Photo by Giovanni Arcari.
Who Was Pietro Cheli
by Giacomo Papi
Il Post Libri
November 6, 2017
At dawn on Monday, November 5, 2017, Pietro Cheli died in his bed as the rain fell over Milan.
“I’m fine,” he had told his wife Alba Solaro shortly before the moment arrived. He may not have realized that it wasn’t true.
He was born in Genoa in 1965. He was 52 years old. He often said he would pass soon. Genoa was his favorite soccer team. He was a cultural journalist, meaning that for his entire life, he had worked in publishing, reading and publishing books, appearing at presentations, speaking on the radio, on television, and editing culture columns at the newspapers where he worked.
First at Il Giornale and La Voce with Indro Montanelli; then at Glamour and Diario with Enrico Deaglio; and finally at Amica where he was the magazine’s deputy editor. He was one of the great “men-machines”: When it came time to close an edition, he had an incredible capacity to edit its pages with a level of concentration and attention that made it appear seamless and almost easy.
He was a voluminous man whose enthusiasms and aversions often overflowed. He was a generous and contrarian man who sometimes used his body — his belly mostly but also his hands — as his own language. He could use it to spark the interest of strangers, intimidate his adversaries, and embrace his friends. Going by appearances, he seemed a man unafraid of the world and a singular voice of culture. In fact, he struggled with his doubts as to whether he should join in or keep his distance.
He hid but also rallied behind the character he had created. His way of hiding was by taking up all available space.
After they met, Luis Sepúlveda put him in one of his books. He called Cheli “a portly detective nicknamed ‘the Brooklyn Bambino’ by the homicide squad.”
Even when he spoke ill or gossiped about some one — as he often did, especially when it came to those he felt had usurped a position of power they didn’t deserve — his perspective was shaped by his disappointment and his amusement at the human comedy. But he never grew angry. He wasn’t ever able to avoid fools and hangers-on because he knew that fools and hangers-on nearly always had stories to share. And I believe it was also because he didn’t want to hurt them.
He was an elegant man (years later, he still laughed about an article that appeared in a Genoa newspaper wherein the author wrote he had “the elegance of a Finollo,” an old men’s store that catered to Genoa’s upper classes). He was a man full of wit. He could lash out but he also knew how to protect.
When he liked someone, he always knew how to identify the perfect anecdote or mannerism to describe him. He would reveal it for everyone to see, whether he intended to screw that person over or make him a legend.
As he lay dead in his room, he was elegant and rotund, surrounded by his books. He was cherubic, like a peacefully slumbering adolescent’s big baby doll.
See this video of Pietro speaking (in Italian) about his recent book I’m A Racist But I’m Trying To Quit.
We’ll miss you dearly, Pietro.