In 40 years of reporting for NPR from Italy, Sylvia Poggioli gathered thousands of stories. But one of the most memorable is the time she got to touch the Sistine Chapel.
“I did a story on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, the Michelangelo frescoes,” she told GBH’s Morning Edition co-host Jeremy Siegel. “And there had been a lot of debate. Art historians were worried that the restorers were taking away the original colors of Michelangelo's frescoes.”
The Vatican invited some reporters, including Poggioli, to speak with the people doing the cleaning and restoration.
“They had set up a rickety elevator system,” she said. “He had finished the rest of the cleaning — it was really a cleaning, more than a restoring — of one of the central panels, the Garden of Eden. And then next to it, one that was still dirty … was the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. So I was allowed to touch those two.”
Poggioli is one of the most recognizable voices in public radio. But after reporting from Italy for more than 40 years, the NPR correspondent, who grew up in Cambridge, retired earlier this year. She returned to the mic in Boston recently to talk about her memories, career trajectory and retirement plans.
Poggioli grew up in Cambridge and came to Italy to study theater in 1968.
“As it turned out, it was '68, and there was a lot of political turmoil in the universities,” she said. “In fact, all universities in Italy and also in France were really shut down for all of '68, even into '69. So I didn't get to do much studying, but I went to a lot of political demonstrations, I have to say.”
Her turn from theater to journalism was “a fluke,” she said: Some friends working a night shift on an English-language news agency wanted substitutes and recruited her.
Over her years of work, she’s become a recognizable voice for public radio listeners in the United States. Not so in Italy, she said.
“In Italy, nobody knows who I am,” she said. “This summer, I was at a beach and an American woman recognized my voice and she said she was a longtime listener of NPR — but that was extremely unusual.”
In retirement, she said, she’s working on a memoir. It will include stories of her father, Renato Poggioli, a critic and scholar of Russian literature; and mother, Renata Nordio. They met as students, and fled fascist-controlled Italy for Poland, then the U.S.
“I actually have also found the fascist secret police files on my father, so I've learned an awful lot that confirmed of many of the things that they had told me,” Poggioli said. “And then in the States, because it was the McCarthy period and he was a professor of Russian literature, he became suspect to the FBI. And so I have FBI files on my father. And it's just fascinating.”
Those FBI files, she said, are unfortunately “very heavily redacted. It's weird.”
But reading her parents’ letters gives her some insight into current political climates, she said.
“So much of it echoes the concerns that we're beginning to have here in the U.S. and in Europe today,” Poggioli said. “Right now, Italy has the most right-wing government it's had since the fall of fascism. There's this sort of attempt to rewrite history in Italy by the right. They're trying to sort of attenuate the fascist past. It's a very scary process.”
Her parents’ concerns from decades ago still ring true to her, she said.
“The concerns my parents were having about the disinformation already then, the sense that if you're not with us on the fascist side, you're an enemy of the state — all these echo with what we're hearing from certain sectors of society here,” she said. “I mean, I do think there is a very, very worrisome resurgence of this authoritarian right-wing mentality that's pervasive.”