Born in Leghorn of an Italian father and a Greek mother, MARIO PICCHIhas lived in Rome since 1939. A book of his short stories,NOMA DI GIORNO,teas published in Milan in I960, and he has just completed his first novel.


THE crowd completely fills the little square and stretches part of the way down the streets which radiate off it like the spokes of a wheel. Every face is turned up toward the terrace, where the apparatus stands ready: long rods and short rods arranged in rows and in the forms of crosses and stars, with Catherine wheels, hoops, and cannons.

The clouds are low and are moving fast across the dark sky, so dense that they seem to be made of stone. Beyond the square, beyond the kitchen garden on the other side of the wall, where the damp vegetables are quietly slumbering in their furrows, beyond the trees — shimmering distant forms spattered with bright green drops — and beyond the houses with their yellow window-squares of light, a motionless army of clouds is massed for battle. It seems that at any moment it may advance and crash through the hot, moldering air.

A gentle humming sound rises from the crowd. In the middle of that meadow of heads three cypress trees loom up, and every now and then their tops wave silently. From the Via Appia, not far off, comes the muffled noise of traffic.

Many of the crowd are sitting on the curbstone, under the wall, and a few of the women have brought their own chairs. Every window in the square is open, and from behind the people who are leaning out, the light of the rooms comes to add its yellowish reflection to the whiter light of the streetlamps.

The children, pursued by their mothers’ voices, run between the legs of the grown-ups, and cries of alarm go up as the bus, like an enormous toad, comes huffing and puffing in from the Via Acqui and tries to cross the square. The crowd makes room slowly, and little by little the large bus grunts and wheezes its way through, and the passengers stare back with curiosity as they disappear among the tangle of acacia trees in the Via Etruria.

A dull explosion sends a ripple of movement through the crowd like a pebble dropped in a well: it is the signal to begin. The latecomers hurry in, while the others press forward to better positions. Everyone looks toward the terrace, where a number of black figures can be seen darting amid the motionless apparatus for the fireworks.

More people flood in, the hum of voices grows, and an occasional impatient whistle or catcall is heard. But here goes the Catherine wheel, scattering multicolored sparks as it whirls around, until with a bang a pink streak shoots out and soars into the middle of the sky, where it explodes with a soft flash of violet.

Up on the terrace which crowns the religious institute a number of priests are dashing about among the fireworks, getting in each other’s way, bumping into each other, whispering rapid phrases. But Don Lanterna dominates them all by his authority and efficiency, and he makes imperious gestures at the others to make them go away and leave him alone with his inventions.

No one has authorized him to direct operations. He has taken it upon himself to do the job because he is the technician of the institute: electricity and mechanics are his monopoly.

He has the round face and pink cheeks of a child, and his upper lip is slightly protruding.

His kingdom is the cinema. This is a long, broad, low room, with whitewashed walls and ceiling that make it look like a huge box. At one end is the stage, used chiefly for the annual prizegiving and for performances organized by the top classes; at the other end is a cinema screen. A thin partition divides the stage from Don Lanterna’s demesne, which is reached by a gray, creaking wooden staircase, leading from Don Lanterna’s room to the cabin where the projectors stand, black and deformed. A tangle of wires writhes all over the place, boxes are heaped with screws, cogwheels. dud light bulbs, and a workbench is piled high with rolls of film. The bedroom is more cluttered. Here, too, are rolls of film and heaps of dusty bobbins, boxes both full and empty, wires festooned everywhere, even over the Pope’s portrait. A vast, dismembered radio stands on a table near the door, and colored valves and resistors are scattered on the dampish white cotton bedspread.

It is here that Don Lanterna spends all his free time. The authority in technical matters that he has managed to create for himself, and the numerous powers, also of a technical nature, that have in the course of time become his have given him a certain independence and the ability to shut himself away when he wants to.

Whenever there is talk of celebrations in honor of the Madonna, he smiles and begins jotting down rows of figures. From time to time he gazes for a moment at the cement pillar in front of him, and then turns back to his notebook.

The President stares at him with his green eyes, raising his right eyebrow, as is his habit, and stroking his chin, which is not simply blue but violet with his tough beard. Next to the President sits Testa Quadra, the Prefect of Discipline, who glares at Don Lanterna very severely. His steely gaze runs over the almost childish curve of those rosy cheeks and halts on the lips, compressed in the effort of calculation. It is easy to see that he disapproves but tolerates, not for a quiet life but out of a sort of moral superiority, those little manias of Don Lanterna’s; for example, in the Week of the Sacred Heart Don Lanterna had the idea of rigging up a neon-lighted heart with a letter J superimposed on it at the top of the church dome. Yes, and the whole contraption rotated frantically, sending out a silent appeal into the night.

But these two have never agreed, from the very beginning, and Testa Quadra is not alone in being peeved by the bold independence of Don Lanterna. Some of the older priests, in grumbling among themselves, accuse the President of being too tolerant. “It can‘t go on like this,” they say, shaking their heads. Testa Quadra has touched on the matter with the President, but without ever obtaining satisfaction. He and Don Lanterna often pass in the corridors, their black-clad bodies gliding along the walls. Their glances cross like swords, but Don Lanterna’s eyes, almost indifferent, are lost in his dreams, while the other’s, with the ineradicable memory of the victim, seem to be saying, “Do you remember the little matter of the motorcar?” Not even on that occasion did Testa Quadra get satisfaction from the President.

INSIDE the building chaos reigns: doors are banging, evanescent figures brush against one another in the darkness, lights go on in the most unlikely places. The nuns responsible for the kitchen and the laundry, almost all of them middle-aged women in black, with black aprons and bonnets that cover the sides of their faces, peer out of the courtyard windows in the hope of seeing something. The reflections cast by the Catherine wheel on the church wall inflame their enthusiasm, and after a short consultation among themselves they decide to go down into the courtyard to enjoy the spectacle. Giovanni, the red-haired servant boy, has profited from the confusion and has taken one of the maids into a corner on the very staircase that leads to the kitchen. While he is there, in the darkness broken only by intermittent flashes from the Catherine wheel, murmuring sweet nothings and caressing the smiling girl pressed against the wall, a patter of steps, a rustle of starched petticoats warn him of the danger, like the first wind that stirs before a storm. Before the steps reach him, he pulls the girl into the students’ changing room, and there they remain with bated breath behind the door until the awe-inspiring swarm has passed.

In the courtyard, five or six priests are standing in respectful attitudes around the President and the Father Provincial, who has come to Rome especially to see the great manifestations in honor of the Madonna. They are all looking up toward the terrace, where the Catherine wheel is flinging out its last few sparks, but they see scarcely anything because the apparatus has all been arranged on the street side, and the red, yellow, and green reflections on the bellies of tHe heavy clouds are not enough to satisfy them. The President eagerly whispers something in the Father Provincial’s ear. The Father Provincial nods, and they move off; they, too, are going up onto the terrace.

While they are crossing the courtyard they meet the group of nuns, who are terrified, and make way for them. The President is annoyed by the liberty they have taken, but he dares not say so in front of the Father Provincial. And, anyway, perhaps on such an occasion. . . .

Only the gardener stays behind in the courtyard. He is apprehensive lest a spark should set fire to his vegetables, so he leans against a tree and gazes up into the air, without letting himself be distracted by all the colored lights. Then he rummages in his pocket, picks out the butt end of a cigar, and lights it.

The Father Provincial has told the President not to put on the lights on the staircase for fear of disturbing the spectacle, so they all go up in the dark. The nuns bring up the rear, staying so close that they almost bump into each other. Up and up and up it seems as though the stairs will never end — while the windows are suddenly colored with bright reflections and rattle noisily at the successive explosions. “It’s like a bombardment,” says the President, panting for breath.

On the terrace Don Lanterna is alone with his contrivances, He stands upright and perfectly still, his head thrown back, his tonsure barely visible as a spot of gray. And he looks taller, almost a giant, a huge statue dwarfing the parapet, the opposite houses, touching the clouds, through the smoke that swirls around his body. His pose is that of a warrior who fights against everyone, even himself. Though he is not moving, he gives the impression of tirelessness. His back is still turned, but his body seems to stiffen with the challenge, and for another moment or two he is motionless, frozen, paralyzed, a strange mummified animal among his ropes and tackle, a figure in an advertisement, illuminated by lights as cold as neon.

From one corner a group of black figures is observing him and the grimmest face is that of Testa Quadra. When the President and the Father Provincial emerge from the staircase, followed by the priests and the nuns, who with a timid and ecstatic air immediately go and stand a little way off, the Prefect of Discipline and the others move zealously toward them. Hiding their own none too charitable opinions, with suitably lowered heads they exchange admiring phrases, and then they all turn once more toward Don Lanterna, who does not seem aware of them.

He has shaken off that moment of inactivity, and with titanic gestures and vermilion cheeks he sends a series of rockets soaring up to explode, each a different color, against the clouds that loom heavier and heavier above the terrace of the religious institute. Then, without so much as drawing breath, he runs toward the parapet as if he intends to throw himself over. Testa Quadra looks on with surprise and delight, but all Don Lanterna does is light a long affair which crackles and begins to send a cascade of dazzling white sparks down toward the street, showing the faces of the crowd gaping up in joyous wonder. Without the slightest hesitation he runs to another part of the terrace to a tall structure which, as soon as he touches it, gives out thousands of blue and white sparks. After a moment of flux and confusion the sparks form themselves into definite shapes, and a thousand voices can be heard below, spelling out letter by letter, until there is a whole word: “Maria.” And there is wild applause, and the lights glitter with mounting intensity.

Everyone on the terrace is smiling, and the nuns are beaming and crossing themselves. Only Testa Quadra has a glum expression, seeing his rival triumph, and he thinks back to the motorcar episode. On that occasion too, after a shaky start, Don Lanterna emerged the winner. The car was an old Balilla which the institute had at last been able to buy, for practically nothing, for certain indispensable services. Don Lanterna took it over at once, and for two days no one was allowed to touch it. On the afternoon of the second day, during the siesta, Testa Quadra tried to enter the car, but he had scarcely sat down when Don Lanterna, warned by some mysterious instinct, arrived and turned him out, on the pretext that work had to be done on the car. The Balilla was duly repaired, and Don Lanterna took the opportunity to go off for a whole day, with the excuse that he was checking the clutch. There were those who even said that they had seen him on the Via Appia Antica, driving like a madman. The President, as usual, took no notice of the protests and complaints of Testa Quadra. He simply smiled, as he is smiling now at seeing the naïve enthusiasm of the young priest who, as soon as the last letter of the name “Maria” has faded to a glow, sets fire to other contraptions which explode, soar off, revolve, hiccup. and flood with light, with blood, with grass, with cardinal’s purple, with sheep and stars and sunsets, with sighs and cries and tremors, the entire neighborhood, the whole town!

“Don‘t you think it‘s a bit too much?” whispers Testa Quadra in the President’s ear.

“Maybe, but it‘s beautiful,” replies the President.

A long thread of light streaks up to the clouds, where it explodes, pouring out silver jets; others follow it, and immense flowers bloom in the soft density of the sky — dahlias, chrysanthemums, even lilies, so the people say.

“These weren’t on the program,” says Tesla Quadra. The President throws him a questioning glance, and then looks toward Don Lanterna. But Don Lanterna has lit his batteries, which continue to bombard heaven and eternity, and has disappeared. But here he is again, red in the face, emerging from the lop of the stairs and dragging sacks and boxes behind him. From them he takes out cords, matches, long sticks, and mysterious bundles, which he sets up along the parapet, on the wall, everywhere; he holds a match at the full length of his arm and prepares to light the powder.

“The fire! The fire!” he is heard to mutter.

“He must be stopped !” says Testa Quadra. The President is taken aback and gives a slight nod which Testa Quadra interprets as assent.

The Prefect of Discipline takes Don Lanterna by the arm. Don Lanterna wheels around, looks closely, as if to make sure of recognizing who it is, and shakes him off. At once a red flash, a dazzling light, and a great cloud of smoke leap from the bundles and cords and long sticks. Everyone on the terrace takes a step backward, and the crowd gives out an “Oooooh!” of wonder. Testa Quadra snaps: “That’s enough!” and grabs Don Lanterna’s arm once more. But once more he is shaken off, and Don Lanterna, in a blood-colored cloud of smoke, runs to another corner, where a kind of cannon rears its black throat. Testa Quadra follows him fearlessly, the President at his shoulder.

“He’s gone mad! He‘ll set fire to the building!” someone cries.

Grabbed from behind again as he holds a flame to the breach of the cannon, Don Lanterna loses his temper; he seems to be gazing at a spot way off beyond the darkness. Sweating, as red as a demon, and without even turning around, he swings a powerful backhand toward his assailant and hits the President full in the face. The President totters and grabs Testa Quadra’s cowl to keep his balance. From the mouth of the cannon erupts a ball of fire that crashes off into the far distance and explodes with a colossal roar. Out of the corner of his eye, Don Lanterna sees the President with his hand to his cheek. He dares not turn around.

Down below, the people wait for a minute or two, watching the last fires die out, and then the square begins to empty as everyone goes off, loud in praise of the spectacle. Mothers begin to call their children, and boys run between the people in knots here and there and in rows stretching right across the road. The streets leading out of the square are black with people, and the cypresses sway freely in the wind. Windows close, and only little chinks of light betray that there is life inside.

Near the railway bridge three very young girls in light clothes walk arm in arm, eating ice cream. Four boys follow them.

“Is it a good ice?” one of the boys asks, and the girls begin to laugh.

“Make sure it doesn’t upset you,” says another, and the girls laugh again, and look back. Now is the time for the most forward of them to say something. The boys walk in pairs on either side of the girls, still talking about ice cream. The girls listen, pretending not to care, but they glance at the boys out of the corners of their eyes, and each has chosen one for her own.

Translated by John Patrick Greagh.