Our Queen of Heaven

By  |  December 14, 2017
Photo © Samuel Zeller Photo © Samuel Zeller

Redneck Letter from Rome 


The complex of Regina Coeli began as a convent. Pope Urban VIII ordered its construction in 1642. It now holds prisoners.

Each day, thousands of tourists stream past its darkened, unappealing façade, which faces the Via della Lungara and the Tiber River. The people are making their way from the now-fashionable Trastevere neighborhood to Vatican City. Few notice the convent, though a pair of bored, machine-gun-toting soldiers might draw your eye, but then such soldiers are common in Rome. They’re all handsome boys from the south who play on their smartphones when they think no one’s looking.

The first time I walked past Regina Coeli (“Our Queen of Heaven”), I was in the company of an art critic who said vaguely, “That’s a prison. They’ve been talking about shutting it down for years, but nothing happens.” It was meant to be a story about the sclerosis of Italy in general and Rome in particular. We kept walking. Our Queen of Heaven is mostly experienced in such glancing terms if at all: in Pasolini’s story “A Night on the Tram,” the young hustler takes his client in the grimy direction of the prison, knowing it’s unlikely anyone will catch them having sex in the alleys of that weird, transitional, unpeopled neighborhood. It reminds me of the now-shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, which fascinated me as a child. The Gothic prison sat squarely in the middle of Moundsville—an insane bit of planning—and prisoners were constantly escaping into the surrounding neighborhood. Whenever prisoners were on the loose, we kids weren’t allowed to walk home from school. One such prisoner was caught hiding in someone’s doghouse—he had strangled the beagle with its own chain and eaten its food. At least, that’s what we were told.

Moundsville is one thing, but Rome is another. Looking at Our Queen of Heaven on a map, I can’t think of another capitalist country where a prison would be allowed to continue occupying such a choice cut of real estate. There’s been talk, idle talk, of converting the prison into a hotel or luxury apartments. It would happen in America; not here. Gore Vidal wrote,

Since World War II, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least-appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism . . . A wide range of political parties has contributed to the invention of modern Italy, a state whose vast metastasizing bureaucracy is the last living legacy anywhere on earth of the House of Bourbon (Spanish Branch).

Yet one learns in Rome that sclerosis has its benefits, functioning as a preservative. Rome has retained its character and history as few cities have. Not a single skyscraper, our passing century’s ugly gift, ruins the skyline of this city of churches. The Ponte Fabricio, built in 62 BC, still functions as a bridge. In James Salter’s story “American Express,” a dissolute American lawyer explains it to the Italian daughter of a furniture-restorer:

“In our country, no restauro,” Alan explained. He made a gesture. “Throw it away.”

So the young, unified Kingdom of Italy took over Our Queen of Heaven in 1881 and turned it into a prison.

In the reign of Mussolini, hundreds of political dissidents were sent there. Many of them were subjected to brutal torture. Many were writers. The leftist Jewish publisher Leone Ginzburg died in this prison of his injuries; it is said that, at one point, his torturers crucified him.

Our Queen of Heaven’s terror does not seem to be discussed in Italy, or even much remembered, but then, the prevailing Italian response to the era of Fascism is ambivalence. This is not Germany. The historic wound is not probed. The country has sought to move on, but this silence has left many questions unasked.

Even the quiet country places are singed by this history. Last fall and winter, I began going to the Appenines in Abruzzo to hike and to ski, the stretch of Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise between Pescasseroli and Civitella Alfadena, a rugged place of wolves and bears, chamois and roe deer, that I did not expect to find in long-abused Europe. No one I spoke to had been to this part of Abruzzo, so the place was doubly attractive. In October the snow was falling. There I read Natalia Ginzburg, wife of Leone, who had lived in these mountains in internal exile under Fascism and memorialized this place and its people, its boredom and its glory, in her essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” in which she wonders, “How could this happen to people like us?”

My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us—to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever—only now do I realize it.

Yet she would live on for decades and served in her country’s Parliament, the country that had done this to her.

Our Queen of Heaven is, despite its name, more properly viewed from above. In good weather I would walk my young son onto the Janiculum hill, where the massive statue of Garibaldi on horseback gazes out onto the city, “showing its ass to the Vatican,” as the local wags say. We walked beneath sycamores through the twin rows of mustached Garibaldini in marble busts, to the stand where puppeteers put on a traditional (i.e. pleasingly-violent) show for the children on Saturdays and Sundays.

From the Janiculum, you can see the dull red cells that look like arcades, the two squat watchtowers, and the closest buildings laid out in cruciform, recalling Regina Coeli’s religious past. You wouldn’t necessarily perceive it as a prison unless you knew—even the razor-wire is rendered mere decoration by distance—though the cells’ countless black eyes do recall Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. I often took my binoculars but couldn’t see much else: certainly not people. Prisons and asylums, convents and poor farms, halfway houses and nursing homes: these institutions have always drawn my eye. I think, If nothing else works out for me, I can always go there.

The more I read of Our Queen of Heaven, the more amazed I was at how many writers passed through the place—and how little was said of this story. Here Carlo Levi (Christ Stopped at Eboli) spent time for his opposition to Mussolini’s brutal colonial war in Abyssinia, before being sent into internal exile in Basilicata. Here Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin) attempted suicide. Here the great Marxist Antonio Gramsci, a divested parliamentarian and leader of the Italian Communist Party, was imprisoned during his 1926 trial. In that kangaroo court his prosecutor said, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” After his trial, Gramsci was sent for a year to the prison island of Ustica, far off the coast of Sicily, then to yet another prison in rural Puglia where he spent another eleven. Over this period he wrote his landmark Prison Notebooks, 3,000 pages of complex thought on historicism and cultural hegemony, education, and Italian history. Conditions were wretched. The brain didn’t stop functioning, but the body failed. His teeth fell out. He vomited blood. He couldn’t keep down solid food. He died in a clinic in 1937, having earned his freedom but now rendered too ill to be released back into the free world. The prosecutor won and the prosecutor lost.

I can’t help but feel that in Our Queen of Heaven a postwar generation of writers was born. Even the ones who didn’t log time in the prison lived—and wrote—in its shadow. The best Italian writers reckoned with torture and shame. The prison ate into their brains and their bodies.

The prose-writing tradition of twentieth-century Italy is as strong as any country’s, wide in its range, diverse in style, morally-serious, politically-engaged without being sanctimonious. Perhaps it never produced a writer of the international stature of Faulkner or Beckett. Italo Calvino is its contender for the crown, though others, I think, had more to say. Like all countries, Italy has its overlooked powers, especially the moralists Leonardo Sciascia and Pier Paolo Pasolini, complex in their prose, their lives, their pain.

With my little boy, I took one last walk out on the Janiculum to say goodbye to Our Queen of Heaven and silently wish the inmates well. In the scalding July the puppet theater was shut, and the hawkers, men of Bangladesh and North Africa, followed us around, lifting gladiator costumes, fidget spinners, selfie sticks. We were boarding a plane to Sicily the next day, hoping to cool off by the ocean, then back to the United States, where the country was staggering in a way that once seemed impossible—the gods seemed to be toying with it, but in the style of Pirandello rather than Shakespeare, alas. Our new President was a clown, a brutish, exaggerated puppet flailing upon a stage. We wouldn’t be allowed, as Americans, to keep our dignity.

I am gone now from Rome, and I sense it was the best time of my life—in a life where nothing much has happened. The days there shined in exaggerated light, a tinfoil ocean, an unexpected chance.  

“Redneck Letter from Rome” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.

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Matthew Neill Null is a a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books) and the story collection Allegheny Front (Sarabande). Originally from West Virgnia, Null and his family currently reside in Rome, Italy.