Among the many Italian authors billed as literary powerhouses, there is still, perhaps, no one who can hold a candle to Alberto Moravia. His most epic work, The Woman of Rome, is all the proof one needs of this. Released in 1949, the political undertones that become more prominent as the novel progresses cover the then recent past, a wartime era that tore the nation apart as a result of fascism.
But before this element comes into play, there is, of course, Adriana, our anti-heroine. Initially innocent, Adriana reflects on her past with a sentimental sort of resignation, starting from the age of sixteen. Remarking on how it was her mother who directed her to model nude for a painter (and also alludes to her mother posing for him–and maybe more), she insists that her only dream was to get married and have a family, rather than trade on her good looks as her mother so often wished she would. Indeed, Adriana’s naive way of describing how “Mother immediately began to talk of when she had been known all over Rome as one of the handsomest models and the harm she had done herself by marrying and giving up her career” is indicative of just how virtuous she was before surrendering to her ultimate profession.
Naturally, taking off her clothes every day for money was bound to lead to a certain awareness of her body. After noticing the desire she arouses in the artists’ friends, Adriana realizes, “These glances, as well as Mother’s veiled allusions, roused my sense of coquetry and made me conscious both of my beauty and of the advantages I might draw from it.” And yet, she is determined to maintain her purity, surrendering only to the man who she loves, which turns out, to her mother’s dismay to be a lowly chauffeur named Gino. Reflecting on her first impressions of Gino, the man she was so determined to marry, Moravia as Adriana employs the distinct technique of foreshadowing for the reader her slow and dramatic downfall from respectable, modest woman to prostitute.
Her first experience with the trade occurs as a result of her so-called friend, Gisella, a fellow model who also uses her body for higher-paying work. She insists that Adriana accompany her on a jaunt to Viterbo with her and her “fiancé,” Riccardo, so that she can be an escort to their friend, Stefano Astarita. Still innocent with regard to her instant trust of people, Adriana agrees to go along, not yet cognizant that Astarita is going to have his way with her whether she wants to or not. When it’s over, he is more obsessed with her than ever, and pays her accordingly. And yet, it is not this moment that prompts her to embrace the profession, but rather, Astarita’s (who is a member of the Secret Police in Mussolini’s fascist regime) unwanted information about Gino being a married man with a daughter. Henceforth, Adriana succumbs to the ease of becoming a whore, waking up late, taking her coffee in bed and making her own schedule. She will no longer bother with the effort at being good or noble, eking by on her meager earnings while her mother sews shirts to the point of blindness.
Adriana likens herself to a doll who is broken inside but goes on looking the same externally, musing, “I compared myself with a doll I had had when I was little–after I had beaten her and dragged her about all day long, I felt a kind of lump inside her, a sinister creaking, although her face was still as rosy and smiling as ever.” It is with this dulling of her dreams that she goes on living, even continuing to have sex with Gino in spite of what she knows about him. As the chauffeur for a wealthy family, he takes Adriana to the villa he works at whenever the family is away. In her haze of not caring about morality anymore, Adriana decides to steal a valuable gold-plated compact with a ruby at the center from the bedroom. She does it not so much because she likes it, but merely to do it–to prove to herself that nothing she does matters anymore.
The consequence of her action, however, ultimately leads to her encounter with Sonzogno, a cold-blooded killer who Gino enlists to sell the compact for money after Adriana gives it back to him. But before Sonzogno gives her too much trouble, Adriana falls in love with a politically-minded student two years younger than her, Giacomo. His apathy toward her only makes her more enamored of him, wanting so desperately to do and say the things that will trigger his ardor in equity. But Giacomo’s only concern, it seems, is rebelling against the government. Adriana can’t help but find the irony in love’s discrepancies, with Astarita passionate about her, though she cares not at all for him, while she’s devoted to Giacomo, who barely gives her any crumbs of emotion.
Like most tales of a golden-hearted prostitute, Adriana’s yields tragic results, but not without a somewhat cushioning outcome. In the end, Moravia has written a love letter to the oldest profession, a thankless one, but an important one nonetheless.