As I’ve blogged before, Rome is full of Madonelle. These small pieces of art, usually on the corners of buildings, often mark where people from centuries past believed that miracles had taken place. Some are ornate, some are fairly simple. Some are well preserved, with crisp colors and intricate detail, while others are faded almost beyond recognition.
The vast majority of these (but not all) depict the Virgin Mary, hence the term “Madonella” (literally “little Madonna.” Madonelle is the plural). While most were paintings, a few were small reliefs or statues that looked like marble (but were much too high up on their buildings to be sure). Some seem to be largely ignored or forgotten, but others are the sites of small, makeshift shrines of candles, notes and rosaries.
According to Italy Magazine:
Both the wealthy and the poor made their mark on the map of Madonnelle. The materials used to make Madonnelle commissioned by the rich were very different from the materials used to make those commissioned by the poor. But more than being a devotional tool, the presence of the Madonnelle serves a moral purpose, because their location meant that Romans, Catholic or not, always felt like the Virgin Mary was watching over them.
Later, the same article states that:
In 1853, a researcher, Alessandro Rufini, listed 2739 sacred images, the majority of which portrayed a Madonna. Madonnelle were not only found in churches and private homes, but also in street shops, modern taverns, and all over the streets.
On this trip to Rome, I tried to take as many pictures of Madonelle as I could. While I didn’t see anywhere near Rufini’s 2,739, I did come across a few dozen walking between the sites in the city. Most of the ones I saw were concentrated in the Centro Storico, Rome’s historic center near the Pantheon. As far as I can tell, this tradition may be unique to Italy, but not to Rome. I also spotted two Madonelle during a day trip to the small, mountain city of Orvieto in Umbria.
Although the Madonelle aren’t unique to the city, Rome is definitely the most well-known site for them, and has been recognized as such for centuries. In 1729, a priest by the name of Concezio Carocci wrote a guidebook entitled “Il pellegrino guidato alla visita delle immagini più insigni della B. V. Maria in Roma ovvero Discorsi familiari sopra le medesime, detti i sabati nella Chiesa del Gesù,” which translates to English roughly as “The pilgrim’s guide to visit the most distinguished images of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome or familiar discourses on the same [topic], said on Saturdays in the Church of Jesus” (translated with my rudimentary knowledge of Italian supplemented with Google translate. Better translations/corrections are welcome).
While the Madonelle were often constructed to commemorate miracles, many of them also have miracles attributed to them. These usually involve the eyes of the image either moving or crying. These miracles are not necessarily officially recognized by the Catholic Church (some are, some aren’t), but they are an important part of the rich tapestry of the history and beliefs of the Italian people themselves. In some instances, these miraculous Madonelle were later moved inside churches.
Up to the turn of the 20th century, Rome’s street lighting at night was absolutely poor: had it not been for the faint glow coming from these shrines, many streets and lanes of the old districts would have remained in the complete darkness.
The pictures below are of some of the Madonelle that I came across throughout the city of Rome.
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