A Passion in Rome Summary
by Morley Callaghan

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A Passion in Rome Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Sam Raymond, a photographer for the Weekly, a large American newsmagazine, is sent to Rome to cover the death of Pope Pius XII and the election of his successor. A “solidly built man of thirty-nine,” Sam is a successful professional who has a breezy, assured manner. Arriving in the city in September, some weeks before the Pope actually dies (he is expected to, imminently), the photographer learns that his colleague, Koster, with whom he is expected to work on the story, is not expected until later. Feeling alone and friendless in a strange city, and knowing little Italian, Sam is attracted to the mysterious Carla Caneli, a beautiful woman he encounters in the street outside his hotel. At first, he is drawn to her only physically, but as the days pass, she becomes the object of his passion. Thus, the plot follows a dual track: a romance set against the unfolding drama of a dying Pope and the emergence of a new Vicar of Christ. In the process of his narrative, Morley Callaghan seeks to illuminate the sacred and profane mysteries of life, and the ways in which they impinge upon each other.

The plot concentrates on the relationship of Sam and the woman he knows as Carla. Following their accidental meeting, Sam hires an Italian woman, Francesca Winters, as his guide, translator, and companion for the duration of his assignment. Through her, he meets Alberto Ruberto, a prominent film director, who was formerly Carla’s lover. Despite the warnings by Francesca and Alberto that she is an alcoholic, unpredictable, and possessed by “crazy fantasies,” Sam finds Carla sexually appealing. Together they explore the familiar landmarks of the ancient city: the religious shrines of the Vatican, the trendy shops and watering holes of the Via Veneto, and the moldering monuments of the Caesars. In previous excursions with Francesca, Sam had been bored with these sites; now, accompanied by Carla, his fascination with Rome is aroused, and he is surprised by her knowledge of its past. In one important episode, they visit the Colosseum by moonlight, in order to carry out a Roman ritual of feeding wild cats chunks of raw meat. The cries of the fierce animals as they leap out of the darkness to gorge themselves seem to Sam to represent “the world’s fear” and desire for satiation. Later, the metaphoric purpose of this scene is fulfilled as Callaghan describes the anxiety of the crowd attending the funeral rites for the old Pope, and the subsequent chorus of exultation which rises when the new Pope (John XXIII) appeases the spiritual hunger of his flock with his first appearance on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square.

As the story develops, Sam learns that his own father is dying, but the twin pressures of his attachment to Carla and the photographic assignment convince him not to return home immediately. The presence of the mobster, Joe Mosca, is another motive to stay, for Sam fears him not only as a rival but also as a threat to Carla’s safety: “The whole of Mosca’s life, and the life in a thousand dives and back alleys seemed to be washing over Carla, claiming her again.” For a while, she does fall under Mosca’s perverse influence as she struggles to revive her singing career. With Francesca’s aid, however, Sam arranges to showcase her musical talents in a proper setting, and with this success, Carla is finally able to leave the shadows of her demimondaine existence behind her. Reluctantly, but with a better understanding of her hard-won independence, Sam agrees with Carla’s decision to return to America without him.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Conron, Brandon. Morley Callaghan, 1966.

Hoar, Victor. Morley Callaghan, 1969.

Staines, David, ed. The Callaghan Symposium, 1981.