During our night time tour through medieval Rome our guide Massimo shared many anecdotes and facts. One of these facts that resonated with me for the days to follow was the story behind the Madonna images still found on street corners today.
During the 19th century Rome was dotted with several thousand small shrines honoring the Madonna. These shrines are referred to as Madonellas, little Madonnas. Visitors today can still look for and admire about 500 Madonellas in the old part of the city.
What was the purpose of these intricately crafted shrines? They are carved from wood, painted, made from mosaics, fired in terracotta and demand attention no matter how small they appear. Many of them have protective covers of glass or a roof to protect them from the weather. Most of them have a place for candle or lantern to illuminate them at night.
We are getting warmer in our quest to determine their purpose! The Madonellas were Rome’s early security system. Now how could this be? The story goes that Palazzo Farnese (built in 1517), today’s seat of the French Embassy, was once a papal palace (Pope John III) with an expansive piazza and several dark streets breaking away into the dark city. Imagine the lack of street lights. No warm glow was illuminating the windows the way that electricity provides light to us today. The piazza and the streets were dark, pitch dark! What a place for crime to flourish… need I say more?
It was then that the idea was brought forward to install Madonella’s around this piazza and crime disappeared. Why? Imagine a primarily devout population in Rome, what better way to instill order and reduce crime through the feeling of guilt… Madonella’s were strategically placed on house corners, they overlooked the space below while illuminating the area with a candle or torch, lit every night. Ingenious – don’t you agree? Not to mention the beautiful art pieces adorning each house. The richer the family the more elaborate the Madonella. Join me in revisting some of my favorite Madonellas while walking the ancient city.