6th excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Read the original version in Italian.
Read all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.
The most famous event of my childhood with Elvira is without doubt our encounter or, I’d say, our clash with Leo XIII [Pope from 1878 to 1903, MoR.]
My sister Elvira thrilled by my stories about the Vatican and the Loggia of Raphael where I always passed while going to the gardens, and about dad in uniform following on horseback the carriage of the Pope – all things I knew quite well because whenever my father was on duty I often followed him at the Vatican and when the papal walk about the gardens took place I lay hidden together with my father’s orderly, between the hedge and the groves, in order to watch the various processions of the papal throne – my sister, I was saying, once wanted to come along with me as well, so eager she was to see herself all those wonders. After much imploring, one day my father, who couldn’t refuse anything to us, brought her along too.
When the Pope going down to the gardens for his walk had left in his carriage, the orderly along different and secluded alleys brought us up to the famous roccolo – a place for bird-catching with nets, the paretaio – from where with ease and well concealed amid the vegetation we would be able to see the Pope who used to come near his beloved vineyard close to the roccolo. This paretaio [or roccolo, see image below], for those who don’t know, was a very large circular surface, surrounded outwardly by trees and boxwood hedges, while inwardly towards the open space it was surrounded by a tall and thick hedge. There was therefore a sort of circular corridor from where one could very well see without being seen what was happening outside and inside the paretaio.
The entrance to this paretaio was a small and low construction so that once a person went into the corridor and turned a few yards to the right or to the left the entrance was not to be seen any more. The orderly therefore brought us there and recommended us to keep silent while the pope would approach the outside of the corridor. He then left us alone.
One can imagine my emotion and Elvira’s when we actually saw the Pope coming towards our hiding place and pausing at each plant, admiring and touching the beautiful grapes while having conversation with my father. The group, followed by ecclesiastical dignitaries or people of the suite, all with their picturesque costumes, was drawing closer and closer to us so that we could enjoy a spectacle unusual to us and unknown to the rest of Christendom. The Pope, so to say, in private.
But the Pope was also drawing closer to the entrance of the roccolo and despite our very young age we began to understand that our position was getting terribly uncertain and dangerous.
Instinctively and with great caution, following the circular corridor, we thus moved away from the entrance. Much to our horror, from the voices and sound of steps we realised that the Pope and all his suite had just entered the small construction to visit the roccolo, a place a bit abandoned in truth and which had never been the destination of his walks.
What to do? Which direction to take in order to escape from an encounter that could be inevitable and fatal since we could not see any longer the entrance that led to the circular corridor? Mad from panic we held our hands and blindly, without waiting any longer, we hurled ourselves towards the exit. Oh cruel fate! The Pope had actually taken our direction and we were about to bump unto his feet, confused, terror-stricken and breathless.
At the sudden irruption Leo XIII jolted back and the whole suite halted, upset and shocked especially when Leo XIII exclaimed with a rather vexed voice:
“Who are these brats?”
We were already far in our headlong and noisy flight through the hedges. My father readily solved the situation with his wit.
“Holy Father, they are the gardener’s children, I’ll now see to it.”
And coming after us he told us to run away together with his orderly who very worried had drawn close to the roccolo where he had left us. Run away… we didn’t wait for him to say it twice. I think we never ran so much in our life. And here you can see how my father’s swift reply and wit did not stop even before the papal throne. And with Leo XIII there was not much fooling around possible but my father’s jests were irresistible.
“Count, have you got lands?”
“Yes, Holy Father, a pot of basil and one of matricaria for my wife who now and then bears me a new baby.”
When though my father having completed his service as general brigadier went to the Pope to take his leave he had the great pleasure to hear from Leo XIII these precise words of praise:
“I am very sorry that you are leaving because we talked pleasantly … you kept me good company.”
And Leo didn’t praise easily or wasn’t easily satisfied with the people around him.
My father sometimes succeeded in receiving sums of a certain amount from Leo XIII who took them from a private box he kept in his room: sums given brevi manu to my father who had been invited by the Pope to follow him into his private apartments.