Themes and Meanings

Arthur Fidelman, the Jew from the Bronx, makes a journey to Italy to discover its rich history and thus complete his study of Giotto. In a sense, what he actually does complete is the study of himself. His quest becomes transformed when he meets the mythic, archetypal trickster-beggar Shimon Susskind, who challenges Fidelman to recognize suffering—his own and that of the Jewish refugees of World War II—indeed, to recognize his own Jewishness and responsibility to his fellowman. In an early scene, Susskind asks, “You know what responsibility means?” Fidelman replies, “I think so.” “Then you are responsible,” says Susskind, “Because you are a man. Because you are a Jew, aren’t you?” This exhortation comes to mind at the end of the story, when Fidelman achieves his revelation and willingly gives the suit to Susskind.

When Fidelman, after the theft of his briefcase, must stay in Rome to pursue Susskind, he immerses himself in the real life of Rome, casting off the veneer—replacing his oxblood gumsoles with light Italian shoes—burrowing beneath the surface of art in the churches and museums to the bedrock question posed in one of his dreams: “Why is art?” He begins to understand the real meaning of Giotto’s work showing the saint bestowing a cloak on the old knight.

The scholar becomes a real human being rather than a superficial observer. As his dreams reveal, he begins to acknowledge his own Jewishness (the dream of the catacombs and candelabra) and his own larger humanity. The richness of his insight reverberates beyond simple statement, but one senses that in gaining understanding of the suffering of Susskind, he is beginning to understand the root of all suffering—his own included.