I’ve been fortunate to have visited Rome a number of times and when possible, have stayed on or near Via Veneto. In lodging as elaborate as the Hotel Excelsior to a third-floor pensione where ladies of the night frequented the bar some levels below. La Dolce Vita on Via Veneto—it’s all about The Sweet Life or one’s perception of The Sweet Life. It’s also about location … location … location, with Via Veneto offering high-end shops, 5-star hotels, and pedestrians wearing the latest fashions. Add to the ambiance a variety of sidewalk cafes—oops, when in Rome, think trattoria, osteria, or ristorante. And if you’re inclined to stretch your legs after an amazing meal, it’s an easy walk to the Villa Borghese Gardens in one direction or the American Embassy in the other.
But more than anything else on Via Veneto, or for that matter in all of Rome, the one place that will forever stay in my mind would have to be The Chapel of the Bones, officially known as the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception. What I saw in that eerie chapel near Barbarini Square stirred my imagination and gripped the very depths of my soul. So much so, it inspired me to write the chapel into a novel I’d been working for several years, an Italian American saga that eventually became The Family Angel.
Indeed, it’s all about perspective, my perspective as described in this short excerpt from The Family Angel and later in a short story entitled “Frankie’s Prayers.”
Dear God, any place but here. Not that PFC Frank Roselli had any choice as to where he would be fighting his first battle—in this case, Omaha Beach on June 7. Dawn had yet to break on D-Day Plus One when Frankie jumped from his LCI into the chest-high waters bordering Normandy’s coastline. The nineteen-year-old was one GI among the thousands of reinforcements assigned to follow General Omar Bradley’s 29th Division. Those poor bastards had landed the day before, the unfortunate casualties of Bradley’s First Army.
Frankie held his M1 Garand overhead as he waded in the direction of sand. The sun had yet to come over the horizon, not that it mattered. Sporadic mortar and sniper fire from the enemy’s rear position managed to illuminate the gray sky, giving Frankie a clear view of water strewn with the 29th, plus too many of those who had just landed. Dear God, bodies everywhere. He brushed past his dead comrades, nudged a combat boot. Shit, the foot was still inside. His stomach flipped and churned, producing an indigestible mix of disgust and shame.
Damn the flying shit. Keep moving, or wind up like these poor, broken bastards—he’d pray for them later. Frankie’s immediate concern was the beach, getting there in one piece. God willing, he wouldn’t take any shitfire, enemy or friendly, along the way. What the hell, survival boiled down to the luck of the draw. Move the wrong way and walk into a random shot. Bang, you’re dead.
Up ahead, water rolled into sand, exposing a graveyard of mutilated GIs. Their numbers too great to comprehend; their bloated remains scattered among the remains of landing crafts and military paraphernalia, an eerie testimony to what had transpired twenty-four hours earlier. Frankie hit the sand running. The stench of burnt flesh assaulted his nostrils. He stumbled and fell, onto what? Sweet Jesus, a baby-faced soldier, history now. Vacant eyes stared in astonishment, as if relaying the horror they’d been forced to witness. Frankie rolled to his knees and out of respect, turned his head. After heaving up yesterday’s k-rations, he made a sign of the cross, as much for himself as for the fallen heroes.
Their fleeting mortality reminded Frankie of a bizarre place he learned about in the eighth grade. He pictured Sister Agnes strolling around the classroom, rosary beads swinging from her ample waist. She spoke in an Irish brogue that distinguished her from the town’s other immigrants. This day she lowered her voice to a near whisper as she described a certain church in Rome.
“It’s called the Chapel of the Bones, boys and girls. Housed within the Church of the Immaculate Conception is a crypt dedicated to centuries of deceased Capuchin monks.” She stopped at Frankie’s desk, opened a large book of photographs, and held it up. “As you can see, their bleached bones—too numerous to count—have been assembled into the walls and floors of various room displays. Even into chandeliers. Some skeletons remain intact and wear the Order’s coffee-colored habits.” Sister directed her plump finger to the pointed hoods concealing skulls and profiles. “Outstretched skeletal hands beckon the curious visitors to indulge themselves. No need to hurry here they seem to say.”
Frankie leaned forward for a better view, but one row over Charlotte Evans gasped and uttered two words, “How disgusting.”
“No, Charlotte, ‘tis the reality of our physical existence,” Sister replied. “Now, if you please, allow me to continue. Here in the museum, among the Capuchin, time is no longer of the essence” She turned the page to more bones. “Posted on a wall in the last room is a Latin inscription, written in flawless calligraphy. The monks left us this message; one I challenge all of you to remember.” Swishing in her long black habit, she went to the blackboard and using the Palmer Method—which none of the boys could master—she wrote in chalk, transcribing the words into English:
“What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will become.”
Enough, Sister Agatha, PFC Roselli thought, someday yes, but not this day. He banished the prophetic verse from his brain and scrambled to his feet.
“Move it, soldier. Head for cover,” a voice called out from behind. “Don’t look at them. Don’t think about them. We’re not going to be them.”
End of Excerpt.
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This excerpt is also part of a short story entitled “Frankie’s Prayers.” If you’d like to read the complete story and sign up sign up for enews about my latest writing, please connect with me at email@example.com or through a private message on my Facebook.