I am Napoleon. I am Marilyn Monroe. I’m the Pharaoh. Every morning I choose one of my costumes. I go out. Then I take up my position in front of the gates of the Piazza Duomo. If it’s raining, I install myself under the gates. And there I stay.
People pass and raise their eyebrows, they smile. One in a hundred tosses me a coin. So many people pass in the Piazza Duomo, I can’t complain.
Children come up close to touch me, they want to see if I’m a statue or a living being. They ask their mothers who hold them by the hand if someone has put me under an enchantment. They’re right. I’m a statue of salt that a wicked witch transformed into flesh and bone as punishment, condemning me to live this life of a human being.
I once had a grander destiny than this. I wanted to be an actor. At the age of twelve, I knew the entire role of Othello by heart. My brother had to do a theater tryout in college, and I helped him learn the role. The night of the première, he got sick. I showed up instead.
“You’re too little,” Desdemona and Iago told me.
But the director took me aside: “Do you have hair under your arms yet?”
“And that sweet little voice of yours, are you sure you couldn’t make it a little deeper?”
“Even if you try your hardest?”
Then he called the actors and said: “He’s going to play a little-boy Othello. Jealousy stirs long before hormones do, it’s a feeling stronger and more universal than sex.”
“How beautiful,” said Desdemona.
“What a pain,” said Iago.
Terror also stirs before hormones do. I entered the stage, caught sight of the audience in the room, and was paralyzed. I couldn’t say a word. I didn’t manage to move a muscle. I stayed immobilized on the stage.
In the piazza, I succeed in standing perfectly still out of sheer fright. People terrify me, I make no attempt to keep myself immobile. It’s enough for me to think that I am not alone: and a place like the Piazza Duomo helps remind me of that every second.
In my opinion, when nobody is there, the statues in the piazza start moving around, and stretching to decompress themselves. They relax after the torture of standing exposed in front of others. The statues are fear given solid form.
It’s people that have this effect on me, that reduce me to somebody incapable of movement. I think it’s only fair when somebody gives me a little bit of money. They’re not paying me for what a good job I’m doing at playing a statue. They’re paying me back for all the fear they’re causing me.
I know how to do Napoleon, I know how to do the Pharaoh. But to be a great man, it’s not necessary to know how to stand still. Statues are a stage set. Monuments are lies. There’s no use in life to sticking on one position. All the great men knew how to make the right move at the right time, wherever you put them. The statue of the king on horseback at the center of the piazza seems to be moving and fighting, but he’s pathetic, paralyzed metal, he can’t make anything happen anymore.
I know how to imitate the great men of the past, but only without moving. They did great things. They rolled up their sleeves and got down to it, they seethed. Flew into rages. I am on their level only when I stand still. When we stand still, we are all equal. It’s movement that makes the difference.
Still, I also have my greatness. Nobody knows know how to keep still the way I do.
One time I fought the Ghost who stands on the other side of the piazza. We stood directly across from one another. At first it was nothing. It was a challenge. The ghost never changed costume. He was dressed in white from head to toe. His hair and face were whitened too. He is able to stick his tongue out for hours, leaving it drying in the air. It’s terrible, his tongue, violet and veiny, and when it emerges from between those white cheeks, it roars like a carnivorous plant. I don’t know how the ghost lives with that beast in his mouth.
To win the challenge, the ghost had made a contorted face at me, the face of a lunatic. The people who passed and looked at him clutched their stomachs from laughter, but a few of them let out an “Oh!” of fright. It seemed to me that his eyes were burrowing into me, exacting debts, so fixedly did he stare at me. We went on like that for six hours. Then something happened. A thought came to me.
It occurred to me that those pupils that stared at me were only the apertures of a camera. And their transparent gloss was a lens. And the iris was a colored corolla immersed in the eye’s collyrium. I saw that his eye was a thing. Nothing more than a thing. And that is how I extinguished that regard from the eyes that stabbed me with their sharp, deep debts.
Then I thought to myself that maybe he who was standing there, imitating a thing that was imitating a man; he who was imitating a statue; maybe he did it so well because he really was a thing himself; it would be possible for me to win our challenge because he was nothing more than a thing. As I was thinking this over, his muscles became incapable of holding up the frame of his body. The ghost’s head slumped. He fainted. I had won the challenge with a thought.
The eyes are the hardest part to keep still. And I’m not talking about the eyelids, which you can shut at the same time as the people shut theirs. All the spectators close their eyelids at the same time, in rhythm. It’s like a collective breath, taken by the eyes, that occurs among crowds when they gather. During that batting of the lashes there is time to do almost anything. I who know this fact profit from it to bat my eyelashes together and moisten my eyes without anyone catching on. But some of my colleagues are able to eat an apple while the crowd bats its lashes: to really chew it and swallow it all down, and toss the core far away, without the spectators’ knowing. They are specialists not only in immobility, but also in lightning-quick movements that can be insinuated into the interstices of immobility.
It’s difficult to keep the eyeballs still. I have grown accustomed to seeing everything that my eyes take in: even the out-of-focus areas; even the peripheral zones. You have to remain in a constant state of alertness, anyone could come up and play a nasty trick on you, above all the vagrants, at night, who will steal your money right before your eyes, if you’re not careful. You keep your eyes fixed in front of you, and yet, behind this fixed regard you need to be able to move back and forth to take in the whole, wide scene. Not only the point at the center of the view-finder, but the entire surface area, unto the farthest reaches of the glance. Many things occur in the corner of the eye.
The Marilyn Monroe costume has iron wire spikes set in its skirts to raise it up behind. It represents the moment when Marilyn passed over the subway vent. It’s my funniest costume. It produces quite an effect-to see Marilyn with hairy legs, trying to hold down a skirt that a gust of wind has sent billowing up. The costume was dirt cheap, but it produces an effect. There’s always someone who comes up to me and yanks at the hairs on my thighs, beneath the panties. It cracks people up.
A month ago, a very distinguished man passed by. He was walking a dog on a leash. The dog came up to me, raised his leg, and peed on my boots. I was dressed as Napoleon. The man made no effort to pull him away. He let him do his business, until the last drop, watching me all the while, smiling. I wanted to give the dog a kick, and punch his owner. The people standing around applauded. What assholes.
But then I listened hard. “Bravo Napoleon, you’re an artist!” they were saying. They were applauding for me, not for the man with the dog. The dog was nothing. I had succeeded in upstaging a dog. The distinguished gentleman left me a multicolored bank note as large as a handkerchief.
My girlfriend is a very witty person. I met her in the piazza. I taught her the trade. Now we stand, each facing the other, watching one another for hours. I gave her the Marilyn costume. It produces a completely different effect when a girl wears it. It arouses respect. Nobody dreams of coming up to her and pinching her white skin. The spectators are ashamed to go up and look under her skirt. People fall silent, and reflect.
On Sundays, my girlfriend and I go to the sea to take long walks on the beach, until we are out of breath.
Copyright 2005 by Tiziano Scarpa. Translation copyright 2005 by Liesl Schillinger. All rights reserved.