The smile of the Madonna

In Rome, behind St. Clement’s Church, where the road starts steeply up the Caelius hill to the medieval abbey of Santi Quattro Coronati, and beyond it the Lateran Basilica standing at the city wall, a strange, weathered little chapel stands at the corner. It is strange, because it is apparently centuries older than the house to which it was stuck, but also because of its inscription. Roadside chapels, crucifixes, and image columns, when asking for prayers, mostly ask for a particular purpose, and promise specific supernatural assistance. The poem carved in the marble plaque of the small chapel, however, requests the passerby to greet the Madonna without any interest.

Il sorriso di Maria
A questi luoghi allieterà
Se chi passa per la via
«Ave o Madre» a lei dirà.

The smile of Mary
will shine on this place
if whoever walking on this road
will tell her “Hail, Mother”.

The 1748 map of Giambattista Nolli, our companion through the history of Rome, does not mark the chapel, or at least  he does not provide it with a number, but it is not impossible that the protruding little snag on the corner refers to it. However, in Antonio Tempesta’s 1593 map one can clearly discern the semicircular chapel on the corner, at that time still in front of a garden or field, facing a residential house, about halfway between St. Clement and the Ss. Quattro Coronati.

The small street has born for almost three thousand years the name via Querquengetulana, or via dei Querceti after the oak-grove, still visible in Nolli’s map. However, according to Ferdinand Gregorovius’ monumental eight-volume work on medieval Rome, it was also called since the early middle ages vicus Papissae, the street of the Popess, namely because the house facing it belonged to the matron of the Papa family.

It was first in the 11th century that another explanation emerged for the name of the street, which would then excite the whole of Europe. The Dominican Jean de Mailly from Metz mentions in a marginal note of his 1099 world chronicle, that he had heard a story, which he had yet to verify, according to which, the explanation of the inscription PPP of a stone in Rome (actually pecunia propria posuit, “erected on his own expense”) is that a woman dressed as a man was elected pope, and when she, while riding, publicly gave birth to a child, the people killed both of them, and engraved on their tomb: Petre Pater Patrum, Papissae Prodito Partum – “Peter, father of fathers, unveil the birth of the popess”. It seems that the guides of Rome were working for their money already in the 11th century.

The story, however, entered the scandal chronicle of the Middle Ages in a form given to it by his fellow Dominican brother, the 13th-century Bishop of Gniezno, Martinus of Opava/Troppau. Martinus, obviously inspired by the name of the little street that he had seen in Rome during his inauguration, already claimed to know the exact location of this incredible event, about which nobody had heard for four hundred years.

“Post hunc Leonem Iohannes Anglicus nacione Maguntinus sedit annis 2, mensibus 7º, diebus 4, et mortuus est Rome, et cessavit papatus mense 1. Hic, ut asseritur, femina fuit, et in puellari etate Athenis ducta a quodam amasio suo in habitu virili, sic in diversis scienciis profecit, ut nullus sibi par inveniretur, adeo ut post Rome trivium legens magnos magistros discipulos et auditores haberet. Et cum in Urbe vita et sciencia magnis opinionis esset, in papam concorditer eligitur. Sed in papatu per suum familiarem impregnatur. Verum tempus partus ignorans, cum de Sancto Petro in Lateranum tenderet, angustiata inter Coliseum et sancti Clementis ecclesiam peperit, et post mortua ibidem, ut dicitur, sepulta fuit. Et quia domnus papa eandem viam semper obliquat, creditur a plerisque, quod propeter detestationem facti hoc faciat. Nec ponitur in cathalogo sanctorum pontifcum propter mulieris sexus quantum ad hoc deformitatem.”

“After Leo [IV, 847-855], John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and, afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city; and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her courtier. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in a lane between the Colosseum and St Clement’s church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street, and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.”

The popess giving birth in Jacob Kallenberg’s illustration to Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (1533), and the popess (Johanna Wokalek) in Sönke Wortmann’s Die Päpstin (2009)

The ceremonial route leading from the Lateran, the parsonage of the Roman pontiff to the St. Peter’s, the holiest pilgrimage church of Rome, had indeed three versions on this first segment. The most spectacular, the street of S. Giovanni in Laterano, which would be made Via Papalis by Sixtus V in 1588, was made impassable throughout the Middle Ages by the ruins of the Ludus Magnus, the gladiator barracks next to the Colosseum. Because of this, there were two alternative routes: the picturesque via Ss. Quattro Coronati – which we will also follow during our tour in the Caelius –, which, however, was not suited to ceremonial marches due to its extreme steepness; and the ancient main street, the Via Labicana, where now the tram runs between the Lateran and the Colosseum. The medieval popes of course choose the latter, but the people of Rome sought for a rational explanation as to why the pope does not follow the shorter route, as everyone else. And those who seek, will find.

The abbey Ss. Quattro Coronati, still standing solitary on the hill of Caelius, before the late 19th-c. land speculation and urbanization. Well, that was the really juicy scandal of the Caelius neighborhood!

The legend of the popess, strangely, was finally rebutted not by the Catholics, but by the Protestants, with the methods of humanist textual criticism. Onofrio Panvinio, the great 16th-century Roman historian still accepts it as authentic, and merely seeks to beautify its details, but the Huguenot David Blondel clearly pointed out its false nature in the early 17th century, and since then the popes also censored its mention.

The people of Rome, however, know what they know. Popes and scholars come and go, the vicus Papissae was extended to the military hospital erected via land speculation, a block of flats was built on the place of the garden, but the chapel stands there still. The Caelius neighborhood, which was included in the city’s bloodstream only at the end of the 19th century, still keeps alive many old traditions and buildings forgotten in other parts. Due to the ban, the reason for the chapel’s founding cannot be specified, but everyone is familiar with it, and its 18th-century restorers only ask a greeting from the passersby to dismiss the bad memory of the place.

Peeking through the broken iron gate of the chapel of cracked walls, painted in Roman red, one can see a Madonna fresco, whose age is difficult to say, but probably it can be dated at the late 15th century. Her facial features have already been blurred, but her smile still brightens the dry flowers and votive ribbons pinned on the chapel gate, and the Mediterranean flora richly growing on the tile roof and in the cracks of the pavement, the memory of the disappeared oak-grove.

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