THE GARDEN OF EVIL opens in a curious way. Aldo Caviglia was a
baker at one time, but now he is an "over the hill" pickpocket. On
this day he steals the wallet of a well-dressed French woman who
asks him for directions. He then kindly volunteers to show her the
way. As they walk, he tells her that she will be entering an
interesting section of the city, where many famous artists lived.
It was once part of the area called Ortaccio, set aside by the
Popes for prostitutes.
He is embarrassed about bringing this subject up but can't seem to
stop the words that keep coming. "Orto may signify the
Garden of Eden. Ortaccio signifies what came after our
discovery of sin. The Garden of Humanity. Or the Garden of
Wickedness or Evil. Or one and the same." Almost as soon as their
encounter begins, it ends, when he leaves the woman at her
destination. Caviglia pats his pocket to reassure himself that her
wallet is safely hidden there. But he suddenly senses that
something is wrong. He has a bad feeling about the whole business
but can't put his finger on it and goes on his way.
Later, as he inspects the contents of the wallet, he finds "a small
pink plastic box. The front had the universal emblem for
medicine…the caduceus. Two serpents writhing round a winged
staff." When he lifts the top he finds medication marked with exact
times to be taken, clearly a very important part of her treatment.
He also spots a small card, which says, in part, that if anyone
finds this box of medicine, can they please return it to her as
soon as possible, for her life depends upon strictly dosing
herself. Caviglia is a good man who has just decided to be a
pickpocket instead of working. But in this case he immediately
makes up his mind to return the woman's belongings. After all, "he
knew where she was."
He may have left her in what was once an artist's colony and/or a
brothel, but now he has no idea which of the twisting alleys or
ancient buildings she entered. Finally, he asks for help and is
directed to a studio that seems to be known to only a few
people. He goes in search of the "green door," and after he gains
entry he makes his way through the darkness toward a faint light
ahead. "The voice --- high, pained, stretched by such agony he
could not begin to imagine what caused it --- drifted through the
damp, fusty air…pulsing with an exact and heart-rending
rhythm…as if she was being tortured. When he burst into the
room he was too late…too late for any and everything." The
scene before him is impossible to take in.
Caviglia is barely conscious of being told that many famous artists
frequented this area; then one of the drinkers informs him that
Caravaggio, one of Italy's most celebrated and reviled Renaissance
artists, kept a studio there. The canvases Caravaggio had painted
were mainly of male nudes, but he also created depictions of life
and death in Rome. Then a painting hanging on the wall transfixes
Caviglia. When he finally gets his bearings, "his eyes…were
fixed, unfailingly, on the painting, unable to look anywhere else.
This was in some cryptic, unknowable way, the very scene he's just
witnessed" --- a man standing over the destroyed body of a woman,
in reality the one he d