Friday, 11 September 2015

The "Madonnelle", Devotion on the Streets

Sprouting at almost every crossroad of Rome, the Madonnelle ("Little Madonnas") are a token of that popular devotion that characterized the "religiouness" of Roman citizens, from the lower to the higher classes (Popes included, of course) through the centuries.
Historically speaking, their massive presence by crossroads and streets corners is related to the Roman cult of the lares compitales, minor deities associated to defuncts and ancestors, destined to the protection of people during the dangers of traffic (which was quite chaotic and dangerous even then!)-- Abolished in the latter years of the Republic, their cult would be "resumed" by Augustus, the lares now impersonating his own ancestors, part of that propaganda to settle in his role of Divo, "God", of the Empire.

A defined pattern can be observed in the curious votive niches: the most of them are placed at a certain height from the ground, probably to avoid damages from people and carriages. The height looks consistent with the position of sacred icons in churches and chapels, but it must be noted that, in case of alleys and other tiny roads, they are located at around 1 meter of height from the ground, so to allow common gestures of devotion.

The most of them are covered by baldaquins or other scenographic roofing of sort. Many of these icons were removed from their original frame and replaced in renewed niches that render difficult their datation. In some cases the original icons were removed and replaced in dedicated churches, chapels or private collections. It's the case of the famous Madonna dell'Archetto, copy of the miraculous original preserved in the chapel of the same name, and the Madonna della Pietà, that is a photo reproduction of the original preserved in the offices of Villa Doria-Pamphilij.

The most of Madonnelle, and all of those placed by crossroads, sport a lantern or a light; it's important to note that during the peek of their popularity (that spans from the late Reinassance to the Baroque) they were the only source of street lighting, a further proof on their importance to avoid trasportation accidents.

Even if the structure of a Madonnella is considered quite simple (baldaquin, image and light) it must be noted that many differents tecniques and materials are used for their creation.
The majority of them are paintings on canvas or wood, but some of them are frescoes, mosaics, relieves or statues.
Among the most used materials figure stucco (expecially used for the decorations framing the icons) and terracotta. Very little Madonnelle were realized in marble or ceramics. This last material was usually "suggested" by glazing the terracotta bas-relieves.

Generally speaking, Madonnelle are considered the result of popular devotion, but in my opinion is kinda naive to assume that private citizens, expecially those of the lower social classes, could afford or pretend to modify the urban assets out of a votive whim.
The Madonelle were in fact the results of private committences, but they were usually supported by noble families, churches or friar orders. An obvious example of this tendency can be witnessed by the Madonnelle decorating the walls of private buildings. These Madonnelle were not just placed on corners or crossroads, but directly on the facade or walls of the palace, preferably in between windows, so to allow their maintenance.

A famous example of this tendency is the stunning Madonna del Pellegrino that can be spotted on the street by the same name:
The excellent commissioner of this Madonella was Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni: he placed the Madonnella were he could spot her from his office in >Palazzo della Cancelleria; among the decorations you can recognize the eagles of the Ottoboni's Coat of Arms and a little portrait of Saint Filippo Neri, one of the most loved religious figures in Rome, an homage to the close-by Chiesa Nuova.

Despite the more or less powerful committence, the Madonnelle were indeed the source of a blatant and extreme popular devotion, as many of them are still considered miraculous images because of their portents.
There are many stories and legends about miracles that have the Madonnelle as protagonists: some of them cried blood before invasions, flowings or pestilences, others bleeded when offended, another let the flowers placed in front of it to not wither for several months.
But the most curious and disturbing miracle involved a good number of Madonnelle from the 9 July of 1796 and continuing for 20 days: an impressive number of Madonnelle in Rome, in fact, was witnessed while moving their eyes alarmingly and cry, as to alert the population of a close threat.
The event was so blatant and widespread that the Roman Inquisition investigated. Among the many Madonelle just five (that were already quite popular, some of them venerated by Popes themselves) were recognized as miraculous... Plaques and tags around them still remind the distracted walker of their portent.

More investigations were conducted at the time, but they were stopped once the "catastrophe" predicted by the Madonnelle took part on February 1798: the invasion of Rome by the French Republican troops the imprisonment of the Pope by Napoleone Bonaparte.

They are called "Madonnelle" because the most of them portray the Virgin Mary, a favourite among Catholics as she's the "sample" of a mere human being elevated to Sanctity due to the intercession of Jesus her son, but the sacred images of Rome don't involve the Virgin Mary alone. Following are a few examples featuring the Sacred Family, Saints and Jesus.

Other interesting examples are those dedicated to the Crucifixtion or an interesting case portraying the Circumcision of Jesus--

Popular, aristocratic or "fake", they are indeed an interesting contribution to the understanding of Rome and its way to live religion, inbetween fervent devotion, naive superstition and popular gratitude.

If you wish to know more about the Madonnelle, I suggest you to take a peek to this extraordinary website, and for a complete list with addresses and details, you can check this page out!

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