"River Mary" Makes a Splash; an Artful Convent

Trastevere Loves Its Marian Tradition

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 21, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Just as the torrid July weather gets into full swing, Rome’s hottest festival starts up. The Festa di Noantri from July 16 to 24 brings the already lively Roman quarter of Trastevere to fever pitch.

The name of the feast, “Noantri,” derives from the Roman dialect and perhaps is best translated as “ourselves,” but while celebrations do take place in the quarter proudly proclaimed by the inhabitants as the home of “true Romans,” the holiday is all about the Madonna of Mount Carmel.

The feast was officially instituted in 1927, but the origins date back to the 16th century. In 1535, after a violent thunderstorm, a statue of Mary carved out of cedar wood washed up on the shores of the Tiber. She was brought up the river and given to the then Carmelite church of St. Chrysogonus.

The “Madonna fiumarola,” or “river Mary,” has been celebrated every year since with processions, prayer and song. This being Trastevere, however, food and wine abound as well.

The festivities began with a Mass at the Church of St. Agatha, the present home of the processional statue, while the original is kept in Santa Cecilia. It was celebrated by Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

After Mass, the statue was brought out before the church and the procession formed in the square. City standards, Trastevere flags and Carmelite banners were hoisted aloft. The local police band played as a huge wooden vine-wrapped cross rose high in the air and the archbishop, Carmelites and faithful took their places.

But the crowd was waiting for Mary. The Madonna of Carmel sails through the streets on a large wooden platform, crowned with an arched canopy. Sculpted wooden cherubs play at her feet and hover over her head. Reminiscent of the wood rafts of the rivermen who found the statue, it weighs about the same.

Traditionally the young men of Trastevere vie with one another for a chance to show off their physical prowess by carrying the heavy float. Each year, 16 “fusti” — hunks — are chosen to bear the Madonna on their shoulders.

As the young men lifted Mary into the air, the crowds broke into wild applause, crying, “Evviva Maria!” Hundreds followed the procession through the narrow streets of Trastevere, decorated for the occasion with banners hanging from windows and palm leaves forming archways.

Amid Marian hymns and prayers, the procession made its way to the historic churches of Trastevere, ending at St. Chrysogonus. There the Madonna rested in the church which had once been her home. At midnight, by music and candlelight, she returned to St. Agatha’s.

The visit of the Madonna of Mount Carmel to the churches in the quarter reinforced the bond among the different parishes and orders of Trastevere, but also between neighborhoods or even countries. It may be the feast of the Noantri, but the “ourselves” extends to the world.

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Passing the Baton

Last week, the Vatican and the French Embassy to the Holy See announced that the church, convent and school of Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps would soon receive new tenants.

It’s a historical event as the present inhabitants, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, have been there for 178 years. I spoke to the superior of the convent, Mother Marie Guyonne du Penhoat, about the church, culture and change.

“It’s hard for people to understand how a contract stipulated in 1828 can still be binding today,” Sister Penhoat said, “but when the church was given to us it was on the condition that it would be used as an educational structure run by religious sisters.”

There are no longer enough Sisters of the Sacred Heart to run the school, so the complex will be turned over to the Monastic Community of Jerusalem next year.

Sitting in the stunning cloister of the convent, surrounded by 17th-century frescos of the kings of France, we talked about the history and art of the complex and the restoration work Sister Penhoat has overseen during her 10 years at Trinità dei Monti.

“The land was given by the Louis XI of France in honor of St. Francis de Paul, founder of the Minims,” she explained. “The church was begun in 1502 and the Minims were here until they were expelled by Napoleon’s troops in 1798.”

The soldiers dismantled everything. “They even took the doors, windows and roof tiles,” Sister Penhoat said. After a quarter-century of further neglect, the land was given to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who slowly began to repair the damage.

The structural repairs continue even today, but the last few years have also seen the restoration of the convent’s art treasures. “Minim painters decorated the upper loggia in the 17th century,” Sister Penhoat told me. “Father Maignon created an anamorphic corridor — if you look at the painting straight on you see a landscape, but if you look from a fixed point to the side you see the image of St. Francis de Paul kneeling in prayer.”

Restorers are working to see if they can recover the second anamorphic corridor, this one by a Father Nicercon, of St. John on Patmos, presently buried under several layers of whitewash.

Jesuit perspective painter Andrea Pozzo also worked in the convent. His remarkable “Wedding at Cana” has just been restored in the refectory.

But the sisters also made their contribution to the works of art in the convent. In 1844, Pauline Perdrau (who would later join the order) painted a youthful Blessed Virgin in prayer. Pope Pius IX titled her “Mater Admirabilis” (Mother Most Admirable) in 1846 and she is the patron of all the schools of the Sacred Heart.

But these works are more then just beautiful or historic to Sister Penhoat. “They offer opportunities of evangelization through the visits to the art.” The religious sister founded Art, Science and Faith, an association to teach people “to read works of art with faith.” She noted that many people don’t realize that there is a “bond between art and Christian belief.”

While Sister Marie Guyonne is sad to leave the convent, she views the change as “passing the baton in full stride” and hopes that the Monastic Community of Jerusalem will continue to use the splendid art and history of the convent to bring people closer to God.

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Rebuilding, Roman Style

Everyone knows Rome wasn’t built in a day. But a new exhibit at the Capitoline museums shows that rebuilding the Eternal City may have taken even longer than the original construction.

“The Rome of Leon Battista Alberti” on display from June 24 until Oct. 16, explores the city of the early 1400s — a city in ruins and of ruins. But those same vestiges of a glorious past were transformed by the minds of farsighted popes and architects into seeds of a new and greater Christian Rome of the Renaissance.

Leon Battista Alberti was born 600 years ago to an aristocratic Florentine family. The quintessential “Renaissance man,” he was an accomplished mathematician, a Latin poet, widely popular architect and prolific writer on topics ranging from painting in perspective to household management.

Alberti was fascinated by Rome and its antiquities. He spent many years here studying the monumental ruins and began the first measured plan of the ancient city.

This exhibit offers a glimpse into the Rome that Alberti helped to transform. The early 15th century knew a city devastated by time, war and neglect as well as the 70-year absence of the papacy which had only recently returned from Avignon.

The show opens with maps and views of medieval Rome. The third-century walls built by Emperor Aurelian were still intact, but the inhabited part of the city had shrunk to a small amount of the enclosed space. Huge open fields extended in almost every direction testifying to the tiny
(an estimated 25,000) population of 15th-century Rome. The Roman Forum, once the command center of the empire, was known locally as “the cow pasture.”

One thing comes across clearly — Rome was a city of churches. Monumental, historic or humble, these sacred structures freckled the cityscape. But tucked in among the little rectangular boxes of medieval ecclesiastical building, the hemispherical dome of the Pantheon and the high arches of the Basilica of Maxentius hint at an architectural energy waiting to be tapped.

The desire to return Rome to her former glory was in the air. Measured drawings by artists and architects such as Filarete, Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Alberti surprise viewers with their accuracy as well as the implicit mastery of complicated technical drawing.

The driving force behind Rome’s transformation was the papacy. When the Great Schism ended in 1417 with the election of Martin V Colonna, the pope returned to a Rome, “so dilapidated and deserted, that it hardly resembled a city,” recounts the 15th-century writer Platina.

Over the 15th century, the papacy struggled to restore Rome. Pope Nicholas V Parentucelli, friend and patron of Alberti, implored the cardinals from his deathbed to bestow great buildings on Rome. They would help the faithful to be “moved by certain extraordinary sights” to have their “belief continually confirmed and corroborated daily by great buildings.”

The heart of the exhibit focuses on five ancient monuments identified by Alberti and his contemporaries as the greatest examples of Roman architectural genius — the Pantheon, Colosseum, Baths of Diocletian, Basilica of Maxentius and the Septizodium.

While the first four monuments are well known to modern visitors to Rome, the last is not. The Septizodium built by Septimius Severus in A.D. 203 was a three-storey, 180-foot-long monumental facade overlooking the Circus Maximus. The Septizodium was demolished in the 1580s and the only record of this influential structure is the meticulous drawings made by Renaissance draftsmen.

Several paintings show how Alberti’s interest in ancient architecture was soon adopted by the painters of the Renaissance. Beato Angelico, who also worked for Nicholas V, used ancient ruins as a backdrop for his images of saints and martyrs.

But the greatest Renaissance transformation was reserved for St. Peter’s. Starting with the new tribune commissioned by Nicholas V from Alberti, the project for restoring St. Peter’s grew until in 1506 the foundation stone was laid for a whole new basilica.

Drawing from antiquity’s greatest public building, the Basilica of Maxentius, and its greatest religious building, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica was destined to become the ultimate symbol of Rome’s pagan death and Christian rebirth.

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Erratum corrige: Several readers wrote to inform me of an error in my column of July 7. Father Clement Suhy has the singular honor of being the first modern-day ordination in the Benedictine monastery in Norcia as he was ordained Feb. 10. Father Anselmo Taborda therefore is a close second. My apologies to Father Suhy and the order.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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