The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, by Nina Burleigh

October 2, 2011 at 1:35 am (Book review, books, Crime, Italy)

  This is the story of a brutal killing and its sensational aftermath. It is also the story of ancient place, with a history that is at once glorious and strange, and sometimes violent.

On the night of November 1 2007, Meredith Kercher was found murdered in a house she shared with several other young persons of varying nationalities. Like her housemates, Meredith, herself a British national, was a university exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Three individuals were charged with the crime and brought to trial: Rudy Gude, a resident of the city and native of the Ivory Coast, Amanda Knox, an American from Seattle, and Amanda’s Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. All three were found guilty and sent to prison. Attention is now focused on Knox, who is currently appealing her conviction. A decision in this matter is expected any day now.

Nina Burleigh reviews all aspects of this crime with admirable lucidity and attention to detail. She’s especially enlightening on the subject of the Italian legal system, which in some aspects is similar to our own. There are, however, differences. For instance, juries are not held to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, one assistant prosecutor declared, “Only God has no doubts.”

What Burleigh does in her book that I found very valuable – not to mention fascinating – is to put this crime in a cultural context. Where the history of Perugia is concerned, I came away with the sense of a place where evil and depredation are inextricably yoked to a transcendent beauty. One could also say this of Naples, a city I first journeyed to in the Spring of 2009. I’m thinking of the title I bestowed on my post about that city: ” Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced… and sublime.”   Naples is home to two Caravaggio masterpieces, the veiled Christ, and many other priceless works of art.  It is also home to its own crime family: the Camorra. (In 2006, at the astonishingly tender age of 27, journalist Roberto Saviano penned Gomorrah, an expose of this notorious organization. The book’s jacket flap tersely informs readers that as a result of the book’s explosive content, Saviano “…has been placed under police protection.”)

Then there’s the Monster of Florence. Of Florence..? Sadly, yes. (For more on this, see The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.)

There is also the Beast of San Gregorio. Her name was Caterina Fort. Think carefully before you pursue further knowledge of this woman. I personally would be happy never to have heard of her.

Perugia is  home to great art, magnificent churches, and numerous medieval artifacts. There are some jarring juxtapositions: “For nine months out of the year, the San Lorenzo duomo steps are an Italian Amsterdam, with young people sunning themselves and drinking beer from plastic cups and smoking spinelli–joints filled with hash.”

Indeed, as Burleigh tells it, life for Perugia’s college students was a Bacchanalian feast, with numerous bars and discos open till the wee hours, liberal consumption of drugs and alcohol, sex on offer anywhere and everywhere. The pace of the partying was frenetic. The life of the mind seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.

And yet….

Inside the duomo, a stone wall’s width away from the party scene outside, lies  the town’s most precious relic, the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring, a circle of green onyx that pilgrims and knights supposedly rescued from Jerusalem in the fifteenth century through great peril. The ring is  secreted in a locked silver reliquary tucked high in the wall behind red velvet curtains, accessible only by a ladder and pulley system. It has been displayed only once a year for the last five hundred years. The reliquary can be opened only with fourteen different keys, held by fourteen different prominent Perugians.

For me, the most eye-opening content in this book involved the description of pagan rites whose practice allegedly persists alongside the rites of traditional Christianity:

Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” It Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is “a thin veneer over older customs.”

(I was pleased to encounter the name of Luigi Barzini. I well remember his celebrated work, published in 1964, claiming pride of place on my mother’s bookshelves. She had just begun traveling to that storied place, and she loved Barzini’s book.) 

What, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the crime that forms the centerpiece of The Fatal Gift of Beauty? The answer lies primarily with the crime scene, and the way certain features of it struck Giuliano Mignini, the magistrate whose brief it was to investigate and prosecute the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini, a devout Catholic, was struck by several odd aspects of the crime scene. First, there was the broken bedroom window that lacked any trace evidence whatsoever, either organic or inorganic, as though “whoever had come in through that window–if anyone had–possessed a superhuman power of levitation….” Then there was the cat’s blood on the lower floor.

Possibly most bizarre of all, there was a trail of bloody footprints made by a single shoe: “The removal of one shoe during Masonic initiation is a piece of pagan symbolism so ancient that historians don’t even understand its significance.” Burleigh continues:

After studying numerous statues with one sandal and myths such as Cinderella, involving lost shoes, or the laming or hobbling of one foot, as in the Achilles’ heel, the Italian cultural anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg theorized that the ritual laming of a foot or the removal of one shoe was a symbol of stepping into and out of the underworld.

There’s more – quite a bit more. By the time I finished this part of the book, I wanted to run and hide somewhere. (A church or synagogue would have served nicely.) Inevitably, these and other characteristics of the crime scene raised the specter of Satanic ritual.

In the final section of her book, Nina Burleigh brings us firmly back down to earth, to the hard reality of this case. She lays out the evidence in a clear and forthright manner. As the investigation and the trial have run their course, Amanda Knox has exhibited some strange  behaviors. At times it was just a matter of an inappropriate demeanor. She seems throughout to have exhibited an oddly flat affect when faced with the horror of her roommate’s murder. At one point, while being questioned in open court, she shocked those present by imitating the sounds a person would make after his or her throat had been slashed. She has done herself no favors by these actions, but neither do they in and of themselves signify guilt.

I picked this book up last week and read it through to the end, with no break. It was riveting.

Closing arguments in Amanda Knox’s appeal were heard today. And once again, hundreds of reporters and photographers descended on Perugia. Click here for coverage by CBS News.

A verdict is expected on Monday.

5 Comments

  1. manonmona said,

    manonmona reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

  2. kathy d. said,

    Very interesting post. If I had time, I would like to read this book.

    However, I did read Nina Burleigh’s Op-Ed at the LA Times on Knox’s acquittal. It’s excellent. Here is the link:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-burleigh-knox-20111004,0,2921659.story

    The government really did not present convincing forensic evidence. Legal experts on tv tonight in the U.S. said that what was presented would never have been enough to prosecute a case here. (I’m not sure of that. Troy Davis was just executed; there was NO blood, forensic or DNA evidence in his case.)

    Anyway, Burleigh’s column is convincing. The amount of personality slander, sexism and misogyny used by the prosecution in Perugia
    and the Italian press was terrible. Knox was attacked for being a young, attractive woman. I don’t think this would fly i a U.S. courtroom to the degree it persisted in Perugia.

    I hope this ends the whole sage.

  3. kathy d. said,

    I heard on the news after I wrote the above that the prosecutor was consulting a medium who was “consulting” with a priest who’d been dead for years, and using what the medium told him … and this went on for four years.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Oh wow, Kathy. That’s truly bizarre!

      I wanted to thank you for your previous comment, too. I’m glad to have seen the Nina Burleigh article. She really does lay out a very compelling case for the innocence of Amanda Knox & her boyfriend.

      That said, I feel deeply for the family of Meredith Kercher.

  4. Marina Bonomi said,

    Bizzarre indeed, also very likely not true. I could find no trace of it in research over here (with all the hubbub here about the Knox-Sollecito trial the newspapers would have been sure to write at lenght about it).

    Moreover if the prosecutor is a practicing catholic as described he’ll stay well away from spiritism, alleged priest or not.

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