~ Legendary Rome ~
- 5 -

The Prodigious Madonnelle

the strange events of 1796

madonnella in via del Leoncino
Romans call madonnelle (small Madonnas) the tiny shrines hanging on the walls of many old buildings. There are well over 500 of them, mainly located in the historical part of the city, but once there were thousands, according to a 19th century survey.
A great majority of them is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whence their popular name, but a few of them feature other religious subjects, as well.

The custom of hanging madonnelle on the outer part of buildings, in particular by their corners, sprang from the ancient roman use of building in the streets small public shrines dedicated to the lares compitales, the pagan tutelary deities who presided over the crossroads.

madonnella in via Sistina

In most cases the age of the present ones ranges from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, thus featuring more often either a Baroque or a Neoclassical style.

two madonnelle in vicolo della Minerva and (farther) in via della Pigna
The small image (a painting, a mosaic, a carving in marble, earhtenware, wood, etc.) is enclosed by an ornate frame, in some cases so flamboyant that it sometimes catches the eye more than the image itself. A few of them are fairly recent (1900-1950), while no more than a handful of madonnelle over three centuries old has survived.

They are often covered by a metal canopy, or are encased in a small temple-shaped structure, and have either a lantern or a stand for a candle; many of them also have a shelf where to place flowers before the featured personages.

madonnella in piazza di Tor Sanguigna

By the most worshipped madonnelle offerings are hung on the wall, or left by the image; they often have the shape of silver hearts.
Nowadays, most of these shrines are no longer cared for, and in time most paintings have blackened, up to the point that sometimes their subjects are impossible to tell. But up to the early 1900s they used to be well cared for by the local inhabitants, whose donations were used for a constant maintenance, and for keeping candles and lanterns burning in front of them at all times. In this way, the purpose of the madonnelle was not only religious, but also of public utility. 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.

As many other similar paintings and statues of religious taste, also some madonnelle are claimed to have operated prodigies. Usually they consisted of a sudden and miraculous healing of sick people, but a few of them were involved in supernatural events whose stories are quite peculiar.

madonnella in via dell'Umiltà

In such cases, the images were often removed from their original position in the open air and hung in chapels of nearby churches, to give them a more dignified location, but most of all to avoid the congestion of the narrow streets caused by the crowd of worshippers.

← very tall madonnella by a
corner of via del Pellegrino
elegant madonnella →
facing the Trevi Fountain

Among the prodigious madonnelle is the one known as the 'Madonna of the Lantern', once located by the base of the belltower of St.John Calebite's church, on the Tiber Island; in 1577, during a flood that completely submerged the island (including the shrine itself), a small lantern in front of the image is said to have kept burning underwater.
The picture was then taken inside the church, while a replica was set by the belltower in replacement.

The cases in which passers-by damaged or caused offence to these images, entailing a prodigious event, are quite a few.

Santa Maria della Pace
Sometime during the 16th or 17th century, in vicolo delle Palle (near via Giulia) a bowling player, in a rage for having lost a game, threw one of his bowls against a local wall painting of the Virgin Mary, leaving a mark below the figure's right eye. In that very moment, the player's arm was left paralized. It started moving again 40 days later, after the man had repented.
Following this prodigy, the image was removed and placed in a chapel in the nearby church of San Giovanni de' Fiorentini.

In two other similar cases, madonnelle were stricken with stones by wrathful gamblers and - it is said - the images bleeded. One of them, originally in via di Parione, was later moved inside the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (commonly called Chiesa Nuova). The other one was once located by Sant'Andrea degli Acquaricciari's, off piazza Navona, and the event impressed so much pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) that he ordered the old church to be completely rebuilt, renaming it Santa Maria della Pace, where this image is still worshipped (see also The 22 Rioni, Ponte).
Another church changed name due to a miraculous image. A painting of the Virgin with the Baby Jesus once hung under a porch in via Arco de' Cenci, by the Jewish ghetto.
On the 10th of January 1546 two men were fighting there; one of the two was on the point of stabbing the opponent, when the latter cried for mercy, in the name of the Virgin. The man put away his knife, but his opponent took him by surprise and viciously killed him. Due to this treacherous murder, the Virgin's image is said to have wept real tears, witnessed by the crowd that meanwhile had gathered there, and for this reason the painting was later moved into the nearby San Salvatore de Cacabariis'. This church was rebuilt about one century later, and renamed Santa Maria del Pianto (St.Mary of the Weeping) after the event.

the image in Santa Maria del Pianto

the madonnella in via Mario de'Fiori,
a replica of the Madonna dell'Archetto
The strangest and most renowned prodigy, though, occurred in 1796, and was simultaneously performed by several madonnelle. As of July 9, for a time length of about three weeks, some among the Virgin's images in Rome, located on different spots, began to move their eyes.
In those days the Papal State was being threatened by the French army, and the population, who feared an invasion, easily interpreted this supernatural event as a bad omen, that was confirmed two years later when Rome actually fell to Napoleon's troops.

According to the descriptions recorded by the religious authority's official enquiries, in some cases the eyes moved sideways, in others they did so vertically.
What is amazing is that the strange event occurred various times, for several days, although sometimes more evidently than on other occasions, and that it was seen by crowds. Many witnesses were likely under the effect of suggestion; also the hot weather in July and Rome's good wine might have helped the prodigy to take place. But somebody proved lucid enough to climb on a ladder and measure with a compass the angle of the eye movement. In some cases, while the phenomenon was in progress, the glass that covered these paintings was removed, in order to avoid mistaking the eye movement with a light reflection.
Obviously, there were also many sceptical people, who laughed at the idea of a painting with moving eyes.
The first official inquiries by the religious authorities, though, validated what the crowds had described; not all of them came to an end, because when the French captured Rome the inquiries were discontinued.

a function in progress by the chapel
of the Madonna dell'Archetto

the Madonna dell'Archetto
The madonnelle that the Church of Rome officially acknowledged for having moved their eyes are the following ones.
  • The Madonna dell'Archetto (Madonna of the Small Arch), originally located under an archway in a narrow alley between via di San Marcello and via dell'Archetto, not far from piazza di Trevi. It was the first among the eye-moving madonnelle to do so. In the mid 19th century a small though very ornate street chapel was specifically built to house this image. The chapel is reachable from via di San Marcello, and opened only during religious cerimonies, regularly held.
    A copy of this madonnella can be seen in via Mario de' Fiori, off the Spanish Steps, where pope Pius VI had it hung after the event.
  • Not far from the Madonna dell'Archetto is the Madonna della Pietà (Madonna of Pity), in vicolo delle Bollette, even closer to the Trevi Fountain. Also this painting is rather well preserved. The Latin inscription on the plaque below reads: "On July 9 1796 her gaze alighted over their hearts, showing them the hight of her deeds".

  • The Madonna del Rosario (Madonna of the Rosary) in via dell'Arco della Ciambella, off the Pantheon. What makes peculiar the location of this shrine is a fragment from the no longer existing Baths of Agrippa, whose only remain is an arch-shaped wall, partially seen behind the buildings. The painting, though, is no longer the original one, because by the late 1800s the family who owned it moved away from Rome, and took with them the holy image, later replaced with a copy.

the Madonna della Pietà

the Madonna della Provvidenza

the Madonna Addolorata
  • The Madonna Addolorata (Grieving Madonna) is in piazza del Gesù, off piazza Venezia; it was moved here in the late 19th century, including its oval frame, following the heavy alterations suffered by the nearby Sant'Eustachio district, where it originally hung.

  • The Madonna della Provvidenza (Madonna of Providence), located on the corner of via delle Botteghe Oscure adjoining largo di Torre Argentina, is surely one of the most celebrated ones, with two plaques whose inscriptions mention the event, while the image is surrounded by offerings, left in time by the faithful.

In the same days during which the aforesaid madonnelle (and probably other ones too) kept moving their eyes, a further one located in via Baccina, just behind the remains of the Forum of Augustus, made some dried flowers bloom again, and remain fresh for a few months.
This painting is now in rather poor condition; its original decoration, whose shape is known thanks to 18th century illustrations, went lost, and was replaced by a very simple marble frame. A large plaque below reads as follows:


the madonnella in via Baccina

the madonnella in Borgo Pio
Instead, the small Madonna in Borgo Pio was among the ones that did not receive an official acknowledgement for having moved its eyes. But the plaque walled below, dated 1797, offers the faithful the same benefits as the previous shrine: pope Pius VI may have trusted the prodigious nature of this madonnella all the same. This can be understood from one of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli's satirical sonnets about a similar fact that took place in 1835 involving, among others, also the madonnella in Borgo district; in a footnote, the author compares the happening to the facts of 1796, whose memory was likely still alive among the folk:

« Already by the time of the French Republic in Rome, numberless fanatics believed to have seen Madonnas in the public streets open their eyes, turn them around and shed tears. In 1835, as cholera approached our State [i.e. the Papal State], some people, either simpletons or deceivers, started to spread the news that such miracle was taking place again.»
Being strongly critical towards such 'prodigies', in his sonnet Belli ironically suggests that the commotion stirred by these facts among the faithful may have been exploited by the Church as a business.


Currete, donne mie; currete, donne,
A ssentì la gran nova c'hanno detto:
Ch'a la Pedacchia, ar Monte e accanto ar Ghetto
Arïoprono l'occhi le Madonne.

La prima nun ze sa, ma j'arisponne
Quella puro de Borgo e de l'Archetto.
Dunque dateve, donne, un zercio in petto,
E cominciate a dì crielleisonne.

Oh dio! che sarà mai st'arïuperta
Doppo trentasei anni e e mesi d'ozzio?
Battaje, caristìe, ruvina certa.

Se troveno però cert'indiscreti
Che vanno a bisbijà che sto negozzio
È un antro butteghino de li preti.


Hurry, women; hurry
To learn the great news that has been told:
That in Pedacchia Street, by the pawn shop and near the Ghetto
Madonnas [i.e. the shrines] are opening their eyes again.

It's uncertain which one did so first, but the same
Are doing also the ones by the Archetto and in Borgo district.
So, women, beat your chest in penance,
And start reciting the Kyrie Eleison ["Lord have mercy"].

Oh god! What may this reopening of eyes mean
After over thirty-six years of inactivity?
War, famine, ruin, no doubt.

However, there are some inquisitive people
Who rumour that this jazz
Is another business set up by the clergy.
Giuseppe Gioachino Belli - November 17, 1835