The Gustav Line, South of Rome, May 1943
Joe disappeared into the trees and I scuttled back towards Harald. He was pointing his machine pistol over my head… this was a good moment to be young, fit and… little”.
Bullets whistled over my head in one direction and past my ears in the other. Harald crouched as I went past him. Then I fell over, which probably saved my life. From where I lay in the undergrowth I saw the American photographer’s escort fall, hit by Harald’s fire.
Firing ceased and Harald took the opportunity to retreat. Joe appeared out of the trees, photographing his fallen escort… and our rears, as we disappeared over the hilltop rather faster than we had come up.
I stopped to take a few photos… of their infantry responding to the gunfire. This was a good moment to not be there… I ran down the mountain with Harald in hot pursuit.
When we reached the road at the bottom we saw a German patrol… two motorcycle military police. Harald raced towards them… shouting “Jump on!” to me. The military policemen were taken by surprise, and when he said “Quick, Hermann Goering Headquarters!” that was exactly where they took us. They took us to the guard-post and handed us over to men with guns… What they would have done if we were enemy I’m not sure… That they’d immediately obeyed Harald’s orders was only wise in retrospect. It certainly wasn’t what they should have done when we came racing out of the trees. I’m glad that they didn’t shoot us… which is what I would have done!
Harald had us taken to the Intelligence Officer…
“Americans, we’ve just seen Americans!” Harald shouted.
“How do you know they were Americans?” The officer asked.
“He was from Life magazine… That’s American… His cigarettes were Camel… and they shot at us!” I said breathlessly.
“Cigarettes… how do you know what he was smoking?”
“We were sharing a smoke when Harald came over the hill and shot the Life photographer’s escort! There were bullets everywhere!”
That caught his attention… “What else did you see?”
“Tanks… there are dozens of tanks coming up the track on the other side of Monte Artemisio!”
“But there’s only a footpath shown on the map… a few infantry could get up there but not tanks… it’s too narrow!” He said this with unwise confidence.
His companion reappeared with senior officers in tow.
“Tell them what you just told us!” He said. “There are tanks?”
“Yes, coming up the track on the other side of Monte-Artemisio! Maybe a hundred of them, led by a huge bulldozer!” I answered, surprisingly calmly.
Once again one of them disappeared and then reappeared with a man with a Knight’s Cross around his neck.
Harald crashed to attention “It’s Uncle Albert! It’s Kesselring!” He whispered as the man approached.
“I hear you’ve seen Americans!” He said with a smile. He was famous for smiling. Harald was too impressed to reply.
“Yes,” I replied. “about a hundred American tanks are coming up the track over Monte Artemisio… a bulldozer is cutting a road for them.”
“You know this track? Is it workable all the way?” He asked calmly.
“Yes sir. I came over the mountain using this track on foot just two years ago. If anything it will get easier for them as they approach the summit ridge, the track is a bit wider this side.”
“I shall have von Mackensen for this… The Fuhrer needs to relieve him of his post… I ordered him to close this gap… I reminded him only yesterday!” Kesselring said to his aide.
“But sir, the map says that it’s just a footpath!” The Intelligence officer said.
“A footpath! Of course it was a footpath… yesterday! Today’s it’s a road with tanks on it… that’s what Pioneers with a bulldozer do… they make fools of Generals… damn von Mackensen!” Then he visibly got his temper under control… smiled and said…
“Thank you, you have done me a great service… If you were one of mine I would give you a medal! Whose are you?” He asked.
“Carlo Tonelli… Fosetti Brothers’, Via Antonio, Rome… war-photographer!” I replied proudly.
“How old are you son?” He asked.
“Sixteen, nearly seventeen, sir.”
“Well… if you were one of mine I would be proud to have you under my command! Your helmet… you’ve been shot at before? ”
“Yes sir, I was at Monte Cassino and the Liri crossing!” I replied with some pride. “And… with Skorzeny when he rescued the Duce!”
“And, you’re sixteen nearly seventeen!” He shook my hand in wonder, clapped me on the shoulder, gave me a dignified salute and then hurried off… He had a huge hole in the Caesar Line to plug… and he clearly couldn’t rely on his Generals to do it for him!
He was the first person who had looked at the ding on the side of my helmet and immediately assumed that it had been my head inside it when it happened!
Photographing weddings and babies after the war ended was not going to be nearly as exciting as that afternoon had been.
Kesselring wasn’t in time to prevent the breakthrough, but he did manage to organise a counter-attack by the Hermann Goering panzers… which failed to hold. Our warning was too late to stop the Americans, but it did slow their advance… Things could have been a great deal worse… or better… that still depended on which side I was on… my friends’ or my government’s… the people looking after my skin… or the ones trying to kill me!
American tanks were now advancing towards Rome, at times at ten miles per hour. There was no time for mine clearance, the first tank to reach a mine cleared it.
Rome should have been an irrelevance… just a beautiful archeological site full of marble and statuary. What really mattered was to get north of the German army and capture as much of it as possible… to prevent its use later, but… Generals love glory and both the American and British generals were keen to be seen in Rome. The American got there first… the British general said that he hadn’t really been trying and that he had wanted the American to get there first. I don’t think anyone believed him.
Harald came to say goodbye… a swift hug and a smart salute, and… he was gone. The German army was leaving Rome but there was going to be fierce fighting in the north. The Germans were leaving Rome but they had no intention of leaving Italy.
The Allied entry into Rome’s suburbs was going to be a job for the infantry, and the war was getting too close for comfort.
So, there I was… back in Rome, with the occupying forces rapidly approaching. Soon Rome wouldn’t need a war-photographer… Romans would be able to look out of the window if they wanted to know what was going on!
I didn’t see much of Barnabas during the battle. He was looking after his parishioners, and was very busy.
As for me… The Fosetti brothers were frightened silly… they were old and not in good health. For as long as it took for the battle to roll past us things were going to be very difficult for them.
It wasn’t really for me to do, but I took command of the situation. Our other staff had already run, but I felt an obligation and love for the brothers… they had given me a lot. It was time for me to repay their trust. I effectively became manager of Fosetti Brothers, while the brothers themselves sat in the corner… wringing their hands and praying.
I moved the expensive photographic equipment down into the main darkroom in the cellar, together with all the plates and negatives. Everything that was important to Fosetti Brothers… that would allow it to be rebuilt after the battle, was hidden. Luigi and I papered over the darkroom door. Then I dirtied the fresh wallpaper and piled up old furniture in front of it to stop people getting a close look at that end of the cellar. It wouldn’t fool a policeman but with only one light-bulb left down there it was pretty convincing… if you were only looking for Germans or for something to loot… They were welcome to the chairs. I had bought fifty of them from a nearby hotel and we just threw them in… an interlocked jumble, piled floor to ceiling all the way to the foot of the stairs. They made an effective, time consuming barrier, and… we would have plenty of firewood if things were still a mess at Christmas!
Upstairs, I re-arranged the shop to be a display area, with portraits on easels… as if photography was done elsewhere. There was a small darkroom up there, with its enlarger and rotary drier… so the place looked complete.
Then we waited for the Allies to arrive.
The US forces took Rome on 4 June 1944. I was out on the streets with my camera to photograph the triumphal entry of the US General…
It was a farce… not a Roman triumph… He even managed to get lost!
General Mark Clark had announced that he would stop to confer with his staff at Rome’s civic headquarter, at the Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill. But… he managed to get lost.
When his driver finally found the town hall… Michelangelo’s Palazzo Senatorio… it was locked. There was no city government to surrender to him… They had gone home! The General’s party had to spread their maps on the bonnet of his jeep, surrounded by photographers and reporters.
He couldn’t resist the opportunity of giving an impromptu and regrettably unrehearsed press conference. He said nothing poetic or inspiring… No “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Or “God has given us a great victory.” Or even “We are here to free the home of the Catholic Church”.
What he said was “It’s a great day for the 5th Army”.
There was no mention of the British Eighth army, the Polish Brigade or the Brazilians… Not even a nod towards the Canadians who had suffered horrendous losses while breaking out of Salerno… no, it was the American Fifth that had done it… all on their own! A lot of people were upset… Even his own staff cringed with embarrassment!
As their reward for the losses they had suffered, the Canadians drove through the City without stopping… at three o-clock the next morning.
The day wasn’t a complete loss for US public relations… It was one of the drivers in the General’s party that lightened the day for us. When asked by the group of reporters what he thought of Rome, he said…
“Well, I guess it must have been beautiful before the bombing... What do you call that big round building… looks like a football stadium…?”
A reporter, puzzled by where this was going, said. “That’s the Colosseum!”
“Well shit man… it took a hell of a hit from a bomb… you couldn’t do that much damage with a mortar!”
Then he continued ruefully… “Damn shame… Rome was supposed to be an open city… they weren’t even supposed to be bombing it… damn shame… it’s all ruins now!”
For a while things became difficult for us Italians… Americans, British, Brazilians, Canadians… soldiers were competing for food and accommodation.
You know the old joke? “GI’s… Over-paid, over-sexed and… over here!”
Our landlord had heard that one too, and he assumed prices would now double in Monte Caprino park… so he doubled the rent… He was right… prices had to double in the park!
Luigi and I worked our asses off… literally! But it was still difficult to make ends meet. Fortunately it was summer, so we could both work the park… taking our customers among the juniper bushes.
With the general decline of everything in Rome… there came competition! Even though they had sold everything they had… people still had nothing to eat. That was when they remembered the one thing that could fill their stomach… their ass.
The problem was not just the competition but… the quality of it… boys so young they shouldn’t have been allowed out alone were hustling the footpaths. Our attraction had always been that Luigi and I looked younger than we really were. That only worked as long as genuine thirteen and fourteen year olds weren’t standing by the next tree!
Unlike the new kids we were experienced and could hustle. We had no shame or embarrassment… and that helped. On the other hand we didn’t have the fresh blush of a boy that’s been sent out to find food and simply doesn’t have enough money to buy what his family needs. It’s his innocent blushes as a big GI touches him up that sells him… He may be a lot less happy to be there, but… nine times out of ten it’s that reluctance that makes him irresistible to the big guy.
We knew it was wrong… many of them would end up in tears… but we also knew they had starving families at home, so we didn’t interfere. That is, unless we saw them in real trouble in which case half a dozen seasoned professionals would throw the offending soldier out of the park… into the hands of the military police.
One or two who had been nasty with really timid kids went over the Tarpeian Rock. It took a couple more victims that summer.
Eventually things calmed down. The ones who really shouldn’t have been there stayed at home, and the ones who could cope drove prices back down again. Luigi and I had a problem if we wanted to keep our apartment.
We also needed to look after Fosetti Brothers studio. Now that the looting was over we were able to re-open the cellar studio and process a lot more clients. Soldiers wanted souvenir photos, and Fosetti Brothers did the best! Senior ranks could buy a nice portrait with “Fosetti Brothers. Rome” embossed in the corner, in gold… a perfect present for the wife.
Many of them came to Fosetti’s because we had met on Monte Caprino. Fortunately, they had more to lose than we did from any scandal. It led to regular friendships with some very senior Allied officers. It was a tremendous boost for my work as a war-photographer and correspondent. If you see a nicely posed photograph of a major or colonel sitting on the tracks of a tank… looking very heroic… well, that’s probably one of our Monte Caprino customers.
I enjoyed the variety that came when supplementing my Fosetti salary, but I was still very selective who I went with… We needed the money, but not enough to take any risks.
By now both Rome and the Vatican were beginning to return to some semblance of order. Embassies and military missions were becoming more formal, with offices instead of tents. That benefited us… permanent staff came to know where we worked, and eventually where we lived. If in a hurry to make arrangements, they could ring the studio and ask for us by name.
Very occasionally we provided “evening appointments” at the studio. The studio had coffee and nice furniture… it was a pleasant place to entertain the most senior officers. We established a tradition that no-one lower than brigadier was ever offered that privilege. They had so much to lose… we relied on that to keep the taint of scandal away from Fosetti’s good name.
By this time we also had some very profitable side-lines.
Count Assinorio was the dealer in erotic art that I contacted when I first reached Rome… I gave him the letter from the Dom and sent him south to Cosenza, to find Luigi and collect the more scandalous plates from him.
When things got tough after Rome was taken, I went to Assinorio and suggested a deal… I would print from the naughtier plates and between us we would sell the prints. He would sell them to the erotica trade… mainly Italian business men and aristocrats. I would sell them as souvenirs to my army clients. My customers could have erotic pictures of the prostitute they had just enjoyed… or… one of him dressed as an altar boy… a few years younger. Our range was extensive… something for every taste… or for their mother’s wall!
We pre-printed stiff envelopes with a post-restante address in Manhatten (another in San Francisco). It was an arrangement that a very helpful intelligence-colonel had been using for secretly sending money home. All our clients had to do was put stamps and their name on the envelope and drop them off at the main post office. The photos would be waiting for them when they eventually got home. As the war was clearly drawing to a close this service became increasingly popular.
Many of our clients wanted a souvenir, but couldn’t risk a scandal and for them we retrieved some of the very earliest of the “pretty” plates, from the priest in the Vatican… the Dom’s friend. These we mounted up as “A souvenir from Rome”… Rome is the home of the Catholic Church so what is more natural than a beautiful portrait of a very young choirboy in white lace and black cassock… the perfect souvenir… “Buy one for your mother!”
During the summer of 1944 things quietened slightly in Rome because seven Allied divisions were withdrawn from Italy to take part in the invasion of the South of France. Rome then received some replacements, including the Brazilian 1st Infantry Division. They were interesting… exotic in that they had come all the way from South America… They and the Ghurkas of the Fourth Indian Division gave us a feeling for just how far to the wrong side the Duce had placed Italy when he allied us to Hitler’s Germany!
As June became July and August, the Allies advanced north from Rome, taking Florence and confronting the Gothic Line. This was Kesselring’s last major defensive line and it stretched from the east coast 30 miles north of Pisa, along the Apennine Mountains between Florence and Bologna to the Adriatic coast, south of Rimini. The Poles were there too, in July they took the port of Ancona after a month-long battle.
I was very aware of what was going on militarily, not just as a war correspondent, but also from the evenings spent working the footpaths of the park.
I never succeeded in befriending a Ghurka. I wanted to because I knew they were great knife fighters, their kukri was famous… armies surrendered just to avoid their knives. I wanted to handle a kukri!
I avoided the Moroccans and their officers. They were exotic but I had not forgiven them for what they had done… or the things that their French officers had allowed them to do in the south… I wanted nothing to do with men that had raped my village! I might be a prostitute, but I was a prostitute with standards. I went with officers with a sense of honour… both theirs and my own.
During the autumn the Gothic Line was penetrated by the British Eighth Army and the American Fifth Army, but there was no decisive breakthrough.
Britain wanted to open the way to the north east through the 'Ljubljana Gap', to liberate Vienna and Hungary… to get there before the Russians who were advancing into Eastern Europe. My senior US officer friends told me that there was no way that was going to happen. If it was important to the British for after the war… then that was a good enough reason for the US Chiefs of Staff to block it.
Italy was no nearer being a liberated country. The Germans occupied the north while the Allies occupied the centre and south. What was worse was that Italy had two governments: the one in Rome that had joined the Allies and the puppet government in the north that still supported the Germans. We had a civil war going on, with relatives on both sides.
Even worse were the attempts at domination of the rural countryside by communist partisans. They controlled villages by threats and reprisals, slaughtering complete villages if they refused to provide food and shelter. Their ambitions matched those of the equally unpleasant partisans of the Balkans. Tito in Yugoslavia had more or less completely driven the occupying Germans out... and promoted himself to Marshal in the process.
War-reporting was still interesting… and profitable for Fosetti, but I avoided the partisans. Once or twice I was asked to interview the partisan leaders, but I always came back saying I had been unable to make contact… unable to bring myself to risk my neck to interview a bunch of thugs and criminals… would have been more honest.
It was a very confused period. It was one which made us concentrate on what mattered… money and food… and on what would matter… preparing to survive the peace. The Germans were now clearly losing, even if their fighting-retreat was moving painfully slowly in Italy.
I haven’t mentioned ‘Toni’ Nettoni yet. He was a US Army colonel that I met during the early autumn in the park. We had a couple of meetings in the park, and then the weather grew colder, so we retired to my apartment. There we were able to relax, and he would wander around looking at pictures on the wall and staring out of the windows at the world quietly turning in the street outside.
One day he said. “A very cute boy just looked up, he waved to me and then went away!”
“Was it him?” I asked, pointing to one of the pictures on the wall… the one of Luigi that Fr. Barnabas had given me before we brought him to Rome.
“Gee, it could be… he’s cute!” He replied, then… “Do you know him?”
“Yes… He’s the reason this is a double-bed!” I laughed, patting the empty space where Toni had been lying earlier.
“Why did he go away then?” He asked.
“Well, partly that’s because it was your face and not mine at the window… and mostly because of the flowers on the window-ledge. If they are there, he goes away… would you like to meet him? He’s sitting in the café across the street. Move the flowers onto the table and he’ll come up… That’s what he’s waiting for… it’s nearly time for dinner.”
So he moved the flowers, and a few minutes later Luigi appeared in the doorway. We kissed, and then he saw Toni!
“What’s he doing here? I thought he was gone!”
“Meet Toni, he’s an American… out of uniform!” I explained, Toni was in just his underwear!
At this stage Luigi was fifteen… nearly sixteen, but still looked like a fourteen year old. Toni was clearly smitten.
“Gee son, you’re real cute!” Was his greeting… it worked for me and it seemed to please Luigi too. Then…
“Is that you?” He asked pointing at the picture of a choirboy. Luigi looked shy and nodded.
He looked at me… a question in his face? I nodded and rubbed my fingers together. Toni understood immediately and pulled his wallet out… three bank-notes later he drew Luigi to him, kissed the side of his neck gently and cupped him in his large hand. Luigi played his part… he sighed and melted against Toni’s huge frame.
Toni picked Luigi up gently and laid him on the bed and went to lie down beside him, waving to me with his hand behind his back… the hand said…
“Get lost son, your friend is much cuter!”
I didn’t mind… Luigi and I pooled our earnings and as Luigi was indeed cuter and now charged more than I… fifty per cent more, to be precise… I was more than happy to leave him to improve our earnings for the day!
That didn’t mean that Toni wasn’t after my tail if it was me that he met in Monte Caprino… My ass was as good as any other when he was feeling needy. But… if we went back to my apartment… then he always went to the window and moved the flowers well out of sight!
He also started asking about the photograph… Could I get him a copy?… “Yes.”… Could I get hold of any others?… “Yes.” … Were there any dirty ones?... “Maybe…”
I gave up trying to be discreet and explained the poste-restante system into Manhattan and San Francisco. He said he had a much better idea…
“Kid… if you can print them wholesale, I can sell them retail… or at least my cousin can. He’s family you know… Our Family!”
I said… “You mean Cosa Nostra?... I come from Calabria in the south… We invented Family… We come from where you really don’t upset Family!” I laughed, in case he thought I was being too serious... too mafioso.
I said. “We understand Family… and how it works in America. Your Prohibition did Italy a good turn… There are lots of old ladies in the south of Italy who live better lives since you tried to prohibit alcohol. If you want to make something valuable… make it illegal!” I laughed again and patted Luigi’s bottom and then pistol-finger shot his portrait.
“So how many would you want at a time? From each plate?” I asked.
“Say a hundred each from the first five plates… one of them hard stuff… not all of them though, we want the hard stuff to stay scarce.” Toni replied… business-like.
“Photographic paper and chemicals will be the difficult part… things are difficult at the moment.” I said it more as a question than as a statement of the obvious.
“What about studio supplies?” He said.
“Black market… Just enough for the weddings and some portraits… I’ve been putting a little aside for my own stuff, but it’s so scarce it’s bound to get noticed.” I demurred.
“Leave it with me I have a friend in the photographic unit… will Eastman Kodak do? I can’t get European stuff.”
I said that would be fine… If the chemicals were Kodak as well as the paper it would make things easier, but anything would be a help.
So, that’s how our new business got started. I went to see the priest in the Vatican to whom I had arranged delivery of the plates from old-Maria. He agreed to loan us more of the plates. In exchange he took a small percentage on the soft altar-boy portraits.
Count Assinorio loaned us plates for the more… artistic and sentimental photos… as Dom Fontinella termed them. He took a rather larger percentage for the harder, dirtier stuff.
Later we also made some runs of prints of both sorts for the Count, so that he could satisfy the demand within Italy. It was a pity that the advance out of Italy was bogged down… I felt sure that there was a demand for our work throughout Europe. Other than a poste-restante system into America we had not found a way out of Italy… even to Britain. Later we would crack the British market, but that would turn out to be through Malta… a lot of the prostitution in post-war London was run by Maltese. But those markets had to wait… Italy was still a war-zone.
My friends told me that not only had the winter weather made armoured warfare impossible… masses of infantry had been transferred to plug gaps all over Europe. It was now impractical for the Allies to continue their Italian offensive in early 1945. Instead, they adopted a stalemate-strategy, preparing for a final attack when better weather and ground conditions arrived in the spring.
February 1945 found me working again as a war-photographer, with the Brazilians and the US 10th Mountain Division. They were fighting their way across minefields in the Apennines. I watched and photographed while they pushed the Germans from the commanding high points of Monte Castello, Monte Belvedere and Castelnuovo, depriving the Germans of the artillery positions that had been blocking the approaches to Bologna since the autumn.
One of the stranger campaigns that I reported on was against Axis shipping in Venice harbour in late March. Shipping was vital to the Axis because normal road and rail links had been bombed out of existence… air transport too was completely lost to them… the Allies dominated the skies.
The end for us began with massive aerial and artillery bombardments in early April 1945. A week later, Eighth Army forces in the east broke through the Argenta Gap. Their armour raced to encircle and trap the remaining defenders of Bologna. Third week of April, I was with the Polish 3rd Carpathian Rifles, the Italian Friuli and US Infantry when they entered Bologna.
The Italian Partisans' Committee of Liberation declared a general uprising, and on the same day, the British Eighth Army advanced towards Venice and Trieste, the US army drove toward Austria and Milan and their 92nd Infantry advanced along the coast to Genoa. A rapid advance towards Turin by the Brazilians took the Axis army by surprise and it collapsed.
As April ended, the Axis forces in Italy were retreating everywhere and had lost most of their fighting strength. The German armies in Italy surrendered on 29 April, and hostilities in Italy finally ended on 2 May 1945.
Within a week… Hitler was dead in Berlin. At the end there were just a handful of Hitler Youth and old men between him and the Russians… Few survived… if they could get out. A few did… but not many, and those who did had to live with what Germany had done.
Peace now reigned in Europe, but that wasn’t the end of our troubles.
There was almost nobody interested in how Italy survived… Britain was bankrupt, her gold had been spent buying American armaments when she stood alone… Italy and France had stood on both sides. Germany was defeated, disgraced and divided.
I was no longer a war-photographer… weddings, portraits… and altar-boys kept Luigi and I housed. Our bottoms in Monte Caprino… kept us fed.
The great adventure was over. Where would we go next? Where we would go took us completely by surprise… but it turned out that we were uniquely equipped to go there.
The first sign that things were changing happened in the week after Germany surrendered in Italy… The brothers Fosetti retired.
The war had taken a lot out of them. Staff had disappeared into the army… one had disappeared to join the partisans. Work had been hard for two such elderly, over-weight and unfit men. They struggled to the end and then… finding themselves with a competent man to take charge… they made me General Manager and retired!
I immediately confirmed Luigi as my assistant… and we considered how we could make money in the short term. We were Italians and infinitely optimistic… The future would be good and could look after itself.
The problem was how to bridge the gap between today and the future.
A lot of Italian soldiers were now returning to their sweethearts… so there were a lot of pregnant sweethearts and a lot of unplanned weddings. Every bride wanted a special day, but most of them were having to simply wash their best dress, braid their hair and… marry. On their special day there was not a lot to photograph and not much money to pay for it.
So that was my great idea. I asked Fr. Barnabas to think back to the previous few years… to the weddings that he had performed… and the brides. Then we visited each of them and begged, borrowed and rented their wedding dresses. We aired them to get rid of the smell of mothballs and pressed them carefully. I paid a florist to make up bouquets of artificial flowers… and there you had it… the rented by the hour wedding. The poorest couples just rented the outfit for a quick photograph, the better off went to Fr. Barnabas in their temporary finery to be wed. Almost all of them needed to pay by instalments.
The outlay to set the scheme up was small, the ongoing material costs were low, and the income? Payment was painfully slow, but… if you repeated the process a hundred times then a hundred slow incomes began to add up. It meant a lot of hard work and a lot of walking on payday to collect instalments… before they were drunk!
Luigi and I worked in great secrecy in the basement at night… doors locked… the Fosetti’s tired and retired. We were printing from the plates that Dom Fontinella had taken… we may have aged but our images were still fresh and young. We mass-produced prints for export and souvenirs. Luigi even took a few each day to Monte Caprino… first his bottom and then “Would signore like a souvenir?” The image offered him as an innocent altar-boy… the perfect gift to send home… irresistible!
We worked in secrecy because we were sure that the Fosettis would disapprove, but then…
It was late on a Saturday when Fr. Barnabas banged on the door until we finally unlocked it. He was standing there holding the box with his Last Communion set.
“Quickly, we don’t have long. Carlo… get your surplice, we are needed! At the Fosetti’s!”
It was Tweedledee. He had gone to bed early, feeling unwell. He had woken again feeling even worse. He had sat on his bed looking dreadful. The doctor diagnosed right-side heart failure and told his brother to send for a priest. He sent for Barnabas.
It was desperately sad. Tweedledum was heart broken… his brother had been very brave and made a good Confession and Act of Contrition. At peace with his God, and holding his brother’s hand he relaxed… Then he looked at me and smiled and held my hand as well… and passed.
I put my arms round his distraught brother and held him while he cried. “What shall I do without him?” He asked. “ Seventy years he has been there!”
It wasn’t really a long-term problem… he pined for his brother, and two weeks later Barnabas was hammering at the door again.
Within two weeks Luigi and I went from being employed to having no employers.
I went to the lawyer who looked after their affairs and asked for guidance. He smiled sadly and said that the best thing to do was to close the studio, out of respect, until after the funeral… Then he would formally read the will. I asked which relative was getting the business… I didn’t like any of the next generation Fosettis! He smiled, and said, “There will be someone… there always is… All I can say at this moment is that your job is safe. The new owner is very unlikely to replace you…”
That was all I could get out of him.
The funeral was… a funeral… sad, dignified and Barnabas did it beautifully.
The next day we all went to the lawyer’s office. He said that I should be there to hear how the business would be disposed. It was very formal and very boring…
“And to my sister Florence, or should she pre-decease me to such of her children as survive at the time of my death, in equal portions the sum of…” and so on, page after page.
Then, I sat up and listened…
“The studio of Fosetti Brothers, its premises and equipment, bank balances, creditors and debtors, we leave to our loyal employee Carlo Tonelli. He has been the son we never had and has enriched our final years, both as brothers and as a studio. We ask that he retains the name Fosetti Brothers. This bequest shall not be questioned by family members. A family member that attempts to overthrow this gift will receive the sum of one lira and their previously mentioned share shall be rescinded and divided equally among the other beneficiaries, including Carlo Tonelli.”
I was stunned! Once again my fortune had changed, from unemployed photographer and part-time whore… to…
Owner and General Manager,
Fosetti Brothers, Rome.
It meant changes of course. I could never visit Monte Caprino park again. It was a life that had given me great enjoyment… I liked making men happy. But, there are some things that an Owner and General Manager can do… and some that they cannot. I knew the difference!
I had a similar, difficult conversation with Luigi. I explained to him how in his position I had limited myself to foreigners… to keep comment away from the studio. He argued and flounced a bit… but he didn’t sulk. He understood the wonderful turn in our path, and eventually saw that when the path turned so must we. He could continue to cruise the park, but he couldn’t charge Italians. I was a little more broadminded with him than I had been with myself. If he didn’t charge an Italian then he could enjoy the sex, and they would only know that he was homosexual… like them… They wouldn’t think of him as a whore.
Of course owning the studio was a different thing to making it profitable. Italy was still in a poor state and we had worked our way through the Dom’s plates, both the sweet gentle ones and the… more… the other ones. Our customers asked us regularly for new models, or at least fresh photos of the two boys. They didn’t realise that the two boys were now the young men who were running the business.
The problem was… how and where to find a new model. The boys of the park would understand what was wanted but they were too knowing, they lacked the glow that comes from innocence. What we needed was a model, as beautiful and innocent as I had been when the Dom first showed me von Gloeden’s work.
It may not immediately seem relevant but I should now mention the other big change in my life. It was Fr. Barnabas who raised the subject…
“Carlo… Carlo… Should the owner of Fosetti Brothers be an altar-boy? … Put another way, people will ask… how can an altar boy be owner of Fosetti’s?” He asked it diffidently and with embarrassment. His expression and the ridiculous nature of the situation as he described it made me smile!
“Mother of God! I just got fired!” I burst out laughing.
“It may seem funny to you! I’m the priest who’s without an altar boy… Don’t be in such a hurry to quit!”
That just made me laugh the more. “Father, we must get you sorted out with a new boy… one who is a bit more what people expect… We will choose him… and then I will train him. If we hurry he can do his first solo performance at Midnight Mass at Christmas! Just like I did!”
“As you did, those years ago… Yes, I remember… Yes, that would be very appropriate.” He smiled.
“That was only three years ago Father… you did a lot for that boy.” I hugged him… the second of the six great, kind men who had shaped my life.
Maybe that should be seven or eight. I can’t tell.
Even the black-priest played a part. Without him, I would be without Luigi
The choice of altar-boy fell on Alberto Bertorelli. He was just fourteen and very beautiful in a Renaissance way… a Caravaggio way. He had a natural grace… and most importantly a waspish mother who could be relied upon to get him out of bed in time to serve the eight o-clock early Mass on Sunday. He needed a new cassock and surplice… mine were simply far too big, and moth had got to the smaller one during the last few years. I paid for the new vestments myself.
The appearance in Fr. Barnabas sacristy of our new altar boy also had another outcome… an unexpected one. It took me a few weeks to train Alberto… or Berto… to serve Mass with grace and discretion… to always be in the right place at the right time. We spent a lot of time in the sacristy and I noticed that his eye was continually drawn to the portrait on the wall, the one of myself… the altar boy that the Dom had first taken.
“He is so… beautiful… will I look like that when I’m ready to serve at Christmas?” He asked.
“You think he is beautiful?” I asked. It was a slightly strange way for a tough kid from the poorer streets of Rome to express himself.
“Yes, he is beautiful… just like the paintings in the gallery that our art-teacher took us to see.” I established that we were both lovers of Caravaggio… this was an interesting boy. He reminded me of myself at his age.
Then he asked a question that confirmed it…
“Signor Tonelli, I wish someone could take a photo of me like that… for Mama at Christmas.” I held my breath for a moment.
“That one was taken by his priest… he was a photographer. He paid the boy a few lire for each print that he made… that print there… bought the boy’s family two extra eggs as I recall.”
“He paid him?” He asked almost silently.
“Yes… the boy was poor, and the extra income came in useful.”
“I wish I knew someone like that… Mama would be so pleased.”
He was hooked… I remembered, and knew.
“I have a studio here in Rome… Would you like me to record your first service at Christmas… in your new vestments?” His obsidian dark eyes flashed under his black curls. He was hooked, firmly and forever..
“I’ll frame a copy for your mother. You shall have it as a Christmas gift. Then, later if you don’t mind… I have a friend in Rome who I would like to give a copy… for his sacristy wall. Perhaps his friends in the Vatican will like it. If they ask for copies then I would pay you for each one. Would that seem fair?”
The hook dug deeper, Alberto and his mother were very poor.
The pleasure in his dark flashing eyes made me say it…
“A photographer’s model should have a name… I shall call you my Moor!”
“I like that.” He said thoughtfully. “It’s a strong name.”
The End… of a beginning.
The homoerotic, artistic photographs of Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856 - 1931) are of course famous. Less well known is the role played by his lover, model, companion and servant Pancrazio Buciuni, c.1879 – c.1963.
Von Gloeden was tubercular and left Germany in 1877 seeking a warmer and healthier climate in Italy, he settled in Taormina, Sicily c.1893. Once settled there, he took as servant and lover the fourteen year old Pancrazio, a local peasant boy. On and off Pancrazio remained with him for the rest of the Baron’s life. Despite his tuberculosis, the care given to him by Pancrazio enabled him to live into his seventies, dying in 1931. He left his collection of photographic plates in the care of Pancrazio.
At various stages, this poison-chalice caused Pancrazio to be charged by the fascist police with both treason and being a pornographer. They attempted to destroy the collection of plates. Pancrazio, a simple uneducated man, knew enough of their value to posterity to organise the hiding of them with neighbours and supporters.
By the end of World War Two only about a third of the plates remained, but that they survived is entirely due to the courage and loyalty of Pancrazio Buciuni, a simple peasant with the heart of an art-connoisseur.
I have dedicated this story to his memory.
In weaving a story into the fabric of World War Two’s Italian Campaign… a period that James Holland refers to as “Italy’s Sorrow”, I have tried to keep the political and military history correct… if simplified.
A number of regiments, very senior officers and politicians are referred to by name. Everybody else is fictional. It’s important to recognise this because each town mentioned had a priest… and all of them are unrelated to the characters in my story. This is also true of the military. The photographic studio that Carlo inherits, that too is fictional.
Oh, but the driver and the Colosseum… that I promise you is true… edited for style, but true.
I obtained a great deal of historical detail from:
Italy’s Sorrow. by James Holland. Pub. Harper 2008
Churchill and Secret Service. by David Stafford. 2013
Other detail came largely from the web, especially Google Earth and… Wikipedia, this was after all a work of fiction! Wiki also contains the inspiring story of the two German officers who, recognising the vulnerability of Monte Cassino organised on their own initiative, the evacuation to the Vatican of the abbey’s libraries and art treasures… as well as the vast majority of the monks. Without those two men the losses would have been vastly greater… The Allies rewarded them by charging them with looting!
Finally, using Google Earth’s Streetview you can drive up the mountain road to the restored Abbey on Monte Cassino, or drive the road that now goes over Monte Artemisio.
Jeff Ellis 2013