11 December 2011

LIFE: Someone to Watch Over Me

SARONNO, Italy – The heart of old Genoa is an intricate maze of ancient, narrow streets with houses so tall they seem to lean across to touch each other leaving only a ribbon of sky visible. But if you look up you’ll see small shrines built into the corners and walls of many of the ancient buildings, shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  
Streets of Old Genoa

The shrines are called edicole, which refers to the small enclosures that protect them from the weather, the same word used for newsstands.  
While the shrines are made of various materials: slate, marble, ceramic or sometimes simple plaster, they all represent a particular artistic, social and cultural era. Most of them were built in the 1600’s when the populations of these cities turned to religion for protection against the decades of disaster that they had suffered.  
Edicola in Old Genoa
It was a time of uncertainty and while I can’t speak for all Italian cities, I know that Genoa had survived wars and floods and, perhaps the most damaging of all,  epidemics of the Black Plague. Historians write of the plague starting in the interior of Asia around the year 1333, and slowly moving from the Crimea to Genoa, and then on through the rest of Italy.  

In the periods between the plague and the Black Death, there were pandemics of scurvy, cholera and leprosy. With no logical explanations as to why these disasters were occurring, the Genovese looked to the Virgin Mary for relief. 
An Edicola in Genoa
In Genoa the edicole are concentrated in the historic center, unlike Rome where they are scattered throughout the city. There are only about 500 or so edicole still intact in Rome, even though there used to be thousands of them. The reason is that Genoa’s historic center has remained pretty much the same for the past 2,000 years, while in Rome various urban renewal projects have eliminated neighborhoods and enlarged streets, taking a toll on this particular cultural heritage. 

The appearance of edicole in Rome goes back father in time than in Genoa, although the reason for their existence is the same. In Rome their popularity Rome is based on a tale of a miracle that occurred in the year 590 AD. The Roman population was being decimated by the plague and in seeking divine intervention, the inhabitants of the city carried an Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary - Salus Populi Romani - from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore to Saint Peter’s Basilica, praying along the way for the epidemic to end. 

When the procession reached the fortress called Hadrian's Mausoleum, an angel carrying a sword appeared, and as a sign that the sickness had been stopped  through the intercession of the Virgin Mary he placed his drawn sword in its sheath. From that day on the fortress was known as Castel Sant'Angelo - the castle of the holy Angel.
Salus Populi Romani
In celebration, reproductions of the icon were placed on the front of the houses that the procession had passed. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the custom of placing pictures or statues of Our Lady on the outer walls of buildings became still more widespread, with tales of miracles linked to them.

Well into the nineteenth century, the only street-lighting in Rome was that of the lamps or candles set by the faithful before these little shrines to Our Lady as a sign of devotion and a light to guide the populous. They believed that those who saw the face of the Blessed Virgin by this light, was saved from getting lost either along the paths of life or along those dark city streets.

Edicola in Rome
In Rome you’ll find ediole across from the Trevi fountain, in the Piazza della Rotunda, on Palazzo Chigi, on the Vicolo del Forno, Piazza Colonna, and many other places. In Genoa, they are on almost every corner of the Old City.  

If you are interested in seeing some of the edicole in Genoa, here is a link to a great video that gives you a short tour, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6MC_3ueIFA&feature=related and if you are interested in reading about Genoa here’s a link to copy and paste of an article I wrote for the Washington Post  http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-382644.html

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