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The Palazzo Colonna was on an odd cobblestoned lane across the street from a high wall with a garden at the top. Like so many places in Rome, the front door of the palazzo gave no indication of what was behind it. A discreet plaque said that the palazzo was only open on Saturday mornings. It was Monday.

I checked the address again from the sheet where Elena had written it, then raised my finger to the buzzer, hesitating only for a second before I pushed it. Nothing happened. It was hot outside. I lifted the hair off my neck, wishing I had a barrette so I could put it up.

I tried the buzzer again. No sounds came from inside. I couldnt tell if it was working. I laid my finger on it again.

And then the wood door clicked open.

The heat receded when I stepped inside, almost as if it had been sucked out by a vacuum.

The first floor was a small foyer. On a nondescript desk, brochures and pamphlets were laid out. Next to that was a circular staircase, its walls holding shelves with paintings, tiles and statuettes from different eras.

I heard a soft tap, tap, tap and saw a pair of black patent leather heels coming down the stairs. Aunt Elena was dressed in red pants and a stylish, asymmetrical black shirt.

Isabel. She walked over and embraced me.

I heard sounds from behind her and saw a woman in her twenties coming down the stairs. Elena introduced the woman as her assistant, Justina. She pronounced it Juice-tina. Now, come, Elena said, let me show you around my second home.

I followed her up the winding iron stairs. At the top was a small room with a few red velvet chairs and stands displaying enormous art books. Elena opened one of the books and fanned the pages. These show all the art.

The art in Rome?

She smiled. It was a secretive and yet jubilant smile, as if she couldnt wait to let me in on something special. No. The art from here.

I looked around the room. The walls contained sketches and paintings, all framed in gold, but they would only take up a couple of pages of the book.

Let me show you, Elena said.

She crooked a finger and stepped to double doors at the side of the room. I stood behind her.

Elena took a set of keys from her pocket and used them to unlock the doors. She slid them open, stepped forward and then turned and threw her arm out as if to say, Its all yours.

I gasped. I walked through the doors, looked to the right and gasped again.

How to describe that place? What I was looking at was a gallery, clearly, and yet the word gallery is too small, too pedestrian, too quaint for the grand, ostentatious and stunning salon that lay before me. Its floors, fashioned from all different types of marble-yellow trimmed in green, white striped with gray, red that was deep and rusty-stretched out hundreds of feet. The ceiling was at least four stories high, barrel vaulted, rimmed with gilded gold and painted with a vibrant fresco. The walls were lined with paintings, and before them stood white marble sculptures of Roman figures. Sunlight flowed into the room from a few high windows on one side, making the gold gleam, the marble sparkle.

Elena walked me farther into the room and we stood at the top of a few stairs between two massive, vividly yellow columns.

All this art was collected or commissioned by the Colonna family, one of the grandest aristocratic families in Rome. Elena pointed at the ceiling, where ships battled and knights clashed and angels flew above it all. The Battle of Lepanto, she said. By Giovanni Coli and Filippo Gherardi.

Amazing was the only word I could come up with.

We walked down the stairs. I was surprised to see that on one step, the marble had splintered, and in the center was a pewter-colored ball about the size of a large grapefruit.

Elena saw me looking at it. A cannonball, she said. It was shot in here during the siege of Rome in 1849. You can pick it up.

I lifted the heavy ball of iron, its surface slightly mottled, and wondered at the other hands that had touched it-the man who made it, the one who put it in the cannon and shot it here. I bent down and replaced it. Why is it still here? I mean, Im surprised, because the rest of this place is so well-maintained.

Elena nodded. Thank you for the compliment. But the cannonball is history, and if there is one thing we try to do in Rome, it is leave space for history.

She walked me through the rest of the salon, noting different works of art, telling me about a chest that was carved with a hundred tiny drawers and studded with precious jewels. Amethyst, Elena said, pointing. Topaz. Garnet. Chrysolites. Cornelian. Cats-eyes.

We took a few steps away and looked back through the salon, as magnificent from that end as it was at the beginning.

As you can see, most of the works here are not from famous artists, she said. But that wasnt the point of the Palazzo Colonna. These were amassed to give a collective impression of beauty. The intention is that one doesnt need to be an art historian to appreciate this place. You dont need to study each little brush stroke, every inch of gold. She waved her arm and spun around, and in that moment I could see her as a young girl, joyous and inquisitive and free of any sadness. I think it is important what this place teaches, she said. I am not a historian, but I learn from the palazzo every day. It teaches you to look at the whole. Not one individual masterpiece.

How did you come to work here? I said.

She smiled, as if remembering. I got the job the way you do anything in Italy. You ask and you ask and you ask. And they look at you like you are crazy, and they tell you No, no, no over and over again, and one day, just one day, they look at you, and instead of saying, No, no, no, they say Okay, okay, okay.

And you fell in love with the place, because the entire thing is a work of art. I spun around the way she had, trying to take it all in, the splashes of color, the glinting gold.

Exactly, she said, clearly pleased. That is why I love Rome, too, and that is what keeps me here. She pointed to the cannonball and smiled. The flaws are many when you look. Mistakes have been made. And yet the overall effect is one of true beauty, a beauty that transcends any mistakes.

I looked in her eyes. Do you believe the same about people? I asked. That they can be flawed and make mistakes and still have a transcendent beauty?

She nodded. Yes, a beauty inside them, not just out.

We were quiet for a second, and as we stared at each other, the gold and the colors and the marble dimmed, and the only thing for me to study now was my aunt Elena.

Are you referring to any specific person? I asked. Cmon, I thought. Tell me. Tell me what you know.

You remind me of your father, she said.

I made an inquisitive face, but inside I was saying, Yes, yes, yes. This is it.

He was curious like you, Aunt Elena said.

That sounds more like my brother, Charlie.

Elena gave me the slow grand shrug Italians have mastered. Maybe. Christopher wanted to know everything. She held up a finger. Correction. He wanted to understand everything. There is a difference. She looked at me for a sign of comprehension.

I nodded slowly, thinking about what shed said. There is a difference between knowing something or memorizing it, and truly understanding it.

Yes, thats right. And true understanding requires a much deeper curiosity, a willingness to seek for motivations and appreciate subtleties. But that kind of curiosity can be dangerous.


Because you begin to think that maybe the world isnt so black and white, maybe people arent, either. You dont realize that some people truly are black. Just black.

Shed lost me now. Was she talking about my father? Had he done something so terrible that even she, his sister, couldnt see anything but evil?

Is he alive? There. Id said it. It was the real question Id wanted to ask all along, but I had been afraid it would scare her off. But Id come this far, and now in this jewel of a room, it was just she and I and the memory of my father. And I needed to know if he was more than a ghost.

Elena looked around the salon, then up at the ceiling. Was she looking for someone or something in particular, or was she just drawing strength from this place that she loved?

She looked back at me. Your father died when you were eight years old.

I was told my father died when I was eight. But then a week ago I heard him on the stairs. I heard his voice, his voice, and he called me by my nickname, the one he gave me.

You are young. She gave a shrug that was purely Italian. You still want your father to be around.

Im not so young. Im almost thirty.

Thats right. You have a birthday this week.

I nodded. In a few days.

Buon compleanno, Isabel.

Thank you. But, Aunt Elena, I have to tell you, I long ago stopped wishing my father were still alive. Somewhere along the way I completely accepted his death.


But I heard him that night.

People invent comforting things when they are in trouble.

I crossed my arms and widened my stance. I didnt invent it. I certainly wasnt going to tell her my doubts about that night, because if my father truly was dead, then why wasnt she, his sister, more appalled by my questions? If Charlie died-God forbid, knock on wood, please, please no-and someone later suggested to me that he might not really have died, I would unleash on them. I would go mad. But Elena was calm, answering these questions matter-of-factly, the way she might if she was leading a tour of this place.

Our conversation reminded me of the one wed had the night before on the roof of the hotel. She had been surprised, initially, at me saying I thought Id found my father; shed been full of questions, but then shed dropped the topic, simple as that, as if it were normal or not so surprising at all for a grown woman to be saying she thought shed heard her father, who had been dead for two decades.

Elena looked around the gallery, giving another unconcerned shrug.

I decided to try a different tactic. Am I Camorra?

Her head snapped back, her eyes zeroed in on mine. What did you say?

I was talking to a friend, and he told me that were a Camorra family, or that at least Grandma Os family was.

Who is this friend?

I shook my head. It doesnt matter. Im not even sure what it means-the Camorra.

She flinched a little. Justina! she called out suddenly, her voice cutting through the stillness. Justina! she yelled again. She paused. There were no sounds-not an answer or the patter of footsteps. Good, Elena said. She has gone. She placed a hand on my arm. And we must talk.

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