A few days after his tour of Ravenna’s mosaics, Tomás was back in school—August vacation was over. The mosaics had strengthened his love for art and Italian art history. Three years later, when he was twelve, he was permitted to enroll in an advanced painting class at school. The instructors had reviewed his earlier drawings and paintings, and said they showed great talent. “A few of Tomás’s paintings are boyish and primitive,” they told his parents, “but most of them show maturity and understanding far beyond his years.”
The lead instructor in Tomás’s painting class was Leonardo DiBaltzo, a thirty-five year old man who had studied in Paris before returning to his home town to share his love of Italian art with a new generation. DiBaltzo made no secret of the fact that Tomás was his favorite student. He always helped Tomás set up his easel near the front of the class so that less talented students could observe his protégé’s painting techniques. “So they can learn from you,” DiBaltzo said. But Tomás noticed how DiBaltzo spent a little too much time touching his back while unfastening the shoulder straps he used to carry his easel.
After working with Tomás for two years DiBaltzo urged him to enroll in a special after-hours class in art history he was organizing. In that small class he mentioned the art history curriculum offered at the HUniversity of Bologna. “You’re a natural for that program, Tomás. It could lead you into academics—think about that as your next step after graduation.”
“Sounds good to me,” Tomás said. “Do you think I can get in the university? Is my work good enough?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure you can get in.” He beamed. “I took my undergraduate studies at Bologna…I could write to the professor for you. That might help.”
“Would you really do that for me?”
“I’d be glad to write a recommendation for you, Tomás. Why don’t you come to my apartment after class and we can talk about it over coffee.”
Tomás was a young boy, but he’d grown up with older brothers who’d taught him the ways of the world. He guessed what going to DiBaltzo’s apartment might lead to and he thought better of it. Besides, he was a few years away from applying to the university. “Thank you, Mr. DiBaltzo, but I can’t do it today. Maybe sometime later, okay?”
His art studies were a compelling interest for Tomás, but for him that wasn’t enough. He wanted more and he liked sports, too. Same as most Italian boys he was a big fan of soccer, but he was even more attracted to the rough and tumble look of rugby. As soon as he moved up to high school he began trying out for the rugby team. He wasn’t good enough at first, but he watched the seniors and worked hard to improve his own skills. Finally, just before he was fourteen he won a position on the high school team.
Tomás threw his heart and soul into rugby practice and the games with school teams from other cities in the region. He admired his teammates skills on the playing field, but he secretly thought of them as art dummies who didn’t know the difference between a daVinci and a Dalí. None of his friends shared his keen interest in their paesani who’d been key players in the Italian renaissance. Not a single one of them cared a whit about art history. None of them knew of Tomás’s unflagging devotion to the painters and sculptors who went before them. No one shared his conviction that, even after hundreds of years, each and every one of the renaissance artists and artisans still had a weighty impact on everyday life in Northern Italy.
He continued his studies with DiBaltzo even though it was sometimes difficult to make time for painting—what with rugby practice and team workouts, not to mention the games themselves and Coach Casanova’s drive to produce a winning team. But DiBaltzo never let Tomás forget about the University of Bologna and, without making a conscious decision, Bologna became an important goal in the boy’s youthful thinking. Bologna would become part of his life—he would make it happen.
Unexpectedly, in the fall of 1991, a few weeks after that fifteenth birthday dinner with the family, Tomás’s carefree schoolboy life took a surprising turn. Flipping through Mama’s newspaper, La Repubblica, he came upon an article about an amazing discovery in the mountains north of Bolzano. A pair of German hikers had come upon the dead body of a man frozen in the mountainous glacial ice near the border of Italy and Austria. The lurid details reported in the newspaper captivated Tomás—he couldn’t get the image of that frozen naked body out of his mind.
Dio, that must be less than three hundred kilometers from Ravenna. Could the frozen man be from his own family? Papà grew up in one of those valleys north of Bolzano. His cousins and uncles still lived somewhere up there. The pictures in the paper weren’t too clear—it could be his own relative, somebody from Papà’s family.
That evening Tomás paced about in the front room, waiting for his father to come home. He tried to read a book, but his mind was not on it. He untied and retied his shoelaces a dozen times. When the front door finally opened he rushed to Papà and gave him a big hug. “Did you hear the news, Papà? Did you hear about the dead body they found in the mountains?”
“That frozen man?” Papà said, brushing stone dust from his sleeves. “In the mountains up above Bolzano?”
“That’s right Papà. That’s the one.”
“Yeah, some of the guys at work told me about it.” He winked at Tomás. “They told me the man was naked. Why do you suppose a man would run around in the mountains naked like that? He’d freeze his culo if you ask me.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about, Papà. Could that man be somebody from our family? Could he be one of my cousins?”
Papà laughed. “No, son. Everybody in the family is okay. Your uncle Giovanni called me at work today. They don’t know who the frozen man is, but Giovanni told me it’s nobody from our family—nobody from the whole village.”
Through every ensuing year the schoolboy Tomás followed the twists and turns of that mysterious case. Scientists in Austria determined the Iceman, as they called the corpse, was not a recent death at all, but a 5,300 year-old mummy frozen in the glacial ice. He was given the name Ötzi, from the Ötzal Alps in which he was found. A legal joust between Austria and Italy resulted in re-survey of the mountainous border and awarded ownership of Ötzi to Italy.
Knowing the frozen corpse was not a modern-day relative did not lessen Tomás’s burning desire to learn firsthand about the amazing discovery. His obsession with the case convinced him the Iceman might actually be his ancestor—some relative from ancient times, maybe a very early creator of the sculpture and paintings he longed to study. He never let that obsession go.
Five years later, at the age of twenty, Tomás had managed to persuade his father that stone masonry was not for him, that he felt compelled to study art. He’d won a scholarship on his own merit—without a recommendation from his flirty art teacher, DiBaltzo. That helped convince Papà, and Tomás became a student of art history at the University of Bologna. He travelled by train to Bologna a week before the September beginning date of the semester, arriving in mid-afternoon. From the station he took a very long walk down Via Dell’Indipendenza to Piazza Maggiore.
From there he walked to the next door piazza to admire the Neptune Fountain, a towering, larger than life, bronze nude of Neptune standing atop a pedestal that was itself nearly twice as tall as Tomás’s six feet. Neptune’s lordly pose suggested he was controlling the flow of water from the various parts of the fountain. Tomás grinned at the life sized nude sea nymphs seated in the water at the four corners of Neptune’s pedestal, each nymph squirting water from her nipples.
He knew the bronze fountain was cast and erected in the late fifteen hundreds. And he knew it had become a symbol for Bologna. He had heard it was a popular hangout for many of the thousands of students that expanded the city’s population, but the crowded piazza surprised him.
People from all walks of life milled about, some aimlessly, some with determination. A group of school children followed in a ragged line behind their teacher. An old man wearing a felt hat pushed a baby carriage across the stones—no doubt a grandchild. Tourists posed before the fountain for their friends’ cameras. A man in workman’s clothes pushed a cart filled with bricks toward one side of the piazza where some repairs were taking place. A young couple sat arm-in-arm on the steps at the base of the fountain, sharing the pages of a book. An old woman sat on the sunny side, looking skyward with her eyes closed like a cat on a warm afternoon. Savory smells from a nearby restaurant wafted across the piazza. Through it all, the gentle tinkling of water from the various parts of the huge fountain provided an almost musical background for the scene.
Tomás decided then and there he would definitely like living in Bologna. He headed to the opposite side of the open expanse of Piazza Maggiore, then down the narrow Via Pignatattari alongside the Basilica of San Petronio. A short block later he entered the Hotel Commercianti, where Papà had reserved a room for his first night in the city. The hotel was another surprise. It pleased him to see the many sculptures, mostly modern, arranged in the lobby and other public spaces. Seated on a couch in the lower lobby was a full suit of armor holding a sword—just sitting there as if waiting for a companion. Filled with needless worries about beginning a new life, Tomás laid awake most of that first night.
Out of bed early the next morning, he had breakfast at the hotel then set out for the university. He walked across the piazza, then down Via Rizzoli past the Twin Towers, remnants of an ancient bloody rivalry between two wealthy families. Continuing down Via Zamboni, he soon came to the University and went looking for leads to inexpensive housing. He found a student bulletin board filled with scraps of paper seeking everything from bicycles and boyfriends to lodgings and roommates. One notice caught his eye: three students had a large apartment near the city center and needed another roommate.
Heading for the address on the notice, he wandered beneath the myriad arcades at the ground floor of the city’s very old red brick buildings until he located the address on Via San Vitale. A good omen, he thought, same as the Basilica San Vitale in his own Ravenna. At the entrance he discovered the apartment was situated up the stairs—way up the stairs on the fourth floor. There was no lift.
After trudging all the way up with his full backpack, he was breathless when he finally knocked on the door. A scruffy looking blond boy answered the door. Probably twenty-three or twenty-four, his hair hung almost to his shoulders in loose, unkempt curls and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. He wore sneakers, jeans and a dirty white sweat shirt emblazoned with something about Milano.
Tomás hesitated for a moment, then stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Tomás Bozen. I saw your notice about the apartment.”
“Oh, hey, man. Come on in. My name’s Roberto Corcelli. Three of us live here—one girl and another guy. We have one bedroom left over. Would you like to see it?”
“Well…yeah, I would.” Tomás looked around the living room which was sparsely furnished. A well-worn overstuffed sofa and a large upholstered chair which had seen better days sat facing a table with a large screen television and an array of audio equipment. The empty walls were faded yellow, or a new yellow wash, hard to tell which. Roberto led him through a dining room into the kitchen, where the other roommates waited. A coffee machine was a prominent fixture in the kitchen. Warm coffee smells filled the air, and the other two were sipping from cups. Both of them looked about as disheveled as Roberto, like they had just crawled out of bed or something.
“Hey, Tomás, this is Giuseppe Pucci and Lucrezia Pisano.” He put his arm around Lucrezia’s shoulders and grinned. “We call this one Luci.”
Tomás shook hands with both of them. “I think I’m interested in your room…if the rent’s not too much.”
Luci smiled big. “What are you studying, Tomás? Where are you from?”
“I’m in the art history curriculum—just starting. I grew up in Ravenna.”
“That’s great,” Luci said. “We could use some art around this dump.”
Roberto took Tomás into the spare bedroom. It wasn’t much of a room—just enough space for a single bed, a desk with one chair, and a large armoire. Everyone shared one bathroom and Tomás was relieved to find it looking clean and smelling fresh. No lingerie hanging around like his sister, Anna’s, bathroom at home. The four agreed on a price and Tomás moved in. It promised to be a life style that was a far cry from the close knit family he’d grown up with, but at last he was officially in Bologna and ready for the university.
His new roommates were a diverse group. Roberto was studying architecture. Both he and Giuseppe were from Parma—they’d been friends since boyhood. Giuseppe was the taller and thinner of the two. He cut his dark brown hair short with long sideburns and he had the hint of a beard. He was enrolled in the business school, majoring in accounting.
Lucrezia was a medical student. An attractive young woman, she was tall and thin, with well-defined facial features and a long graceful neck. Svelte, Tomás thought. She pulled her long, dark hair back from her face to flow smooth and straight down her back. She looked like the type who could keep rowdy boys on the straight and narrow. Giuseppe grinned. “Luci’s the official medical expert of the house. She can cure everything from broken bones to hangovers.”
Those three easily became a surrogate family for Tomás. They introduced him to student life in Bologna and showed him the best places to go for cheap food. In no time Tomás learned to substitute beer and mortadella with crispy bread for his mother’s tagliatelle and ravioli in black truffle sauce.
In the ensuing weeks, Roberto was full of stories about the city and the university—their history and their well-known buildings as well as lesser known architectural treasures. He often led Tomás on walking tours around the city, sometimes rainy day tours when they had to dodge from one of the city’s forty kilometers of covered arcades to another.
Giuseppe managed the household accounts. He collected the shares of rent and other bills from everyone and made sure all the bills were paid on time. True to his profession, he kept careful records of every penny. He looked over some of Tomás’s drawing and suggested he catalog them according to date and locale.
Luci had grown up in a well to do family in Milano, and accustomed as she was to life’s finer things, she took charge of Tomás’s cultural introduction to Bologna. She showed him the best times to visit the huge art museum, the Pinacoteca Nazionale, using free student passes. She insisted he dress up one evening to accompany her to Teatro Comunale di Bologna for an avant garde performance of Verdi’s Traviata re-set to modern time.
The museum was Tomás’s favorite of everything his roommates showed him. It was an easy walk from the San Vitale apartment, practically across the street from the University, so he found it convenient to spend lots of time exploring its collections of medieval art: large paintings by Raphael, El Greco, Titian, Carracci, and Giotto, all of them beautiful and well displayed.
He found one room with a magnificent altarpiece by Giotto and several large rooms with preparatory drawings and some frescos from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—all in all, a strong collection of works by Bolognese artists from the 14th century onwards. Most of them were not the renaissance masters Tomás most admired, but they were important works of their forerunners. The museum was never crowded, and he sometimes came upon another student copying one of the great masterpieces.
Occasionally he recognized the student-copier as a more advanced member of one of his own classes. When that happened he’d stop and chat for a few minutes. Seeing what they were doing and watching their techniques gave Tomás great hopes for what lay ahead for him at the university. Those times made all his years of preparation and waiting worthwhile—they justified his secret box of art treasures, his insistence to his family that this was what he wanted to do in life, the frightening experiences of leaving his family to begin university life in a new city surrounded by a new clan. Tomás was happy. These were the things he had wanted for as long as he could remember.