uring my first decades in Rome, which began in earnest almost exactly fifty years ago, I kept a cellophane scrapbook in which I placed interesting or odd articles I had cut out from local newspapers. The items in the scrapbook never concerned politics or culture. Instead, they were Felliniesque tales that belonged to a different galaxy from the one I knew.
One such article was an interview with the famed journalist Indro Montanelli, a brilliantly idiosyncratic writer who liked doing things his way. When the interviewer asked him about objectivity, and suggested he sometimes fell short, Montanelli brushed it all aside in a reply I came to associate with Italy as a whole. “If I am covering a Giro”—Italy’s annual and beloved bicycle race – “and a rider who would normally ride well lags behind and seems all but lost, who’s to say he didn’t stop, dismount, and eat a delicious local cheese with the locals? If that’s what he might have done, I may as well say he did. And if the sky seems overcast but looks blue to me, I may write it as being blue. People need details but they also need to dream.”
This kind of liberally imaginative story-telling encourages anecdotes, and one of his most famous was a tale of coming upon several Giro riders, their bikes parked, grilling meat over a spit during a makeshift break from the race they later rejoined. Montanelli avidly joined the brief feast that many insisted he’d made up whole cloth. Asked decades later just what the cyclists were grilling, he replied, “In those days when you had meat you didn’t ask the animal it came from.”
The “New York Times” would not have agreed, but that was the essence of the scrapbook, that it represented reports from a world the “Times” could not and would not penetrate. These pre-internet stories were not always about facts but about the suppositions, inserted by reporters and editors, that helped real events elevate themselves from the mundane. Who cared about the missing cows, but the milk-starved bikers, well, they were entirely available to the mythically inclined side of embroidered and often conspiratorial Italian thinking. All was true that was approximately true, the blue sky with it.
My favorite report, which I read again and again, came from the Rome newspaper “Il Tempo” and had appeared in late spring 1954. Still well-preserved, not at all withered or yellow, it had been given to me by an Italian poet who collected bizarre clippings but also remembered the event itself, which occurred when post-war Rome was still very poor and raw around the edges, very much in the spirit of Montanelli’s quip about never asking the provenance of meat, or doing so at your own risk.
The article, which he said appeared at the bottom of the front page, was titled “Terror in Rome,” and below that carried the subtitle “The jungle is loose.”
I will not, indeed cannot, vouchsafe the facts, nor can I say how much of it was milk-biker, blue-sky fare and how much true,” but this, in my eager mind and memory, is more or less how it went. Nowhere in the story did the reporter ever say what kind of sky was overhead. But that may have been because most of the events took place at night.
Here then is my reconstruction of the “Tempo” tale, which whenever I call it to mind evokes something of the spirit of Fellini’s “La Strada,” a film culled from times of poverty, excitement, and the unwavering need to deliver on the postwar demand for hyperbolic drama, as if there was no remaking of a nation without a requisite share of sorcery and its loyalist allies, sincere excitement and fulsome exaggeration.
It was the Carabinieri Rocco who finally brought the great beast down. It was nearly dawn when he took precisely measured aim of the Bengal tiger loose in the center of the city. The beast and its lethal cargo — of which we shall soon speak — had come to rest beneath the Piazza di Spagna [known in English as the Spanish Steps], slaking its thirst at Bernini’s Barcaccia, the statue oblivious to its rare and uncommon interloper.
A Bengal tiger in Rome! Imagine this. A muscular animal from books of ancient lore a mere two paces from the chic stores of noble Via Condotti.
How could such an event come to pass? How could the placid middle of the night elicit such a terrible and frightening fairy tale? Not a leopard, as the great author Lampedusa might have chosen, but a voracious tiger!
Here is the answer. It seems that the Orfei circus troupe [a touring circus of the time] had staked its tent poled on the eleventh kilometer of the Via Aurelia, a common stop for the show. The tiger, according to Mino, his handler, formed part of an evening show. The tiger had performed admirably and won much applause, especially from children, since his act had been particularly daring. On this night, Mino had strapped a cage so that it rested on the back of the tiger, an animal he called Boldoni, and in this rectangular cage was a King Cobra, that most poisonous of snakes, ready always to fan its hood as if a reptilian rainbow.
So it was that Boldoni, with the caged cobra on his back, leapt and pounced around the area, drawing gasps when spectators saw the caged snake rise and recoil.
“It all went well and Boldoni circled four times until I led him back to his cage, where the snake charmers waited to take the cage from his back. Boldoni seemed at this moment peaceful.”
Alas, he was not.
When the snake charmers moved toward peaceful Boldoni, the snake suddenly reared up to his full height, seeming to slither between the bars.
It appears this was all too much for our Indian creature and his serpent cargo. Boldoni charged over Mino, knocking him down, and fled into the enclosure behind the tent. Alas, a circus hand had forgotten to close the latch.
Out went Boldoni and his snake, in search of freedom, as well as away to liberate himself from his unwanted reptile passenger. Together, after a night of prowling the countryside, eliciting howls from vagrants, tiger and snake entered Rome, actually ambling through the Villa Borghese. Had you lived nearby and witnessed this sight, you would have thought yourself still asleep, in a dream-become-nightmare.
Police and Carabinieri from the Flaminia district were alerted before dawn and began their hunt for the two carnival rogues. They enlisted the help of the zoologist Rampulla and his assistant, who came with sleeping-dart weapons whose long barrels resembled the legs of mosquitos.
“My greatest concern was not the tiger, a big creature we knew we could eventually corner and put to sleep. We worried instead about the snake. If the anima fell and broke open the cage, the snake would be loose. A very big problem.”
These were the words of Rampulla, who like a Safari hunter set off with the Carabinieri units, some in cars and some on foot. Soon enough, it was verified that the tiger Boldoni had made his way to the Piazza di Spagna, a great tourist attraction by day.
“Our aim was to end all this very swiftly, before dawn and the presence of crowds.”
Maresciallo Ermino of the Carabineri said this, since it was he who presided over the mission.
It was a few minutes after four that the posse of benign hunters set up their positions around the Barca, where Boldini first drank and, apparently weary from all his exertions, lay down, the caged snake still squarely on his back.
This allowed Carabineri Rocco, on instructions from Rampulla, to use the special sleep gun and take aim. His shot was true, and since the great Boldoni was flat on his tummy, the swift soporific effect did not move the snake cage.
“We were able with the help of the zoo authorities who specialize in snakes and reptiles to lift the snake cage and place it in a truck. Boldoni, still asleep, we also hauled away.”
Both creatures, we have learned, will be returned to their circus owners, though not without a very steep fine, since the Cobra, while not illegal for circus use, was not defanged. This breach will cause the Orfei circus impresarios many thousands of lira and make them think twice about future acts involving tigers and snakes.
We know of course that the earth we live on, the gift of a good God, was once rife with tigers and snakes, and that we, the citizens of Rome are merely new arrivals.
But we must distinguish between the then and the now, lest when we go to market we find not meat but a salesman in the shape of Boldoni telling us that when it comes to eating the flesh of animals we should mind our own business, and when it comes to snakes to set aside our love of the circus and return to reading the Bible, whose most ancient words speak not only of Our Lord, of Adam and Eve, but of the serpent. Let this be a caution to Moira Orfei.