They are everywhere in Rome’s historic center: little representations of the Madonna, often perched on the second story corner of a palazzo, lovingly casting their gaze upon the people below. I’m so used to their sweet presence that when I venture into areas of Rome with more recent construction, one of the first things that strikes me is the absence of these little shrines, and instantly I miss them.
The shrines are made of paintings, carvings, or mosaics.
They can also have elaborate frames, and sometimes a protective metal canopy.
Known as the Madonnelle (little Madonnas), the tradition of these shrines is actually as old as Rome itself. Ancient Romans had a superstition about intersections. Lares — local guardian gods — protected Roman houses, roads, and particularly crossroads. Intersection shrines, called compitales, both protected and helped define the boundaries of a neighborhood. With the advent of Christianity, the compitales were transformed into shrines to the Madonna. These shrines were often lit by a lamp, which provided the only light to the neighborhood.
Some are badly faded but others are lovingly maintained by their neighborhoods. Some I pass so often that I consider them old friends. Some are landmarks that help me navigate through the city. I love finding a new one here and there.
There used to be more than 2,000 of these shrines in the city. Some have been removed, and others have crumbled away. But many are still there, watching over the streets of Rome. A few are even credited with working the occasional miracle…
If you’re interested in seeing more of these little treasures, check out our Pinterest board. There are also these helpful websites, some of which have a wealth of information about the specific locations of the shrines: