Retired foreign service officer David P. Wagner worked in Italy for nine years. With his debut mystery, Cold Tuscan Stone, Wagner transformed his passion for "all things Italian" into an intriguing art thriller starring translator Rick Montoya. It's the perfect mystery for crime fiction fans who want to do a little armchair traveling. In a guest post, Wagner gives us a little Italian history lesson—a small preview of the interesting tidbits found throughout Cold Tuscan Stone.
Guest post by David P. Wagner
My first book was not a mystery, not even fiction.
The Italians have an expression for what makes a small town appealing: a misura d’uomo, "on a human scale." Downtown Rome, the Rome of the seven hills and the Tiber running through it, is definitely "human scale." In the years I worked there, feet were my preferred mode of transportation, so I got to know the maze of streets as well as any city. Their names usually change at every block, so what we might consider the same street can have multiple names. While this may make it confusing for tourists, it provides a fascinating window into what the Romans consider important in their culture and history, since streets are named for famous people, monuments, events and the like.
So, I thought, how about a book about the origins of street names in Rome? Each one is a story, and usually a fascinating one. For example:
It’s been a few centuries since the crossbow makers had their shops on the Via dei Balestrari, but thankfully they kept the name. It is one of the names tied to specific trades that often concentrated on the same street, making shopping easier. You want a trunk, or a vest, or some hay, you know just where to go.
Via del Gambero gets its name from a restaurant that operated on the street, which must have been really good since it closed around 1600. It’s one of various streets with names of businesses or institutions long gone but not forgotten.
Via Salaria starts at a city gate and heads north to the where salt (sale) was found. Salt was a type of currency in ancient Rome, giving us the word salary and the phrase “worth his salt.”
There are numerous streets named for saints, as you might imagine. One is Via Santa Maria dé Calderari. It was a custom that a guild or association of tradesmen would built a church for their members, and there was one on this street dedicated to Mary and financed by artisans who made pots, pans and cauldrons, the calderari.
Many names come from prominent Roman families, like Piazza Rondanini. The name is better known for its connection with Michelangelo, whose unfinished Rondanini Pietá was found in the family palazzo on this street. The heirs sold the sculpture to the museum in Milan where it is can be seen today.
The name of Via del Pozzo delle Cornachie is traced to a well (pozzo) in the courtyard of a palazzo that once stood on this street. Carved on the well were two crows (cornachie), part of the coat of arms of the man who built the house, the English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey is probably best known for his unsuccessful attempt to convince Pope Clement VII to grant an annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
Via Padre Pancrazio Pfeifer honors a close adviser to Pope Pius XII. Because of the priest's German nationality, the pope used him as an intermediary between the Vatican and German commanders during the city's occupation from the summer of 1943 to its liberation on June 4, 1944. Pfeifer was instrumental in blocking the deportation of many Roman Jews to death camps, and convinced the Germans to distribute food to the city during a winter in which starvation was common.
In the past, Largo del Pallaro was known for an activity which was made illegal in 1780, essentially a numbers racket. A pallaro was a man who collected bets for the drawing of five numbers from among 90. His profession—if you can call it that—could be loosely translated as bookmaker. A street named for bookies? Why not?
I could go on and on—there are enough to fill a book—but that gives you an idea. Alas, I never sold that book, but it led to trying my hand at a mystery whose plot was connected to a riddle about Roman street names. That didn’t sell either, but it got me started in the genre which eventually, and finally, brought success with Cold Tuscan Stone. It takes place in the town of Volterra, which also has some interesting street names, some of which are mentioned in the book.
Thanks, David! David P. Wagner’s debut mystery novel, Cold Tuscan Stone, features stolen Etruscan artifacts, intrigue and murder. It is published by Poisoned Pen Press.