family hadn’t possessed the means to allow him to continue school beyond the sixth grade, and before coming to Rome he had worked as an apprentice wood carver, and then a stonemason.
Filling Charles’s cup with wine, Smyth asked, “Did you finish moving? You know we would have been there to help, but this sudden proclamation from Pio Nono demanded our immediate attention.” Laughing, Brown nodded his agreement.
“Yes, I managed. My landlord provided me with a cart and a young boy to help. I don’t have many things and I’m finished, no thanks to you. By now I know you enough to realize you both despise common labor. Last week when I mentioned the move your dead silence made it clear you had no intention of helping me,” replied Charles. “Now, tell me about all this excitement over the prisoner release.”
“This changes the political landscape of the city,” began Brown as Smyth rolled his eyes and poured himself more wine. “There has been no suppression of freedom by Pio Nono. Unlike Gregory, Pio Nono is loved by the people. I guess that’s why I feel excited and optimistic about what may happen in Rome.”
“My best friend Piero Cifaldi, a sculptor I met when I first arrived in the city may be among the prisoners released,” said Charles. “He began his training at Professor Morretti’s studio about six months before me. A rebel if ever there was one, he never concealed his dislike for Gregory and his policies, but new to Rome I didn’t realize how serious that could be. We became close friends when he let me stay with him for my first three months in the city. I’ll never forget his generosity. He had little, but shared everything with me until I received my money from home. Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d have survived.
“Then one day he didn’t return to Morretti’s studio. That wasn’t like him. Before that he never missed a day and I never saw him again. When I asked his friends in the cafe, they would only shrug their shoulders and walk away pretending ignorance. Finally, one day I stopped one of his friends on the street and he reluctantly told me they had arrested Piero.”
“Did you ever hear any more about him?” asked Brown.
“No. But that’s when this naïve American began his education in the subtleties of Roman politics,” said Charles.
“What do you mean?” asked Smyth.
“We’re not Romans. That’s why we’re not invited to join their political discussions,” said Charles. “I’ve said nothing about this before because Piero warned me Gregory had spies everywhere, including this café. Other friends of his also disappeared. Spies in a cafe, artists vanishing because of their political beliefs. It would never happen at home and I had no desire to join them.”
“The Romans surrounded themselves with an invisible wall of silence during Gregory’s papacy and I’ve had little success penetrating it,” said Brown. “Over the centuries they’ve learned to keep their political propensities to themselves during periods of repression.”
“I’ve had the same experience,” said Smyth. “It’s the reason for the excitement today. They like Pio Nono. We’ve heard that after the proclamation was posted they gathered in the front of the pope’s residence, and wouldn’t leave until he made an appearance.”
“This fascinates me,” said Brown. “Charles do you think you can find Cifaldi?”
“I had no luck finding him when he first disappeared and wouldn’t know where to start,” replied Charles. “But I hope he’s one of the released prisoners. I’ll never forget how he helped me and now it may be my chance to return the favor.”
“Were you ever part of Cifaldi’s political discussions?” asked Smyth.
“No. He taught me a great deal when I started my apprenticeship and for that I’m grateful but he was careful about what he told me about his beliefs. One of the few things I do remember was him mentioning a man called Mazzini one night when we were with his friends here,” said Charles. “When Piero mentioned that name it caused an immediate awkward silence at the table until the others, all Romans, changed the subject. There were many nights when Piero went out alone and wouldn’t come home until late. He never told where he’d been, and I never asked.”
“Mazzini has been writing revolutionary literature for years. Now that you mention him I think it would be a good place for me to understand what’s happening in Roman and Italian politics,” said Brown. “Let me talk to our American consul in Rome, James Winton, who follows the ever-changing politics of this peninsula and its kingdoms.”
“I’ve been here for hours,” said Smyth. “It’s time to go home. I missed my riposo today, and the wine is making me sleepy.” The others agreed, and left the café together, each heading in different directions.
Walking back to his studio, Charles considered the discussion at the café. He had come to Rome to study sculpture and make it his profession. Politics had never interested him, particularly that of a foreign country. He did not see how it could contribute to his success.
Smyth had already sold many paintings to English tourists. Brown never seemed to worry about money. His wealthy family wouldn’t let him go hungry. But Charles had rent to pay and it was vital he make a success of his first commission. When he reached his new studio, opened the door, and stepped inside, he looked around and felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. With his apprenticeship at Professor Moretti’s studio completed and work on his first commission about to begin, he couldn’t afford any distractions.
The next morning, filled with creative energy and eager to begin work, Charles unpacked his tools. They were all he owned except for his clothes and the clay model or maquette of his first commission. Removing the damp cloth keeping the clay of his maquette from drying, he inspected its surface and found no damage from the move.
In a separate room a straw mattress for a bed with a table and two chairs left behind by the previous renter, completed his first studio and household. As meager as this was, for Charles it represented a momentous step in his life and career.
Everything else he created over the past year had to remain at Moretti’s studio. This maquette was the only example of his work he had to show visitors to his studio. Rome had many sculptors competing for the business of the hundreds of tourists searching for art. To compete for commissions, he needed a new body of work.
At least this was the way he felt. A block of marble to carve would definitely help dissipate some of this creative energy, so a marble yard was where he planned to head next. For the first time it would be up to him to decide which block to choose, causing a brief sense of insecurity. In the past, they had made all those decisions for him in Moretti’s studio. His first client had given him the usual half-down payment up front. With no reserves, mistakes took on costly consequences never considered by an apprentice.
The marble yards were across the Tiber River in the Trastevere section of Rome, a long, but welcome walk on this summer morning. People filled the streets eager to complete their business or shopping before the afternoon heat. Trastevere contained the workshops of hundreds of craftsmen plying their trades. They could be watched through the open fronts of their shops making everything from fine jewelry to cannons. Charles often lingered here for hours wandering through the streets and always learning something new about tools or materials.
Today though, nothing would distract him from his mission. He needed a marble block at least a meter and a half square. Upon reaching the marble yard he began his inspection of the blocks that looked suitable for his commission. It took a while before he found one the appropriate size and shape. While examining the surface, a man approached.
“You look like you found what you’re looking for,” said the man.
“Yes, I think this is what I need,” answered Charles.
From that point on the man dominated the conversation, assuring him he had selected one of the finest blocks of marble in his yard.
Dealing with Roman merchants always left him disconcerted. When foreigners in this ancient city had time to reflect on their purchases they were rarely sure how they had been led from point A to point B. Centuries of negotiating experience gave locals a distinct advantage.
Roman merchants could, as required, exude charm from every pore in their body. Even though the suspicion they were paying too much might linger in the back of their customer’s mind, at the end of any negotiation they would have the utmost confidence they had dealt with an expert who could be trusted.
Charles had good reason for concern. He had never made such a large purchase, and if a defect lay hidden deep within this block of marble he didn’t have enough money to buy another and still make any profit on his first commission.
The longer the marble merchant talked the more uneasy he became, so he agreed to the purchase. Fortunately, the price was within his budget and after discussing the details of delivery, he was on his way back to his studio.
Walking back, he didn’t stop to observe any craftsmen. He’d never spent so much money and could only think of the problems that might develop with this first commission.
Approaching the studio Charles was shocked to see a man sitting outside the door. It took him a moment, but eventually he recognized the unshaven, dirty man dressed in rags.
“Piero, I thought I’d never see you again,” said Charles, rushing to help him up, and embracing him.
“And I thought I would never see anyone again,” answered Piero.
“You’re here because of the release of the prisoners?”
“They set me free yesterday along with all of Gregory’s so-called enemies,” replied Piero. “They weren’t wrong. We hated the man. Our only regret is we never had the opportunity to destroy him. He cheated us by dying.”
“How did you find me?”