Stories of the Past and Future
After her afternoon class was dismissed, Polly walked up the Corso Italia toward the Arno River, glancing in store windows along the way. She wished she had time to browse in the Feltrinelli bookstore, but that could wait until after she met with Sofia. Sofia seemed to thrive on having people meet her in places she assigned. At least, Polly thought, I’m getting to learn my way around the city.
Polly tried the doors of Santa Maria della Spina, but they were locked. The frilly white church was as small as a one-room cottage, yet the church was real. She’d read that it was called “della Spina”—“of the Thorn”—because it once had contained a thorn from Jesus’s crown of thorns. Whether or not to believe that story, Polly didn’t know, but it certainly was a pretty little church. She’d also read that in the 19th century it had been moved piece by piece from down even closer to the river and then reassembled here on its higher perch above the water.
“You could have looked in the bookstore if you’d wanted to; I have lots of time.”
“Sofia!” said Polly. “You scared me again!”
“What shall I do? Tap you on the shoulder? I can’t very well let you know I’m around by stamping my feet. I could cough or something.”
“I’m sorry. I’m still a little unused to all this. I’ll get better. But please stop spying on me!”
“I wasn’t spying. I simply noticed you standing at the Feltrinelli window as I passed by.”
Polly continued to feel annoyed: “You could have said something to me back there if it was okay to be late.”
“I didn’t think of it. I forget about you embodied folks and your obsession with time. Time is a convenience to me when I have dealings with you guys, but mainly it isn’t very relevant to me—think about it.”
“I see your point. As I said, I’m still a bit jumpy.”
“Possibly some leftover jet lag. I’ve heard it’s quite a problem—not that I’m familiar with the concept from personal experience. But let’s get off all that. Don’t you want to know about Mirella?”
Polly had had her fill of studying the façade of the tiny church and was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall above the Arno. A couple of tourists were photographing the church from this angle and that in the late-afternoon sun, and she and Sofia stopped talking as one came within earshot of their conversation.
When she felt it was safe, Polly answered in a soft voice, “Of course; that’s why I’m here.”
“First I’d better tell you what she was talking about—or what Dante and Shelley were talking about. Mirella’s pretty worked up at both of those guys for saying mean things about Pisa.
“Here’s the story. About a hundred years after my earth time, there was a count by the name of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In 1284, Count Ugolino became the chief magistrate, the most important man in all of Pisa. In that era, two important parties vied for control. They were called the Guelphs and the Ghibellines—a little like your Republicans and Democrats only a whole lot less well mannered, if you can believe that.” Sofia snickered.
“Shh! They’ll hear you,” whispered Polly, nodding toward a tourist who had glanced up but then evidently decided the noise he’d heard had been traffic on the nearby bridge.
“Anyway,” continued Sofia, “Count Ugolino was a Guelph, but Pisa was full of Ghibellines, so he had a lot of enemies. Ugolino made peace with some of Pisa’s Guelph neighbors—city states like Florence, Lucca, and Genoa—and gave away a bunch of castles in the process, which certainly didn’t please the folks at home.
“Count Ugolino’s biggest mistake was trying to team up with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, who also wanted to be numero uno in Pisa. The archbishop spread the word that Ugolino was a traitor and had him locked up in the Torre dei Gualandi, along with his two sons and two grandsons. Ever since, people have called the Torre dei Gualandi the Tower of Famine—like in Shelley’s poem. It’s part of a palazzo not too far from my tower.”
It still bugged Polly that Sofia called the Leaning Tower “my tower,” as if everyone who ever visited it were invading her space. “I read about the Tower of Famine in my guidebook,” said Polly, a little more curtly than she’d intended. “That’s not the tower where Mirella lives, is it?”
“Good grief no—Mirella would have nightmares! Ugolino and his sons and grandsons all died in that tower. Of course the big question has always been, how? Oh sure, they all got next to nothing to eat, but who died last? Who survived the longest? I’ll tell you who Dante says it was, and who Shelley says it was—good old Count Ugolino himself.”
“I know, I read about that, too. As Count Ugolino’s sons and grandsons died, one by one, the count supposedly ate them. It’s so unbelievably gross.”
“People have been believing it for more than 700 years.”
“But is it true?”
“Who knew—for centuries, who could say? Maybe the Ghibellines made it up, or maybe the count really was too much of an omnivore for most people’s taste. Well I knew, of course, and lots of other folks like me, but it wasn’t our place to say. Now even embodied people have finally learned the truth.”
“Stop stalling and tell me! I’d hate even walking by a place where something like that happened!”
“Something terrible did happen in that tower, no matter what. But not too long ago the bones of Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were actually discovered—just where you’d expect, in the family crypt at the Chiesa di San Francesco, right here in the city. I’ll take you there; the church is so pretty, and there’s a nice peaceful cloister. A famous professor, dottore Francesco Mallegni, from the University of Pisa, studied the bones for months and finally told the real facts—nobody ate anybody in the Tower of Famine, but five people did starve there.”
“It’s a sad story, but why does Mirella get so upset about it? It did happen more than 700 years ago; she still sounded mad about the whole thing.”
“As I told you, Mirella was a professor once, a pretty important Dante scholar, but she lost her job when she told her classes the Inferno is about folks she knew personally. She has a soft spot for Dante—I’ll let Mirella herself explain to you why—but she holds it against him that he’d even hint the count was a cannibal. Mirella has been sticking up for Count Ugolino from the beginning. She hates the idea that Pisa would have an undeserved bad name. She just can’t get past those cruel lines from people she admires so much—Dante and Shelley, that is. I’ll tell you the truth: Mirella is not half as crazy as people say. In my opinion, she’s not crazy at all, really, just a bit naïve and a little short of common sense sometimes. She’s a good sort.”
“When you say she stuck up for Count Ugolino from the beginning, what do you mean? The beginning of what?”
“Mirella will explain. Anyway, it makes sense that Mirella would choose San Michele in Borgo for her recitations. Five hundred years ago, San Michele in Borgo was the church for the University of Pisa. On the front of the church there’s still some campaign graffiti about an election back then for a rettore—that’s the president of the university. Mirella believes the university would be better off now if students continued to elect the president, the way they did in the old days. Most of her students thought she was great. It was the administration that wasn’t too thrilled about her. San Michele in Borgo was even here when I was walking around, but it’s changed a bit from its early days. I wouldn’t have recognized it if I hadn’t kept up, over the years, you know.”
Polly was getting sore from sitting on the ground, but she didn’t want to break Sofia’s flow of information, now that it had, in fact, gotten underway. Polly felt just as confused as ever, but maybe if Sofia kept talking, the details of the summer Sofia had mapped out for her would begin coming into focus. She squirmed as discreetly as she could.
“Mirella’s a natural-born teacher. She always has been and always will be. Some people have an incredible drive to fill their calling. I had that, too,” Sofia added, surprising Polly with the hint of self-reflection.
By following that hint, Polly risked staying in the dark longer about her summer assignment. But she asked anyway, “What did you want to do if you’d grown up?”
“I wish I could have been a stonemason, the way my father was. I would like to be able to look at one of the pillars in the Leaning Tower and tell myself, ‘I carved that capital,’ or know, ‘That pattern there is from my own chisel—my skill and imagination,’ just the way my father can.”
Was Sofia’s father around, too? It made sense, Polly supposed. All she could think of to say was, “I’m sorry. You seem so happy and confident.”
“It’s okay. I shouldn’t have gone onto that track, but I’m in kind of a bad mood today—nothing about anyone walking around now, though. You know, maybe I wouldn’t be here helping Pisa all these centuries later if I’d gotten what I wanted. Anyway, you girls now are lucky in some ways—not in every way, of course. My earth era had some special things, too. But you have lots of careers you can choose—even though still not very many women are stone carvers or stonemasons. I might have been tempted to come back if I could have helped build St. Peter’s, in Rome. The work is in my blood, so to speak. What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I love languages so much. I’d like to be a translator, but only for things that interest me. I don’t want to be translating computer manuals. It’s lovely to take an Italian poem and try to make it sound good in English but still say what the poet intended. We had to do that in class today—just a little poem—from Italian into our own language. Then we read our translations aloud to each other. Most of the time you could kind of tell it was the same poem, even though I mostly didn’t know the students’ native languages.”
“What are you going to do to support yourself, or are you planning on a rich husband? I’d bet that doing English translations of Italian poetry won’t exactly bring in a steady income—even though it probably should in a perfect world.”
“I also want to be a teacher—and a writer.” Polly squirmed discreetly again, but she still didn’t want to end the conversation.
“Will you write about me?” asked Sofia in an uncharacteristically shy tone.
“If you’ll let me. Maybe you’ll help me?”
“I’ll be your toughest critic! But I’ll be fair.” Polly could tell Sofia was pleased by the idea of finding herself in print.
“Why don’t you come back as a woman stonemason now so you can fulfill your dream? There must be some women who do that work.”
“Much of what my father did is done by machine these days—so it’s not the same. And most of the buildings people are putting up now don’t appeal to me at all. In earlier centuries I did think about returning, but I still couldn’t see any good opportunities for a woman, and I had no intention of doing time as a man. They’re okay; I like some of them a lot, but I wouldn’t want to be one. Now I could be a sculptor, perhaps, but I can’t abandon Pisa, not even for just a lifetime. I could live here, of course, but a body gets in the way of some of what I do. Besides, I’m Sofia. I’ll always be Sofia. I don’t really want to water myself down by being someone else for a while.”
A tour bus pulled up next to Santa Maria della Spina, and a group of Americans began climbing down and filling the small piazza in front of the church.
“Tomorrow after your afternoon class, meet me at Feltrinelli,” whispered Sofia. “You can go inside. I’ll find you over by the books about Pisa.”
“What are we going to do then?” Polly whispered even more softly, but there was no answer. She still had barely a clue about the plans that Sofia had in mind for the summer.
Reluctantly she headed back down the Corso Italia in the direction of Mme Meringue’s house. But realizing there was still time before cena at seven, Polly happily delayed reaching that destination by spending half an hour wandering through the Feltrinelli bookstore. Their collection of books about Pisa—especially the Leaning Tower—really was wonderful. After looking longingly through an impressive, and expensive, photographic study of the tower that illustrated every little detail, from the bells to the smallest designs in the marble, Polly bought herself a guide to Pisa for young people; the book’s Italian looked manageable.