Last night I was fortunate enough to be able to follow a tour guided by my friend, Laura. One of the companies she works for has recently started doing a tour that illuminates certain sites and stories that a regular tourist here wouldn’t learn, all of which have to do with the more macabre history of the city. The tour itself is an hour and a half long, more or less, so I don’t intent to share all of the things I learned on the tour (yes, yes, I took notes. I am cool.). I found every story interesting, and Laura is a born story-teller, so all of them were also engaging. Here are some highlights:
Le Madonnelle: All over Rome one may find depictions of the Madonna and child hanging up on the streets. 6,000, to be more precise. I hadn’t really noticed them before, but after Laura pointed them out, I saw them everywhere. They came about during the Renaissance, and there were three requirements for these Madonnelle. First, that it depicted the Madonna and Child. Va bene. Second, that there be a place for a torch (now, most of them have regular electric lights). Finally, and this is the most interesting part, is that they had to be anonymous. That means that people like Michelangelo were painting these Madonnelle, as well as others, but even know the city doesn’t know who has done which one. The fun fact about these public paintings is that they managed to lower crime a bit; Italians didn’t want to commit crimes in front of the eyes of the Virgin, but also it provided more light on the streets. Keep your eyes peeled for these when you make your next trip to Roma!
La Mascherone: on Via Giuglia, very near to the Ponte Sisto, there is a fountain with a facade of a big mask. Once upon a time, there was a political campaign in Rome; there were many candidates, but the one who stood out promised the city that if they elected him, he would make the fountain run with wine. Needless to say, he was elected. He did as he promised, and for twenty-four hours, the fountain ran with white wine! A few days before I went on the tour, I had passed said fountain, wondering what it was doing on a side street. Hearing the story of the wine fountain made it a much more exciting fountain.
The church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte: The church, named for Holy Mary of Prayer and Death, has some curious decorations on its facade—skulls grace the front of the church, rather than angels or similar. Many years ago, the group who ran this church was called the Fellowship of Death. They would go about and collect bodies of people who had died who weren’t buried properly, and give them a space in the church’s crypt. Very charitable of them, really. The church is located very near the Tiber, however, and when the Tiber flooded, the unsound construction of the crypt allowed the dead, literally, to rise. The solution? They collected the bones of those who had “escaped” the crypt and channeled their crafty sides to create decorations using the bones. Inside the crypt, one can see a chandelier made of backbone, as well as a giant cross made entirely of human skulls. The miracle of these bones, declared by the church (despite their declaration, too, that this type of construction is barbaric and henceforth outlawed) is that they have not deteriorated.
Giulia Tofana’s family business: In the 17th century, a Sicilian woman came to Rome in search of a business opportunity. She was quite an entrepreneur, and her business took off; in only a matter of years, she was able to retire young and go back to Sicily, leaving the family business to her daughter. What could be such a lugubrious venture, one might ask? Giulia had figured out an effective recipe for poison that rendered the liquid odorless, tasteless, and took 2 weeks to do its job. It came in a nice glass bottle with San Nicola di Bari on the front. The victim would show symptoms not unlike the flu. Giulia was furba, clever, and knew it would be best only to sell to women. About 600 men were killed by Tofana poison in the years when she was in Rome, as well as when the business continued for about a year with her daughter. It is here where the story begins to vary more. The story we heard was that the daughter took over the family business. Unfortunately for her daughter, the business was reported by a repentant wife, and 48 women ended up being hung for their involvement with the murders of men all over the city. Giulia herself was never caught, as she had already retired comfortably in Palermo. Other sources say that Giulia was caught, tortured, and, after confessing, was executed herself in Rome. Either way, we saw the outside of her home where she lived and did business. She was the most successful murderer Rome has ever had.
The death of Beatrice Cenci: The most disturbing story of the evening was certainly that of Beatrice Cenci, if only for the apparent injustice shown to her. There are multiple versions of this story, I was told, but in general, according to the oral tradition of Rome, her sad story goes like this. Beatrice Cenci was the most beautiful woman in Rome. So beautiful, in fact, that she was a model for artists like Caravaggio. Not only was she beautiful, she was also one of those beauties women can’t bring themselves to loathe because she was also a kind and generous woman, part of a very wealthy family in Rome. The citizens loved Beatrice. Her father, Francesco Cenci, happened to be terrible scum. He raped Beatrice, beat her often, and was in general an evil man. The Romans hated him, especially when he moved his family out of the city into Rome’s surroundings. One day, Beatrice snapped and stabbed her father to death. To hide the murder, she shoved him off a balcony of their home and insisted that it was an accident, he had gotten drunk and fallen. The Romans were happy to believe her, as that meant the awful patriarch was gone and Beatrice might be free to come back to Rome again.
There were a few kinks in this murder, however, the first of which being that her father had been dear friends with Pope Clement VIII, who happened to be a bit of a tool. Clement decided to persecute not only Beatrice, but her entire family, for the death of Francesco. The real reason, more than the loss of a friend, was because Rome had passed a law that said if a family has no apparent heir, the family’s fortune goes to the Pope. The Cencis were very wealthy, so this was how Clement played his cards. The Romans were outraged. Her mother and 2 brothers were tortured and confessed immediately, and were thrown in prison at Castel Sant’Angelo. Beatrice, however, stood firm and was sent to a prison meant for the lower class, meaning its conditions were even worse than a regular prison. Imagine a meter by meter space with two slits for light, and one hole for a bathroom. That was her residence for a while, until Clement takes her out. He has her hung by her hair, and she confesses. Penalty: beheading for all of them. Beatrice’s mother, elder brother, and even Beatrice herself were beheaded. People protested so irately that when Beatrice went up to the chopping block, they surged the area and four people were trampled to death.
The remaining family member was Beatrice’s fourteen-year-old brother. Clement, knowing full well the sentiments of the Romans, and also cognizant of the law that anyone under sixteen could not be publicly executed, pretends to grant clemency to this adolescent. The crowd finally disperses. The youngest Cenci does not escape a terrible fate, however. He is castrated at the Pope’s command, and dies soon in prison of a botched castration. Romans say that Beatrice is as generous in her death as she was in life. On the anniversary of her execution, she walks up and down the Ponte degli Angeli from dusk until dawn. She is only seen by men who have evil in their heart. So, if a lady ever hears her gentleman mention a beautiful but ghostly Italian woman he saw once on the bridge, she will know his true nature.