I wrote this piece for a class assignment when living in Italy earlier this year. The class spent a great deal of time focusing on the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy. I really enjoyed the course and the various assignments we completed for it. The letter is that of a woman outlining her life and experiences of the times. The assignment also required us to demonstrate some of the biases and divides within the country as it unified. Happy reading!
For the past five years, I watched as our beloved Italia seems to be a ship lost at sea, riding out a perilous storm of political ideals and dreams. Now, at the full height and frenzy of the violent maelstrom that the rest of the world knows as the Risorgimento, I wonder what was the purpose of setting out on this cursed and deadly voyage. What drew us to this repetitive theme of nationalism? Are we just moths attracted to the flame of something that we can never truly have? Will we survive the night and find the sun breaking the darkness; birthing a new country of hope and equality? Or will the hull rupture; the masts crash down destroying the slippery, old wooden deck sending us to the depths of the Mediterranean to await final judgment by the Austrians and the aristocrats of the Old World? Is this dream of a united Italia as fickle as the seas our country lies between? Does God even look down and favor those fighting for what they believe is right when the Pope vehemently condemns all actions towards our end goal? I no longer have answers to these questions as I once believed I did. My faith in this cause is waning. So many newly formed doubts haunt me as I sit alone in my house that once felt warm and full of life. The house and I are just another floating remnant of a past that will soon not exist. Both of us lost in the shadows of a city that once was known for its culture, art and domination of the Eastern trade routes. I apprehensively await word of our fate. As I pine for that elusive bit of news to arrive from the South, where the owner of my heart now fights for the future of us all.
I formally met Vincenzo, my husband, on a sunny winter day in the shipyards as I stood waiting for my father’s ship to make port. Our paths had briefly crossed a few times prior to that day. I had seen the mast of my father’s ship and the family flag flying with that of the Veneto as it sailed into the turquoise water of the lagoon after being gone two months picking up produce from the North African coastline. I pretended not to notice him as he and his friends from the University of Venice walked past. Those days Vincenzo was dashing and charming with a devil’s grin, black, short curly hair and eyes the color of the sea that danced whenever he laughed. He was from the Bourbon South, which made him almost exotic and irresistible to a woman who only journeyed to Sicily and Naples one time previously. The smile on my face betrayed me as he nodded in my direction and remarked to one of his friends about the beauty of the morning and the allure the mistress of the sea offered him. The gown I wore that morning matched both the Adriatic and those eyes that would haunt me from that day forward. I fully comprehended that his colorful metaphor referenced myself as his eyes never left mine.
Many on the piers and docks knew me including Vincenzo. I was the only child of Don Anafesto. The blood in my veins was that of the original Doge of Venezia. After the Middle Ages my family fell out of grace with the ruling powers and lost much of our wealth. However, my father and grandfather worked diligently to restore the family name and titles. For generations we were masters of the sea and remained so even under Austrian rule. The reigning Austrian and Venetian families looked down on us in disdain for our middle class ranking. We were now the despicable nouveau ricci. Those same disdainful looks contained tinges of jealousy for the ability of the Anafestos to rise from the ashes of a disgraced past to fly once again towards the sun.
“The sea is a cruel mistress for those that do not know her well.” I couldn’t resist accepting the invitation he extended as he now walked my way.
“Then I shall have to make her acquaintance. Will the sea not share her true name with a lonely sailor who desires to learn her secrets?” he smiled taking my hand and bringing it to his lips.
“Why is there a need for me to share it? I believe you already know my name signor just as I know yours.” I scoffed making that Cheshire cat smile even bigger.
“Oriana, you are as unpredictable as the Adriatic your father sails. Today you are Salacia made flesh. Your gown is the water and sky on a calm day. Your black curls the starts of the storm clouds that suddenly fall upon unsuspecting sailors. Those rich green eyes the final maelstrom that submerges us poor men so happily and willingly to its depths.” He remarked making me laugh. “So tell me siren, how do you know my name?”
“My father offered you his hand when you fell into the Rio Dell’Albero. I believe you were trying to attract the attention of Maria Visconti after a matinée of La Traviata if I recall correctly. Only an African would manage to fall into a canal.” He turned a light shade of pink as I took the wind out of his sails reminding him of when we met last.
“I blocked that afternoon out of my memory signora. You are again like the sea in your cruelty with your crass reference to my southern heritage and to remind me of such a traumatic event. Being from Naples hardly makes me African. My blood is more aristocratic and Italian than yours. Apparently, I was also raised with better manners than are taught in Venezia.”, he flippantly remarked; his pride and temper momentarily pricked. Deciding to let go of my offensive words, he offered me his arm and an escort to my father’s ship as we watched the quartermaster drop the gangplank in place. When I slipped my hand into that L shaped curve and placed my fingers on that strong bicep, he became my guide to a strange and foreign world known as adulthood.
In those early days of romance and young love, we believed anything was possible. He dispelled many myths I had of Naples and the southern states. Or perhaps part of me believed, he was a rare exception seldom found in the wild southern states of the Peninsula. Either way we were living proof that the North and South could coexist as one entity. If we complimented each other so perfectly, surely the people of both sections of Italy could do so. The South could bring its rich agriculture, flavorful wines and old Middle Eastern heritage into the North. In return, we could infuse the South with our industry, classical education, music and true art.
We often read the news of the escalating violence and the maturing fight for independence while we ate dinner or lay lazily in bed each morning. We even discussed the concept of Italia frequently. As the tricolor flag flew over more and more freed regions, the idea of being a free country of our own appealed to our young hearts and minds. Though it was treason to think such a thing or openly discuss such matters.
Being young and full of aspirations we could see this new “Italia” as easily as we saw our own reflections in the mirror. What an inspirational and inviting vision! To be free of the Austrian influence and foreign powers controlling the once powerful center of the Roman Empire. Truly free to set our own course in the world.
A year into our marriage, Vincenzo would disappear in the evenings without a trace. This distressed me a great deal. I begin to believe he had taken a lover on the side.
When I asked where he was going he always advised it was better I do not know, but he would be home soon. One evening I hung my cloak near the door determined to discover where my new husband disappeared to three nights a week. Nerves on edge, I waited for the tender kiss good night and the whispered words of, “I will return as soon as I can cara. Do not wait up as I may be late. Ti amo sirena.” Without fail Vincenzo repeated his nightly farewell then disappeared down the dark alleyways of Venice.
Waiting only a few seconds, I pulled on my cloak and followed behind him. He only paused to look over his shoulder once. I pressed myself into a doorway praying he did not see that I shadowed him. Finally we stopped at Palazzo Albrizzi. The door to the large home opened after his knock. Had he taken an aristocratic lover? Was my family’s old name along with his ties to the nobility of Naples not enough for him? My heart in my throat I wrapped on the door as he had. The butler answered clearly stunned to see a woman standing before him. The master of the house had instructed him not to make inquiries of anyone who knocked on the door in that fashion. His directions were clear, lead whoever banged out that secret rhythm to the library. Neither of us spoke a word as he led me down a frescoed hall to the room tucked away on the rear of the house. As the large oak door swung open the men inside stopped speaking and glanced towards it to see who entered.
“Oriana.”, Vincenzo spoke my name in disbelief as he recognized me standing on the threshold. Other men stared and whispered as he stood and crossed the room to me. One or two made off-handed remarks about controlling one’s wife as I almost wept from the relief I felt that I found him deep in conversation with several men from Venice’s most promising families versus a rich mistress. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to explain my sudden appearance as he took both my forearms in firm hands, “You should not be here cara.”
“I thought… I believed…”, I stammered as I stared into the blue pools that immediately knew the originally well concealed reason that compelled me to follow him that night.
He smiled understandingly and embraced me, reinforcing the vow of fidelity he took when we married. “Tesoro, you will never find another in my arms. I am here for a much more noble cause.”
When he turned to excuse the two of us from the room he was halted by Senatore Cappello. Vincenzo grew concerned as Cappello requested my assistance with stirring the fires of the revolution in the Veneto. After all who would tie a woman to the
resistance or order? The Austrians were too arrogant to do so. Fear resurfaced for both of us inside me.
“You are a carbonari?” I asked in a voice just above a whisper. Part of me wished he had taken a lover. There would be less risk involved in an affair.
“We will discuss this more later. Do you not dream of seeing Venezia free or Italia regain it’s glory from the days of old?” he denied me an answer for the moment. He straightened and smiled turning to address Cappello. “If there is no need of my services tonight, I wish to discuss this at length privately with my lovely wife after I see her safely home. Her decision to abstain or support our cause will be communicated tomorrow.”
Cappello bid us good night. The walk home was tense and seemed to last for eternity as we dared not discuss such matters where we could be overheard. Our heated conversation that night was a mix of fear versus courage, patriotism versus criminality and concluded with both of us surrendering to the passion it aroused in our hearts for one another. I watched the sunrise from our bedroom window. The sky was flame red as the orange ball ascended the heights to its resting place. A red dawn signaled those of us that lived on the sea to take warning as a storm was brewing.
“I wonder if the rain today will be a down pour with the melee in your eyes this morning mia serina.” Vincenzo wrapped his arms around me from behind and kissed my temple before wishing me good morning.
Accepting the red sky as a sign of our fates, I surrendered to the change dancing on the sea breeze. I asked Vincenzo to accept the invitation to join the secret society supporting the revolution on my behalf when he met with Cappello that afternoon. For the next several months, I helped raise money and smuggle messages between towns. I mingled with conspirators that secretly hid in the city. We lived and breathed the dream that was Italia. If one were to slice our wrists they would bleed green, white and red. We risked everything for a new world our children could be raised in. Exile or death would be our sentence if Vincenzo and I were caught.
Garibaldi called for men to come south and support the fight in Sicily. Vincenzo answered that call feeling a moral duty to take up arms to defend a place so near his family’s home. Sicily and Naples were once united under one kingdom. At first I was tempted to plead with him to stay and fight against the Austrians. That way I could see him regularly and have knowledge of his wellbeing. When I saw the look in his eye, I knew it would be futile to do so. He was already envisioning a victory against Bourbon Napoli as another piece of Italia fell into place. He promised to write frequently if time permitted. He swore to return to his beloved wife and Venezia soon.
“Soon” slipped from days into months and months into a year. His letters religiously arrived every other Friday. They found their way to me through Garibaldi’s officers, strangers passing through Venice and our family ships that ported in Palermo. He wrote of the greatness of the country being boring. He dreamed of equality for all and
for a better life for the poor throughout what would become Italy. He especially felt for the peasants in Sicily. Their strife was greater than any other in the region. Often living in dirt floor hovels while the Southern aristocrats enjoyed the luxury of their massive plantation homes whose floors were covered in swirling marbles and Persian rugs. In the new Italy, the peasants’ standard of living would certainly be improved as they would receive a small parcel of land to farm. Wealth could be redistributed in the region as needed per the nationalists.
Having visited the region once in my youth, I did not share Vincenzo’s optimism. The lands were harsh and unwelcoming; the people deceptively warm. The first morning I spent in Sicilia, a boy with big brown eyes and olive skin playfully greeted me on the streets of Palermo. When he invited me to bounce the small ball in his hands he seemed friendly enough. As I tried to speak with him the little monster ripped the locket I wore from my neck then disappeared into the maze of streets never to be seen again. At eight this ordeal was traumatizing and left a sour taste in my mouth for the citizens of the south. If the children were conniving thieves, the adults had to be a hundred times worse. I doubted life would improve in the new country of Italia. For centuries the poor remained poor with only a few ever climbing into the middle class. The rich, well, they always remained rich. Part of me resented Northern men fighting for Sicilia. She was hardly a country who could appreciate the sacrifice made for her. In my mind savages would always be savages. I dared not write my thoughts, which turned bitter with being separated by a war that lost its luster when my husband was pulled from my side. It no longer seemed a glorious cause as more women were advised their husbands or sons died or if they were lucky were merely taking prisoner and exiled.
Finally in August word reached us of Garibaldi’s victory in the South. Our men would return home for much needed rest and celebration as Piedmontese troops carried on the fight in other parts of the country. I longed to see Vincenzo. He could bring me relief from the burden I carried in a now war torn Venice. Erase the new doubts and spiteful views I developed. The Austrians cracked down harshly on the Venetians and Italians in the city. Curfews were enforced and spies lurked around every corner. The white Austrian uniforms that used to bring a comforting sense of security now only brought unease as they filled the city streets at night. My father urged me to flee to Verona or Milan but I refused. I would leave as soon as Vincenzo appeared at my door. He was due any day now.
So here I sit, as summer begins its transition to fall in 1860. Waiting for a glimpse of his face or another letter to tell me the lost sailor was finally on course to come home. Could I not speed him on his way with the gift of fair winds and following seas? I sip my wine dreaming of our reunion when a knock forces me from my fantasies. I rise and my feet seem to move across the floor driven by a will all their own. Was my beloved Vincenzo finally home? As I opened the door one of Garibaldi’s Colonels stood before me. My voice shakes as I bid him to enter and gesture to a seat nearest the door. Cappello is with him. Both men advise I should be the one to sit. Obediently and silently I sink to the chair not wanting to hear whatever they come to tell me. For them both to appear the news cannot be good.
I doubt their words as they share that my patriotic and heroic husband was killed in the final barricade uprising in Sicily. My world is spinning as I fight to stifle the wail longing to escape my lips. He couldn’t be gone. This flimsy illusion known as national unity that failed previously was not worth his life. After they offered words of sympathy and assurances that I would be compensated for my loss under Emmanuel’s new regime. Both men then left my home. They departed as if they only stopped by for a routine afternoon chat. I found myself sliding down the closed door to the cold stone floor. Alone, I scream and cry grieving for the loss. Wanting the angel of death to tear my heart from my chest and reunite me with the sailor awaiting me on the shores in the afterlife. I resign myself to the idea that just as my time with Vincenzo did not last, the world we both lived in just a year ago was gone. The future that loomed seemed dark and unpredictable. I pray his life was not given vainly for a false prophecy as I now believe “Italia” to be. What is unity worth if one finds themselves alone in the new world? Just as the boy impulsively stole my locket, Sicily heartlessly claimed the one thing I now valued most.