It is June 9th, 1943, in Milan, Italy. Benito Mussolini is losing power as Allied forces begin to close in on Italy. Adolf Hitler sends men and supplies to secure the southern half of Italy. Meanwhile, Pino Lella, an unassuming Italian youth, spends his time thinking about women, food, and music. Pino is 17 years old and awkward, but he doesn’t let that deter him from trying to attract the opposite sex. However, his flirtations never prove successful, so his younger brother, Mimo, and his friend, Carletto, like to tease him.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction, with World War II as its backdrop. World War II began on September 1st, 1939, meaning that the novel begins more than halfway through the war. Italy swore its allegiance to the Axis Powers in June of 1940, but fighting on Italian soil didn’t begin until 1943 after the German occupation of Italy. As such, it is no surprise that, for a young man like Pino, the war seems far away. He is not yet old enough to serve in the Italian army and very little seems different in his hometown of Milan than it was before the war. This novel is also a coming-of-age story, and Pino’s desire to find love is a central quality of his character. Here, he is too young to know what true love is, though that will change as he grows older and more experienced.
While walking around Milan, Pino, Mimo, and Carletto spot a large number of men working outside of the Duomo. Curious about what’s happening, Pino taps a nearby cleric on the shoulder and asks him what the men are doing. Before the cleric can answer, Cardinal Schuster, who is standing nearby, makes his presence known to Pino. Realizing who is in front of him, Pino bows and addresses him respectfully. Cardinal Schuster tells Pino that the men working nearby are getting ready to light up the Duomo; a blackout will begin in the evening and the Cardinal hopes that showing off the beauty of the Duomo will dissuade Allied bomber pilots from destroying it. This is the first time Pino realizes that Milan could be hit by an aerial attack.
The Duomo refers to the Duomo di Milano, the largest church in Italy. It is considered one of the great works of Western architecture. Meanwhile, Cardinal Schuster is a real historical figure who did, indeed, serve as the Archbishop of Milan. This is an important moment for Pino’s character because it is the first time the war seems real to him. He knows that if someone like Cardinal Schuster is afraid, then he should be too.
Pino returns to Mimo and Carletto, and reports what he heard from the Cardinal. Together, the three of them walk around the Galleria as a storm begins to roll in. While they’re walking, a flower vender tries to sell to Pino. Pino tells the vender he will return when he has a girlfriend, which results in more teasing from Mimo. Shortly afterwards, Pino sees a beautiful blond woman walk by and he decides to flirt with her. Although the woman brushes him off at first, Pino gets her to agree to go to a movie with him. She also tells Pino her name: Anna. When Pino returns to Mimo and Carletto, Mimo teases him and tells him that Anna won’t show up for their date.
The storm approaching Milan doubles as a metaphor for the German occupation of the city. However, despite the oncoming darkness, Pino and his friends remain jolly, likely because they don’t yet understand the full extent of what is to come.