I live on one of those charming narrow, cobblestone streets that have been around Rome since the Roman Empire and gives the city a coziness unmatched anywhere in the world. I wake up to the chattering of neighbors and laborers in the workshops that line my Via di Montoro. Every morning the beautiful Italian language that drifts through my windows sounds like birds trumpeting the fall of leaves. Via di Montoro is just wide enough for one car and one pedestrian — if he squeezes against the wall to let it go by.
But that doesn’t mean my little street doesn’t have any action.
On my corner, looking as unassuming as the tiny violin repair shop nearby, is a theater. It’s one of the smallest in the world and called, appropriately, Piccolo Teatro (Little Theater). I had walked past it last week always seeing well-heeled Romans standing outside as showtime approached. Saturday night as I walked back from the market, a beautiful woman with wild curly hair and blazing eyes stood outside the door while I stared at the publicity poster. It featured a bunch of scantily clad women with a title I couldn’t pronounce let alone translate. “A Chi Gioverebbe.” The woman smiled and told me I should see it.
“Che cosa e’?” I said. (“What is it?”)
“Belle donne. Musica. E’ un casino.” (Beautiful women. Music. It’s a brothel.)
Well, let’s see. I don’t have to study my Italian verb conjugations tonight.
Also, you don’t stay home on a Saturday night in Rome, especially not in Centro Storico. What better way than to spend it at a brothel? So I took about 50 steps out my door and found myself walking down a claustrophobic staircase to a basement that looked like one of the Etruscan caves I explored earlier in the weekend. It was all for effect. The mustachioed man at the door told me the building was built in 1800. In Rome that makes it a candidate for the cover of Modern Architecture. He had no idea how far back the basement goes but the crumbling walls and exposed pipes made it look pre-Roman.
Somehow I became the night’s novelty act. Lounging around the basement and nearly rubbing against us in the stairwell were women in various forms of lingerie. “Oh, un Americano!” said one. I hadn’t opened my mouth. Yes, I look that American. “Enjoy the show, sir,” said another in heavily accented English and spiked heels that could puncture a rugby ball.
I counted 50 people packed into a room no bigger than my 200-square-foot living room down the alley. I sat on an end table under a row of shot glasses from which the actresses kept grabbing. With my limited Italian comprehension, I believe it was about an Italian bordello from the ‘50s. A sleazy journalist is one of the customers (I deny ANY connection) and he seemed to try and convince the ladies that he should write an article about their dead hooker. I think. I don’t know. It may have been about a small Tuscan boy coming of age on an olive farm. I didn’t have a clue. But the cast was seven women in various levels of mid-20th century lingerie and a weathered madam. Then there was a couple of old men passing through the stage rubbing numerous hamstrings.
Despite being walking distance from St. Peter’s Square, this show was a long ways from the Vatican.
I later read a review in Italian and I wasn’t too far off. “A Chi Gioverebbe” means, roughly, “To Those Who Would Benefit.” It takes place in 1957 and a politician, a frequent customer, kills one of the young prostitutes. (Somehow I missed that scene. I was too busy watching a thigh that kept flying by my face.) The girls then plot their revenge.
It won’t be mentioned at the next Tony Awards but it was a good exercise in comprehending the Italian language and the role houses of prostitution played in Italy in the 1950s.
Plus, the girls were kinda cute.
The next day, a couple of them stopped me as I passed by on my way home. We talked a bit about theater life in Rome. They all perform together and this show has made the rounds in the city. They’re hoping to get a bigger theater to make some decent money. At 12 euros a head, that night they took in only 600 euros (about $800). The youngest one, who played the real sexy French maid, is 22 and in street clothes looked like a Tri-Delt at Florida State. I wanted to tell both of them that I didn’t recognize them with their clothes on but I was afraid they wouldn’t understand my Italian.
More than anything, I was afraid they would.