Robert Ward

Chapter 9
A Madonna on Every Corner: Rome

A Madonna on Every Corner: RomeThey are called Madonnelle (singular, Madonnella), the images of the Virgin that populate the streets of Rome. Usually they are set high on walls, most often at street corners. Some are painted in fresco, on wood, or on canvas; others are sculpted in marble, stucco or terracotta, or figured in mosaic. Some are no more than photographs of Virgins purchased from souvenir stalls. A few have artistic merit, but the majority are conventional, sometimes crude, portrayals (not that aesthetic judgments weigh too heavily with worshippers; results are what count). Some of the Madonnelle are ornately framed by angels and cornices and lit at night. Many are set behind glass, which preserves them from the elements but makes them difficult to see or photograph…

The Madonnelle reached the height of their fame in the years 1796 to 1798, when the terrified citizens of Rome were awaiting the arrival of Napoleon. The prodigies began on the 9th of July, 1796, when the Madonnella of the Via Archetto was seen to move her eyes. In the days that followed, ever-greater crowds, which soon included the Pope and his cardinals, crowded into this obscure alley to see the miracle repeated. According to one witness, it was when the worshippers kneeling before the effigy, reciting her litanies, reached the invocation to Holy Mary that "she turned her eyes from one part of the crowd to the other, casting a loving gaze over all the people." One empirically minded observer scaled a ladder with a compass in hand to measure the movement of the Virgin's pupils.

Before long, an epidemic of eye-shifting Madonnas had swept the city. Everywhere, Madonnelle were rolling their eyes, raising them to heaven, weeping. The Madonna of the Via Baccina caused a bunch of dried lilies to bloom. Pope Pius VI proclaimed days of fasting and penitential processions before launching a canonical inquiry into the phenomenon. The tribunal concluded that twenty-six Madonnelle had expressed their love and mercy to the Roman people in one miraculous way or another, and the Romans showed their gratitude to these Madonnelle in their usual manner, by detaching them from the walls and setting them up in their own churches…

Sad to say, devotion to the Madonnelle is fading. It is rare to see flowers or candles before them anymore, much less worshippers reciting the litanies of the Virgin. When I stopped on busy streets to take photos of Madonnelle, Romans would often glance up to see what on earth I was shooting, then pause to admire a knick-knack of the civic furniture so familiar to them that they had stopped seeing it.

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