Political and religious fervor will run rampant in Rome for the next few weeks. Italy will elect a new president next week, and several political parties plan to hold meetings and rallies in the center of Rome before (and undoubtedly after) the election. Right after the political election, Catholic cardinals will elect a new pope, and newspapers warn of an influx of visitors to witness the departure of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28 and the ensuing papal election. Police foresee traffic jams and expect to close some streets, especially around Vatican City. One newspaper showed a photograph of Vatican City marked with the palazzos rented by the news media from around the world. Mamma mia!
I hope to stay out of the line of fire, although I may drift over to St. Peter’s to watch for white smoke. But I have a plan if something unexpected happens: I’ll call on the madonnelle for help!
According to www.romeartlover.it, ancient Romans venerated lares, spirits that protected homes and roads. To ensure their safety and keep the lares themselves safe, the Romans put images of the lares in high places and road intersections. Although many lares have been destroyed or damaged over the centuries, a large number of sacred images still populate the streets of Rome. In 1853 a researcher listed 2,739 sacred images, the majority of which portrayed the madonna. Hence they are called madonnelle or little madonnas, and they are lovely.
Madonnelle are usually found where the ground floor meets the next floor, and they’re often, but not always, found on corners. Some are large; some are small. Some are elaborate; some are simple. Some are protected from the elements; some are not. Some madonnelle are carved in stone or wood, some are bas relief images made of glazed ceramic, some are mosaics, and some are meticulously painted on a variety of surfaces.
Unless you look up while you’re wandering in Centro Storico, you’ll probably miss the madonnelle. When I went to the market this afternoon, I was watching for madonnelle for this post. Although I’d already seen most of them, I almost fell over a motorcycle when I saw an enormous madonnella on one of the streets leading to Campo de’ Fiori. I swear I’ve never seen it before, although I don’t know how I could have missed it!
So like the ancient Romans, I’m trusting the madonnelle to keep me safe. Cross your fingers for me!