Angels prod seven naked sinners chained
together by their crimes. Pigeons mock them
with excrement and the flapping of wings
while God broods, impassive on his throne.
From the marble portico, all gape down
as demons stir a vat of the damned
and season it with another soul, there
on the cathedral’s storybook façade.
From a café below, I return their stare,
sipping tortellini broth and Emilia wine
to mute the restless canticle of flies
like rumors of misdeeds I am sure
to pay for—betrayals and jealousies;
a passion for the palace of horrors
known as history. A shudder born
of humid air animates carved figures
with all the choices I ought to regret.
Across the street, Savonarola stretches
bronze arms wide, conjuring a bonfire.
Over his shoulder, the fortress towers
where Browning’s last duchess died for a smile
and partisans and Jews were displayed
after interrogation. Yet when blackshirts
torched Ferrara’s synagogue, a German
officer dodged past the mob to rescue
ritual scrolls that he smuggled home
and spent a lifetime mending. Scholar
of second chances, he labored unaware
a damaged Torah must be burned.
The synagogue survived, still Orthodox,
so women must squint like God’s auditors
through the high gallery’s ornate shutters,
lest they be unclean or spark temptation.
I would have joined them, had it been allowed,
to study scorch marks on the blackened beams—
the only Hebrew that I understand.
Instead, a minyan of one, I loiter
in silent congregation with the damned
and saved; the saviors and tormentors;
and their stone certainty. I raise my glass
to celebrate all unsettled accounts.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.