08 December 2013

LIFE: Someone to Watch Over Me

CHIAVARI, Italy – The heart of old Genova is an intricate maze of ancient narrow streets with houses so tall they seem to lean forward and want to touch each other. They close out the sky leaving only a mere ribbon on light, shrouding the streets in deep shadows. But if you look carefully you will seel hidden in those shadows, small shrines built into the corners and walls of many of the ancient buildings, shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Via del Campo, Genova, Italy  
The shrines are called edicole, a word which refers to the small enclosures that protect them from the weather. It’s the same word that is used for newsstands as they are also protected from the weather by small enclosures. 

The shrines are made from a variety of materials, slate, marble, ceramic and sometimes even simple plaster, and were all built, for the most part, in the 1600’s. You find them in cities like Genova and Rome where desperate people turned to religion for protection against the decades of disasters  they had suffered.

 Genova, Italy
It was a time of uncertainty, and while I can’t speak for all Italian cities, I know that Genova and Rome had survived wars and floods and perhaps the most damaging of all, epidemics of the bubonic plague, 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 Genova, and then on through to the rest of Italy. A tsumani of disease and certain death.

In the periods between the episodes of bubonic plague there were pandemics of scurvy, cholera and leprosy. With no logical explanations as to why these disasters were happening to them, the people looked to the Virgin Mother for relief.

Vico del Notari, Genova, Italy  
In Genova the edicole are concentrated in the historic center, which has remained pretty much the same for the past 2,000 years. In Rome, however, they are scattered throughout the city with only about 500 or so edicole still entact even even though at one time there were thousands. Various Roman urban renewal projects have eliminated neighborhoods and enlarged streets, and the renovations have take their toll on this particular cultural heritage.

The appearance of edicole in Rome goes back further in time than those in Genova, although the reason for their existence is basically the same. In Rome their popularity is based on a tale of a miracle that occurred in the year 590 AD. At that time the Roman population was being decimated by the Black plague, and in seeking divine intervention the Romans carried a 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 as an offering to the Virgin Mary and asking for an end to the epidemic.

Salus PopuIi Romani - Icon of the Virgin Mary  
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 back into its sheath. From that day on the fortress was known as Castel’Sant’Angelo, the castle of the Holy Angel.

In celebration, reproductions of the icon the Romans were carrying to Saint Peter’s Basilica were placed on the front doors 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 more popular and spread throughout Italy along with the tales of miracles linked to them.
 Villa Sacchetti, Rome, Italy

Well into the nineteenth century, the only street-lighting in Rome was that of the lamps or candles set out on these shrines to Our Lady by the faithful as a sign of devotion and a light to guide the people. Romans 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 Roman city streets.

In Genova the edicole have survived because the city's historic center is, for the most part, closed to traffic. In Rome the story is a little bit different, but now there is a renewed awareness of their historic and cultural value and some of that city's edicole are being restored. That can only be a good thing for everyone.  


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