A Song for Marco

How I found myself crooning a Scottish ballad to an Italian vendor.

By Steve Burgess 13 Aug 2009 |

Steve Burgess, returned from travels in Italy, had this page left in his notebook.

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From warrior stock: Marco Pasquino. Photo by S. Burgess.

Barely longer than its name, Via delle Terme di Diocleziano runs off Rome's Piazza Repubblica, shaded by orange trees. That shade is a precious thing in a hot Roman summer, and makes the little street a logical place for the used book, magazine, and movie stalls that line the north side. It's a pleasant place, pace the occasional whiff of urine. And you can find items here not seen in the shops that crowd the Pantheon or Trevi Fountain. Roman curio stands offer everything from Italian language Batman comics, to pulp Westerns, to bits of Fascist history not found in more reputable spots. Philosophy and a bit of divination, too. But for that you must pick the right stall.

One day I stop in front of a rack displaying a fascinating series of postcards -- reproductions of Italian propaganda posters from the Second World War. A thuggish Jew in a Star of David coat stands before the New York skyline, fist outstretched; a leering black soldier laden with plunder in a church where the crucified Christ leans over in the rubble; a brutish black GI drapes his arm around the Venus de Milo marked with a two dollar price tag (note to Italian propagandists: that one is Greek).

The proprietor wanders over. Marco is a balding, stocky man with an expired cheroot clenched in his teeth. "You understand, I must be careful about how I display these things," Marco says. "Some people misunderstand. But pictures like this can tell you more about the time than reading an entire book. It's economy of energy."

The White and the Gold

One of the images stands out: a woman clutches a crying child in the rubble of a burning city. The woman reaches for a rifle, and with good reason -- she and her child are being menaced by a huge spider with a death's head and long red-and-white legs, framed against a blue background. The artist has transformed the British flag into a grinning, arachnoid monster. It's a little masterpiece of terror. "You know," Marco says, "I sell a lot of these to Canadians. But always from Quebec!"

Marco is clearly bemused by Canadian politics. He pulls out The White and the Gold by Thomas Costain, a chronicle of French Canadian history. "Look," he says, "John Cabot discovered Canada -- if you are English. If you are French, it was Jacques Cartier."

Marco is not the only philosopher tending a stall in Rome. But he boasts a particular distinction that sets him apart. I realize just how lucky I was to stumble upon Marco's stall when I learn his surname.

Not far from Piazza Navona you will find Pasquino, Rome's most famous talking statue. Actually a decrepit old Greek figure, possibly Achilles holding the body of Patroclus, Pasquino has for centuries has been a kind of ancient chat room for critics intent on mocking religious and government authorities. Poems, usually written in the voice of Pasquino himself, are pasted onto the base of the statue. In Rome, Pasquino has always been the voice of the people (the word "pasquinade" now refers to any anonymous polemical verse). And my new friend's full name? Marco Pasquino. For a Roman street-corner philosopher, this is the equivalent of being a tramp named Chaplin.

A family standard

Marco Pasquino, while no Achilles, comes from warrior stock. "I am from Dalmatia," he says, "where many Roman legions were destroyed."

I mention that my ancestral home of Scotland has been known to produce a few puckish individuals as well. Marco reaches onto a shelf and pulls out an old book: Loch Lomond, a history of the grand Scottish lake that inspired the country's most famous ballad. Be it luck or perhaps his own particular genius, Marco has struck a major chord.

Last spring I found myself alone in a hospital room, singing to my mother. She was comatose, but who knows what senses still function in that state? So as each family member took turns keeping that final watch we would talk, and sometimes sing, to her. Years ago, "Loch Lomond" was sung at my grandfather's funeral. It became my standard number in that melancholy karaoke party.

I do not explain to Marco the song's personal significance to me. But since he is unfamiliar with it, I sing it to him. His eyes crinkle, his cheroot curls slightly northward. "I can hear when a man sings a song a certain way," he says, and hands me the book. "This is a gift."

One day while browsing I had found an old Italian comic strip, telling the tale of a Mussolini-era bureaucrat. He is hauled up before a Fascist court for some infraction, jailed, then released by the Americans at war's end. Thereafter he is alternately beaten up by Fascists and anti-Fascists alike. As he is beaten the hapless victim recites the following poem: "O di Pasqua o di Natale; Faccia bene o faccia male; Sfortunello e tribolato; sara sempre bastonato."

("Whether it's Easter or whether Christmas; Whether you have done good or done evil; Misfortune and tribulation; will always club you down.")

It may be true. But it helps when a man finds his true calling. In the shade of Via delle Terme di Diocleziano, Marco Pasquino pursues his, most days of the week. I hope to shop there again.  [Tyee]

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