September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

With underdeveloped retinas, caused by her premature birth, 4-year-old Giuseppina Manzi of Ravello, Italy, has grown up with no knowledge of sight. The first and only child of Lucia Manzi, 27, and her husband, Pasquale, 33, who makes his living growing the local variety of soft-skinned lemons, Giuseppina seemed fine until she was 5 months old and Lucia noticed that the baby’s eyes were not following the little carousel that hung above her crib. “You can imagine how I felt when the doctors told me Giuseppina would never see,” Lucia says. “Grief and rage together. We cried a lot. We could not imagine Giuseppina’s future.” But, her husband adds, “We did not resign ourselves.”

Instead, the Manzis continually prayed for a grazia from the Virgin Mary to help their little girl, and last April they learned of a surgeon in Boston who had enabled children like their daughter to see. In hopes of getting such an operation for Giuseppina, the Manzis sought out the Mayor of little Ravello, near Naples. Mayor Salvatore di Martino thought he knew just where to turn. “I’ll talk to the American writer,” he said.

That is how it happened that Gore Vidal, 62, best-selling author, ranking curmudgeon of contemporary letters and American expatriate in the land of la dolce vita, now sits in his splendid Villa Rondinaia, high on a windswept cliff, discussing how he and U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Rabb helped Giuseppina Manzi.

“Obviously, I get many requests for money,” says the patrician Vidal, gazing out over the stormy Tyrrhenian Sea. “One can’t satisfy everybody. But when the Mayor came to me and told me about Giuseppina Manzi’s problem, right away it struck a bell. Blind was the magic word. We all have a story and mine is blindness. I was brought up in the house of a blind man.”

The blind man he refers to was his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma (a distant relative of a current Tennessee senator, Albert Gore). After Vidal’s family moved to Washington in 1925, they lived for 10 years in the home of the elder Gore, who was one of the most influential men in the capital. “It was an extraordinary experience,” Vidal says, “because along with Helen Keller, my grandfather was one of the most famous handicapped persons in America. We were very close. I was taught to read early so that I could read to him, and I read him the newspapers, the Congressional Record, history. When I was a little boy, a sob sister for a newspaper came to interview my grandfather. She said, ‘Senator, there must be so many compensations for your blindness, like a superb memory, sensitive hearing. Could you tell me what they are?’ And he said, ‘There are no compensations.’ That phrase has sounded continuously in my head ever since.”

It was still sounding when he was approached on behalf of the Manzis.

“When the Mayor called, he wasn’t asking for money,” says Vidal. “He was asking for help in getting in touch with the doctor in Boston. So I called Max Rabb, because he’s not only the Ambassador but he comes from Boston.” Rabb, a Foreign Service veteran, knew of one such Boston specialist, Tatsuo Hirose, and contacted him. At Gore’s urging, Dr. Hirose, of Boston’s Eye Research Institute, immediately made an appointment and even helped arrange a place in Boston for the Manzis to stay. In Ravello, Gore obtained Giuseppina’s medical records for the doctor and cut through red tape to enable the family to get government funding; under Italian law, the state will pay for any necessary operation that cannot be performed in Italy. Family and friends pitched in to defray the cost of the Manzis’ trip.

As soon as these arrangements were made, posters sprang up all over Ravello cheering on Giuseppina as she embarked on “il viaggio della speranza”—”the voyage of hope.” Hundreds of citizens turned out on the steps of the cathedral to see the little girl off. And last June, Giuseppina was operated on by Dr. Hirose. With delicate microsurgery, he removed scar tissue from the child’s left eye in order to reattach the retina.

If all goes as well as it has gone so far, Giuseppina may one day see well enough to ride a bike, although, even with thick glasses, she will probably only be able to read extremely large type. Last month, Vidal and Ambassador Rabb finally met the little girl they have befriended. Giuseppina’s milky blue eyes still wander disconcertingly, and she does not talk much. But she is a slender, pretty child with a beguiling spirit. Her favorite toys are inflatable water wings that she insists on blowing up herself and uses to paddle around in the sea, and she loves to listen to television programs, especially a show called Piccoli Fans—”Little Fans”—which features children performing. “My eyes are sick,” she says, simply. “They have to get better. When I am big, I want to do beautiful things. I want to cook by myself. I will cook for my mother.”

Gore sees the help he provided Giuseppina as a chance to give something back to his adopted town, which made him an honorary citizen in 1982. “What we’re giving the child is hope,” Vidal says. “Finally meeting her and her family was very moving. You just keep thinking—what’s going to happen? We still don’t know the end of the story.” But thanks in part to “the American writer”—”lo scrittore Americano,” as the townsfolk know him—Giuseppina Manzi has at least a chance at a new beginning.

—By Montgomery Brower, with Logan Bentley in Ravello

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