That's Not Amore

There's a dance that sexual predators do, and it seems to be the same dance everywhere

(Getty Images)

It was after the first dozen or so women came forward to tell their stories of sexual abuse by men in power that I was transported back to a summer's day in Italy, some 30 years ago. It's there I encountered a tour guide named Giovanni.

Among some of the world's most beautiful works of art, Giovanni made something not-so-beautiful clear to me: There's a dance that sexual predators do, and it seems to be the same dance everywhere.

I was strong enough to fight off my abuser, unlike so many of the women who've been in the news lately. And, unlike those women, people believed me, even if they found my experience amusing.

"An Italian tour guide?"

"Was he hot?" my gay friends would teasingly ask.

He wasn't. A medieval art scholar and English teacher, Giovanni was short and pudgy. He wore nerdy, wire-rimmed glasses.

I had traveled to Italy to be with my then boyfriend, Kevin, who worked for an Italian clothing line in Manhattan.

Every year, Kevin would spend the month of August in Mantua, overseeing the company's spring line. He begged me to come visit him. "Nothing happens in Mantua," he told me. "It's so boring." Being bored in Italy sounded OK to me.

I booked a flight.

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I read up on Mantua. It didn't sound boring. Located in the "enchanted lakes" section of northern Italy, it was a Renaissance cultural hub, where some of the world's most famous painters produced their masterpieces.

Mantua's most well-known attraction is the Palazzo Ducale in the heart of the city. The area's dukes, bishops and nobles once lived and ruled in this sprawling complex of connected buildings. Frescoes line its walls and ceilings.

When the factory supervisor at Kevin's company heard I was coming, he arranged for me to have a private tour of the palace, which is now a museum. I was thrilled.

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On a sunny, weekday morning, I headed out. Giovanni was waiting for me at the museum's arched entranceway. He was dressed professionally, wearing slacks and a white blazer. With his light brown hair and blue eyes, he looked more northern Italian than southern. My age, I thought. Early 40s.

During the first half-hour of the tour, Giovanni proved himself a very informative guide. To my delight, the palazzo was practically empty, devoid of noisy school children and tourists taking photographs.

It was in the Corte Vecchia section of the palace where Giovanni performed the first steps of his manipulative dance, I realized later. As I was looking up at an arched ceiling where Pisanello had painted fulminating gods, I heard Giovanni say under his breath, "You have such beautiful eyes." Did I hear him right? Was he talking to me? I couldn't be sure, so I ignored him.

The jewel of the palace is "La Camera degli Sposi," or bridal room. Giovanni led me there next. "The best is ahead of us," he told me.

Located across a courtyard, it's where Andrea Mantegna painted his illusionistic masterpiece. He created in the center of the room's ceiling a circular dome that appears to open into a blue sky. Peering at you from the dome's balustrade is an assortment of figures, including a turbaned sheik, a peacock and frolicking cherubs. One cherub seems to be dropping a pear on your head.

"Que bello, que bello," Giovanni said, as I was staring up at the 3-D fresco. Again, I let the remark go. He seemed harmless enough.

Giovanni asked me if I liked music as we were about to conclude the tour. When I said I loved music, he offered to show me the palace's private theater. "It's off limits to visitors," he told me. I had to see it. After all, Mantua is where opera took hold. Monteverdi premiered "L'Orfeo" there in 1607.

Giovanni took a key from his pocket and unlocked the theater door, closing it after we had stepped inside. I was in awe. From where I stood, looking down on the stage, I could picture Mozart at the podium. The theater was an intimate, gilded gem, straight out of "Amadeus."

What I hadn't pictured was myself on the floor, or Giovanni on top of me, unbuckling his belt. I had been broadsided.

I managed to quickly shove Giovanni off of me and get to my feet. I watched him as he got up and brushed off his slacks.

"What?" he asked, in a hurtful, little-boy voice. "You don't like me?"

I made a dash for the door, stepping over his blazer, which he had shed before he lunged. The door wasn't locked from the inside. I scurried down empty, chandeliered corridors until I found an exit out of the palace.

Giovanni wasn't giving up. He followed me outside and across the Piazza Sordello. I tried to outpace him. "You know," he said, catching up with me as I was trying to cross a busy street. "You're very special. I like my women like Audrey Hepburn and I like my men like you."

He was a few steps behind me when I got to the apartment that Kevin was renting. As I turned to face Giovanni, I realized he wasn't wearing his blazer. Sweat dripped from his face and onto his white linen shirt.

"You need to leave now," I said to him.

"But I really like you," he insisted.

I was telling the truth when I told him Kevin was meeting me at the apartment in 20 minutes. "We have 20 minutes," he said.

I went inside and quickly shut the door. I told Kevin when he got home what had happened to me. "But why did you ever go into the theater?" he asked. "You must have seen it coming."

Did I? No, I didn't. Kevin wasn't as heartless as he was clueless. This was not the kind of thing that would happen to him. A midwestern farm boy, he was a stocky, imposing figure.

The next day, Kevin took me on a tour of his clothing factory. Mario, the supervisor, asked me how I liked the palace. When I told him what had happened, I assumed he would pick up the phone and call the museum director.

But Mario only grinned. "Ah, then, you met Giovanni," he said.

Hearing this, two men who were seated at sewing machines tweaked each others' cheeks. "Amore," they said to each other. "Amore."

But it wasn't amore, and they knew it.

Soon, everyone in the factory was laughing. At me. Thirty years later and I'm still not laughing. My anger at Giovanni remains.

As humiliating as the whole experience was, I was lucky. I didn't have to see Giovanni again. I didn't work for him. He couldn't derail my career. He had no power over me. He was only a few hours in my life. But it was enough time to make me never want to step foot in Mantua again. And that's a pity. It's a magical city.

Tags: sex