World

From a restricted Italy, an artist’s eye on the coronavirus

With nurses and doctors risking their lives, it’s horrible to know that society has prioritized profit over health care

The Post has enlisted Emiliano Ponzi to draw and write about daily life in Milan during the coronavirus outbreak. As of March 28, Italy has been hit especially hard, with more than 10,000 deaths — the most in the world.

March 28

“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture:

“… Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrongdoing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of men or women, bonded or free.”

The Hippocratic oath is an ancient Greek medical text from the 4th century B.C., defining the ethics in the relationship between physician and patients. Every doctor in Italy has to declare a more modern version of this oath before starting the profession.

Infected

92,472

Deaths

10,023

(As of March 28 in Italy)

Physicians, paramedics, nurses and all health-care workers are doing more than what they pledged in their oaths: They’ve doubled their shifts, taken care of patients because no family members can access hospitals, informed media, gotten sick and put their own families in danger. And they are dying, because of exposure to high quantities of the virus, for many hours, without having enough medical protections.

Sadly, all their sacrifices cannot stop the toll from mounting. On Friday, we had the highest number of deaths in one day: 919.

We are receiving help from foreign countries: Cuba, Russia and China are sending doctors and medical equipment, but masks and ventilators are not enough and are not the only issue. Intensive care units can’t be built in a day or in a week. Health-care system funds have been reduced along the course of the years and not just in Italy.

How it is possible that we reached the point where the law of profit become more important than the right to live in good health and be cared for when ill? I’m not referring only to my country. The majority of governments delayed in taking strong measures to contain the virus, even when it was clear that their country was next in line to be hit as the pandemic escalated.

I’m not that naive. I know that there are many forces involved in a lockdown of a country: business, industries, lobbies, debts, promises, unemployment, propaganda, or — in one word — money.

Economically speaking, the world at the end of this will be so shattered that a call to change rules and reconsider the economic model we have is going to be crucial.

Locked down in our houses, we all are thinking more than before, and perhaps taking stock of our lives. For governments, it could be a great chance, too. Make a list of priorities and place human beings at the center.

Perhaps we will have these opportunities in the future.

In Italy, the chrysanthemum represents sorrow and grief. And I think of that flower as we continue to tally cases, count bodies and mourn.


March 25

“Honey, I’m home!”

“Hi, you have to try this new recipe, ribs and vegetables stewed together! You are going to love it!”

That was one week ago, when I still used to go to the studio. My wife started working from home three weeks before me and, wisely, started staying at home from the office when it wasn’t a rule already. I felt as if I were living in some ’50s TV show, when the housewife waits the whole day for the husband to come back from work. Then she wants to update him with all the amazing things that happened during another boring day, and the husband just wants to take off his shoes and chill.

Infected

74,386

Deaths

7,503

(As of March 25 in Italy)

We eat out very often, for lunch and dinner … well, we used to before quarantine. Cooking was an exception when friends came for dinner.

Home is not just a couch to watch TV or read or a bed to sleep in. It’s not just a pause between one working day and the other. Not anymore.

Staying home is enforcing the relationship with the house itself, a renovated bonding with walls, rooms, furniture and possibilities.

And not just the pots. Three years ago, I received a piano for my birthday. I had mentioned to my wife that I would have loved to learn to play. I tried once, the night of my birthday, and then never touched it again.

She started two weeks ago, using a learning app on an iPad one hour per day after work. She’s up to four or five hours on the weekend, instead of sauntering out to have our Aperol spritzes.

The first week, she played with the notes written on tape on top of the piano keys. And then without.

First, she played with one hand, and yesterday, both hands at the same time.

Having time she didn’t know she would have available, and then investing that time instead of waiting for all this to be over: This is a sliver of a silver lining of the crisis for her.

Online lessons of meditation with a Shaolin monk that her agency offers for all employees every morning at 8:30. Online Pilates that her gym offers to all members.

We know we are quite fortunate to have the money and freedom and flexibility with our work to explore these new experiences, with this bunch of new time we suddenly discovered. But having empty hours with no deadline also means boredom.

While I’m writing, she is playing with her brand New PlayStation 4 Pro that just arrived. At the age of 37, she is learning for the first time what key R or L means on the joypad.

Experimenting with all this brings some growth, alongside the tragedy. It means discovering new sides of our identity, making room for things we didn’t know we wanted to try or desire and, at the very end, it is giving us a fulfilling sensation to buoy us amid the sadness.


March 23

My friend Gianluigi loves kids. In fact, he has four. He has a daughter, Alma, from a previous relationship. And he has two sons, Gioele and Lev, with his current partner, and she has a daughter, Rada, from a previous relationship. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t.

Alma is eight and lives with her mother, but Gianluigi is used to seeing her every day. He drives her to school, brings her to check out books at the children’s library, and then they get ice cream. He is there for her in ways big and small, even if they don’t live under the same roof.

Infected

63,927

Deaths

6,077

(As of March 23 in Italy)

“Quarantine” and “contamination” are words that are newly commonplace in Italy. They bring heartbreak to blended families.

Quarantine is not just for the sick; it’s most important for everyone who changes location: country, city, home, workplace. Every environment we live in is made also by other people, and every move we make brings some potential contamination from the old place to the new one. To understand if a person shows signs of infection, he or she has to spend a certain number of days without changing risk factors or introducing different people. In Italy, this self-distancing is 14 days.

Alma will soon move with her mother into her grandmother’s house, with different people around. Before that, to be sure she is perfectly healthy, she has been quarantined. She can’t have close contacts with anyone but her mother, because they don’t want to infect her grandmother, of course.

So Gianluigi and Alma can only meet outside, in the street, with no physical contact, no kisses.

Alma has a dog, Tuo (“yours” in Italian), and he is a very good excuse to go outside without many questions by the police because dogs have their needs. The three of them walk under the beautiful arcades of the city of Turin. Tuo barks; the father and daughter chat.

This new reality she is embracing: the school lessons (only virtual), the impossibility to hang out with other kids, the use of the smartphone, forbidden until two weeks ago and now allowed to video call friends and relatives.

The length of Tuo’s leash, 3.5 feet, is exactly the security distance allowed by quarantine rules so that Alma can avoid potential contamination. That distance is the invisible bond between a father and her daughter.

Every tear on Alma’s face is a drop of love, a missed hug she holds for her father to the end of the isolation.


March 22

In the past few days, a picture circulated across the media of Pope Francis walking around Via del Corso in Rome to reach the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

He is 83 years old; what about the “stay at home” thing? Polemical talks started around the country.

But that’s not the point. I’m sure God will make an exception for him, and also the prime minister.

Infected

59,138

Deaths

5,476

(As of March 22 in Italy)

I remember my grandparents and the idea we had around the concept of wrinkles when we were kids. Getting old meant becoming wiser and having tons of stories to tell to grandchildren. It meant to have a past that tells who you are, what you built, all the sacrifices made to buy a house, to raise kids, to pay for their tuition.

The psychoanalysis called “undoing” is an unconscious defense mechanism, the act of removing thoughts too hard to think about. And back when life was normal, just a few months ago, death could be undone, ignored as somewhere down the line. Now, the wrinkles mark the old as those most at risk from dying of the coronavirus.

So our elders can’t use the “undoing” defense, and they can’t even attend Mass to seek comfort because all functions are suspended. Italians are quite religious. Religion, especially for elderly people, is a strong support system not just for the warm sensation of being part of a strong community inside the church wall but also because the priest’s voice is a sign of trust. It keeps the faith alive with pride. That’s why Francis is still celebrating the Angelus on Sundays by live-streaming it.

My parents and my friends’ parents are in their 70s; and my empathy goes to them. They are locked down, feeling weak and at risk, hunted by an invisible enemy hidden like a tiger in the open lands of the savanna, waiting in the grasses for the next gazelle passing by.

But our elder population is smarter than gazelles. Their wrinkles taught them well.

You can’t fight the tiger; just stay downwind protected by the warm comfort of the house, because for sure the tiger will go away eventually.


March 20

“Il Sorpasso” is a popular Italian movie from 1962 by Dino Risi. Roberto, a young timid law student, meets Bruno, a 40-ish braggart and risk-taker. They set off on a gorgeous drive along the coasts of Tuscany and Lazio in Bruno’s convertible. It’s Ferragosto, the Aug. 15 national holiday.

After a crescendo of adventures and adrenaline experiences, the end is dramatic: Going faster and faster along a coastal freeway, Bruno tries to pass another car on a blind curve, and his Lancia sails off a rocky cliff, killing Roberto.

Infected

47,021

Deaths

4,032

(As of March 20 in Italy)

“Sorpasso” means overtake. We have just overtaken China in numbers of death from covid-19: 3,405 Italians and 3,253 Chinese. The per capita rate is even more incredible. China’s population is 1.3 billion; Italy has 60 million.

Reasons? Hard to tell. The average age population in China is lower than here. Our country is older, and we have a very low birthrate. China may have more resources. In Wuhan, the city where the virus started, China built a hospital in 10 days.

But I suspect our cultural attitudes as Italians have played the largest role. We live in an ego-referential Western world, where every rule can be discussed, disliked and ignored eventually.

The omnipotence of our own free will is a voice louder than rules, louder than God. We have lost the sense of civic obligation that builds strong communities with shared values.

I want to acknowledge that China had a one-child policy from 1980 to 2013. I’m not comparing a communist regime with our “Western” democracy. I mean that the Chinese are more respectful of rules in a country that crushes dissent. If the government says “stay at home,” that’s what they do.

The government here says to stay at home, and more than 43,000 people are reported for violating the prohibition for going out without an excuse. Hordes of people assaulted the Milano Central station to come back to the south of Italy. People were fined for picnicking in parks, for children playing ping-pong in the streets, or driving about just for fun. people found in parks for pick nicks, boys and girls playing ping-pong in the street in a small village, in Milano others driving around with no reasons.

A record 9,600 were fined Thursday alone, said the interior minister.

Sun Shuopeng, the vice president of the Chinese Red Cross who came here recently to help, said: “In Italy, too many people are in the street with no masks …. Increasing quarantine measures will help to find exposed people and treating them.”

This crazy situation won’t end before 18 months — the time estimated to find a vaccine. And we can’t come back to a normal life for a while. But I don’t want to be locked down my house as a prison with a drone yelling at me if I lay down the window. I don’t want more severe measures so fellow Italians could you for one damn time respecting rules PLEASE?!


March 19

All my illustrations are made by computer. After 20 years, I felt I missed something. I missed the mistakes made by the use of markers, brushes and paint.

So three months ago, we started in our studio a return to the original compulsory skill, mastering the human body, unadorned. We hired professional models to pose nude and brought out the pencils and acrylics.

And then, two weeks ago, we had to cancel our sessions, because the best way to prevent further spread of the coronavirus pandemic is to avoid the human body.

Infected

41,035

Deaths

3,405

(As of March 19 in Italy)

In Italy, the campaign #iorestoacasa (I’m staying home) has been implemented to its fullest. All commercial and cultural activities, including bars, restaurants, schools, cinemas and museums, are shut down.

During one of our last lunches outside, I had an idea: Why not keep the live modeling sessions, but with masks?

Art always has been a mirror of the times, a way to reflect on historic events and exorcise the troubles of life.

We got in touch with Open, an online magazine, and called on a group of Italian artists to interpret the classic line drawing in the era of coronavirus.

Beppe Giacobbe and Francesco Poroli are just a few of the artists involved in the show.

The models posed nude, except for wearing several different kids of face protection, to portray the escalating threat experienced in Italy, where the military has been called in to carry away the caskets. The artists participated remotely by videoconference.

Our message is that “staying home” does not mean “staying still”: We can all do our bit even in such suspended times. Be it a message of hope, an expression of beauty, a meaningful help to society.

Our sketches are auctioned online and the bids will be donated to the Italian Red Cross, which is helping both the health authorities and the most vulnerable population to respond to the crisis.

We called it the “Covid Uncovered” experience and hope to raise $25,000 by April 3. That was the date set for the expiration of our country’s forced quarantine, although we know it is not likely to end then. And we hope our auction will spark a worldwide movement.

Even as the virus knows no barriers, neither does art. It has always been the human endeavor that nourishes the spirit when science fails.


(Emiliano Ponzi/For The Washington Post)

March 18

We can’t go outside. But we can. Truth is never black or white, so we embrace the shades of gray. We have a form for it: a self-declaration module from the government that is downloadable.

Beginning March 9, swamped by the dying, Italy clamped down on personal movement for its 60 million people, imposing a curfew and confusing rules for leaving the house that included carrying an “auto-certification” form. Penalty for violation: a hefty fine or three months in jail.

Infected

35,713

Deaths

2,978

(As of March 18 in Italy)

One the form, there are four boxes with reasons to be outside:

1. Work needs.

2. A situation of necessity.

3. Health reasons.

4. Coming back home.

Plus, there is a blank space.

Regarding this, I declare that:___________________________

The form offers some examples of reasons to be outside: “I work in this or that place; I’m coming back to my home (address required); I’m going to the doctor … other specific reasons.”

My wife has to walk our dog Las Vegas later, so she will write: “Vado a pisciare il cane,” which, loosely translated, means, “I have to take the dog out to pee.”

I saw a woman stopped by the police. She was carrying some bags from the grocery store, it appeared. They argued, and I wasn’t sure how it all ended. What you can prove of your rightful business to move about your neighborhood is limited by what the police officer is willing to believe.

Those on patrol seem to be doing their best to punish those violating the law, in the interest of limiting further spread of the virus, but they also seem to be indulgent with others.

And so I wonder: How can I prove that I have to walk five minutes to reach the studio? How can I prove that, in the studio, I have pencils and brushes and markers and an atmosphere that can’t be built from home but that is essential to make me function to produce artwork and pay the bills?

Is that an acceptable reason for leaving the house? I don’t know. I think that our habits sometimes keep us alive more than medicine. But still, I’m sure there is a way to reshape our daily routine, starting from scratch; spending a weekend with your in-laws whom you can’t stand isn’t going to do it.

This is our new “situation of necessity,” and it’s going to last a long time.


March 17

Milan is a ghost town, or perhaps better, a ghost metropolis of 1.3 million people. I can cross the streets without waiting for the pedestrian green light.

My house is a five-minute walk from my studio in one of the most popular areas, the Navigli, so named for the system of navigable and interconnected canals designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It is a district full of laughter and aperitivo, bars and restaurants, one after another stretching along both sides of the canals. Now it’s all gone — people, tables outside, neon lights, fragments of music and conversation floating by.

Infected

27,980

Deaths

2,158

(As of March 17 in Italy)

I walked back from the studio at 8:30 p.m. It made me think of the movie “The Omega Man” from 1971 or the 2007 remake with Will Smith, “I am Legend.” I wondered whether I should expect to see some zombies coming from the alley to attack me.

At the end of the canal, I saw a figure that looked familiar. It’s the drug dealer of the area I see quite often, going around with his gigantic Amstaff terrier.

How quickly my perception has changed: Two weeks ago, I noticed him among hundreds of young people hanging out at night, and it was disturbing, a discordant note in an harmonic melody. Now I feel relieved by his presence, somehow. Seeing him still here lends a sense of belonging.

Like this is still the same place, we are still here, it’s the same reality, we are still alive, no zombies yet … breathe.

What you need to know about the coronavirus


March 16

“Hi, Mum. How are you?”

“I’m good. … And you? Do you have enough food in the fridge?”

My mother was born three years after World War II ended, in a village in the south of Italy. Her generation grew up amid the wreckage of bombed buildings and the anxiety of hunger. For them, food is precious like little else.

When I was a teenager, we had a stash to last for months. I remember that our basement was packed with jars of tomatoes and eggplants, dozens of bottles of wine, any kind of supply. I remember my father was upset every time we threw half a plate of pasta in the garbage because we were full. “Don’t waste food!” he would say.

Infected

24,747

Deaths

1,809

(As of March 16 in Italy)

I’m sure this started as a genuine concern because of his survival heritage. And I’m also pretty sure this became an excuse for him to eat what me and my sister left on the plate.

My parents don’t live in Milan but in a small town about 200 miles from here. For my mother’s 72nd birthday, we gave her and my father tickets to hear a famous singer from their generation. The concert was to take place in Milan on March 3. But by the middle of February, the virus had spread and it became dangerous for older people to use trains and gather in crowds. We decided to cancel their trip.

Italian mothers are exactly as you imagine them: caring and overprotective. Sometimes, it’s hard to have distance because your mother will regard you as her child even if your beard is white. And a mother who grew up after the war will always want to feed you because fat means healthy and skinny means sick.

We are not at war. Seeing people assaulting supermarkets here and in the United States is insane; we won’t starve. The food industry is still producing way more than we need.

But I thought about our country’s past and my mother’s childhood when I went to the supermarket and found a line today. The new law imposes limits on how many people can be in the supermarket at once: 10, to maintain social distance.

So people spend 15 minutes in the line outside just to buy a salad or a sandwich for lunch, or an orange juice. Automatic doors no longer swing open; there is an employee with a mask letting one customer in as soon another walks out.

She says good morning to everyone, but the tone of her voice says something else — probably it’s not going to be a good morning and not even a good day. Just another day in this bubble, without your mother’s jars of eggplants in the cellar.


March 14

I am Emiliano Ponzi. I’m an illustrator and author who lives in Milan, a place lately described as the wealthy economic engine of our country and a place also lately unrecognizable to me and my fellow Italians.

The escalation of infections in our country from the novel coronavirus forced our government to severely restrict our personal freedoms. It is a plan to save 60 million of us by pushing us apart. It is as if we have been suddenly cast in some surreal movie that affects our daily routine, the way we relate to other people and our interior dialogues. Each day, a small but startling bite of our personal freedoms.

Infected

17,660

Deaths

1,266

(As of March 14 in Italy)

Right now, I’m in my studio. It’s 7:34 a.m., and I have this impulse to stand up and go to the coffee shop around the corner, where every morning I eat a handmade chocolate croissant still warm. Habits are hard to kill.

But all the coffee shops and restaurants were forced to close yesterday. The whole country of 60 million went to “Red Zone” on March 9, locked down to the outside, prohibited from travel between cities. By March 12, when 1,266 already had died and more than 17,000 already were infected, daily life shut down, and people were told to stay at home.

None of this is in our nature as Italians, as humans. “I have been thinking of what my friend Umberto, screenwriter of “The Great Beauty,” a 2014 Academy Award-winning movie, told me about how screenwriting had changed.

“We don’t write in advance all scenes as we used to,” he said. Now “we write the scenes as we shoot them … in order to have a more dynamic film.”

This column is an illustrated chronicle of Italy now, sketches and observations about the good actors we need to become as we improvise the new screenplay being written each day.

Emiliano Ponzi has created artwork for The Washington Post, the New York Times, Le Monde, the New Yorker, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Moma NY, Hermes and Der Spiegel. His latest book, “American West,” was published in 2019.

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