April 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Too deep

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2011-06-06

Isidoro Mirabelli, an elfin volunteer from Naples, became the first of series of tiny men lowered into the shaft.

hen the Rome fire brigade official finally got got through to the boy trapped in the well he talked about comic book super heroes. He told him that The Great Mazinger, "Mazinga Z," was on his way. So was Gig Robot, a Japanese cartoon android with giant steel pincers. Together, they would save the day.

Don't worry, the chief said soothingly into his walkie-talkie.

The boy, speaking into a microphone that had been lowered into the shaft, thanked him. He was tired, he said. He had peed his pants. He wanted to sleep.

Don't sleep, said the fire chief. Don't.

The fireman's name was Nando Brogli. The six-year-old boy was Alfredo Rampi. They conversed regularly for two days in June 1981. They would never meet.

"Our story," novelist Giuseppe Gemma says of Italy, is "the story of stories." It is also the story of the best laid plans.

Italy of 1981 was a serrated knife. On May 13, a 23-year-old Turkish nationalist named Mehmet Ali Agca shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square, making good on a two-year-old threat. He'd first issued the warning when the newly elected pope visited Turkey in 1979. Then, he'd been ignored. Now, photographs caught his Browning 9-mm pistol outlined against a bewildered crowd gathered for the pope's weekly outdoor audience on a Wednesday. The brazen assassination attempt stirred allegations that Agca had been sent by Soviet proxies eager to end the Polish pope's energetic anti-communism.

More pressing on the home front was the emergence of the P2 ("Propaganda Due") Masonic Lodge run by a man named Licio Gelli. Prosecutors characterized Gelli's organization as a proto-fascist shadow government bent on destabilizing the country. In March, investigators released the names of 972 people allegedly tied in spirit or deed to Gelli's Italian cell. They were businessmen, secret service chiefs, and politicians, most of them inclined toward the country's ruling Christian Democratic Party and its anti-communist allies. Gelli, meanwhile, absconded to Switzerland. On May 26, Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani, a Christian Democrat, quit and Giovanni Spadolini, the portly head of the secular Republican Party, was summoned to form Italy's first lay government.

The only published photo of Alfredo Rampi.

As reporters pored over Gelli's eclectic list (ambitious Milan property developer Silvio Berlusconi was on it), the Red Brigades resurfaced and crossed into vendetta. On June 10, a commando team abducted Roberto Peci, the brother of Patrizio Peci, a former terrorist who had turned state's evidence. In August they abandoned Roberto's mauled corpse in suburban Rome with a Mafia-style placard that read, "Death to Traitors."

But for four days in June, young Alfredo's survival struggle eclipsed these events. Major national newspapers and agencies veered from political machinations and devoted themselves only to him. The octogenarian Italian president sought him out. The three state television networks which had a national monopoly simultaneously transmitted his story, often live, an unprecedented feat of technical prowess and ratings-hungry sensationalism. In 72 hours, Alfredo's predicament became the locus that helped propel Italy into the media-driven second half of the 20th century. Unified by defenselessness, empathy, and the allure of the grotesque, Italians surrendered by the millions to voyeurism. The country tipped backward toward its molten core, the transfixed mob.

All for a boy who fell into a well.

THE ONLY PUBLISHED photo of Alfredo Rampi shows him at a beach, grinning, a black-and-white cherub in a horizontal-striped T-shirt exuding the filial looks that can bring caring people to heel. Italians for whom parenthood is a sacred vocation saw a son, or imagined one. The psychological narcosis set in early and endured.

Alberto lived in Vermicino, part of an agglomeration of homes and farms in the rugged countryside under Frascati, the Alban Hills town known as the hub of Rome's local wine industry. His 50-year-old father Ferdinando worked part-time for the state water company, ACEA, and owned a small country house; his mother Franca tended to Alfredo and his younger brother. Born with a congenital heart defect, Alfredo was slight for his age. Cardiac surgery had been set for September.

Midday on Wednesday, June 10, 1981, Fernando walked to the edge of the property to repair a fence, Alfredo by his side. At some point, his son strayed off "he had the soul of a young Huckleberry Finn," wrote the newspaper La Repubblica, one of many fanciful characterizations (no one had met the boy) that persisted for weeks.

June 10 was inordinately hot and humid. In 1981, air conditioning was virtually unknown in Italy, considered something of a health hazard. For adults, shade and afternoon rest were the chosen analgesics; boys, meanwhile, stirred up their own breezes. Alfredo knew the terrain, rough with interconnected vineyards and desiccated stretches of earth kind only to stubby olive trees. He liked cavorting in the underbrush.

Near the Rampi home, a neighbor (later indicted) had dug illegally through the volcanic terrain hoping to find water. Such practices are commonplace even 25 years later. He'd register the clandestine well only if it bore fruit. Meanwhile, he shoved a girder over a primitive tunnel that corkscrewed 80 meters into the earth. Midway down, the 40-centimeter shaft narrowed to 30, the width of a car seat. These details emerged later.

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