Photos of Renaissance and Baroque roadside altars in Rome, Italy

Rome's Mysterious Roadside Altars

[Regions of Italy]

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

As you make your way from one world-renowned Roman sight to another, we hope you will slow down and stroll rather than scurry. If you do, chances are you'll start to notice that Madonna -- the Holy Virgin, that is, not the rock star -- is everywhere.  

Always humble, always vigilant, she quietly adorns the façades of ancient ruins, crumbling medieval watchtowers, Renaissance palaces and nondescript edifices.


These images might be painted or sculpted; she might be alone or with her Child, or surrounded by half the Heavenly Host….


…she might be embellished by a marble inscription….


…or a bouquet of plastic flowers or even a tiny photograph of a mere mortal; she might be protected by a canopy or umbrella…


…standing atop an adoring saint….


…half-hidden by an overgrown tree or vine….


…faded almost beyond recognition….


…or so huge and colorful she stops you dead in your tracks.


Not surprisingly for Rome, where everything goes back to something that goes back to something else, the origin of these "Madonelle" (an affectionate diminutive) actually traces all the way back to the pagans, Rome's first residents, who worshipped their deities in temples they called aedicule.


Just as the early Christians adopted many of the customs, rituals and even calendar dates of the pagans, so did they transform their massive pagan temples into small, personalized altars almost always dedicated to the Virgin Mary.


Most of these little temples, or edicole, as they are now called, were erected by aristocratic families, religious orders or confraternities (which were the Catholic church's equivalent of the Rotary Club and Facebook). Often they commemorated a miracle; just as often they were the Baroque version of today's keeping up with the Joneses.


Rarely are they important from an artistic point of view. Their value stems from the devotion and faith that led to their creation. Over the centuries they have continued to inspire millions of pilgrims as they made their way on foot to the Vatican, such as this massive one which actually sits above Via del Pellegrino (Pilgrim's Street), the last stretch before one reached St. Peter's.


Today they can be an entertaining scavenger hunt for church-weary youngsters.


No matter your age, religious beliefs or aesthetics, keep an eye out for the Madonelle and when you see one, try to imagine who commissioned her and then think of the hopes she has ignited in the hearts of so many millions of travelers over the centuries.


There are hundreds of these edicole in Rome. Here are just a few of our very favorite examples:

Last but definitely not least, our very favorite is the one in Via Arco della Ciambella. She is a veritable repository of Roman history and folk culture. Just think, she sits at the foot of a column from Rome's very first ancient bath; quintessential Renaissance angels hold her crown above her head, around which swirl a dozen silver votive emblems left by worshippers in gratitude for fulfillment of a miracle; a silver crown adorns the head of her little Babe; 18th-century street lamps flank the recycled marble frame inside which the Holy Pair reside...

….and beneath the shelf where anyone can leave a votive candle is a marble inscription. Below the edge of the photograph is a marble bench. Until 1989 when our 17th-century building finally got a doorbell, friends who came to visit us knew to sit below the Madonella and shout our names at the top of their lungs. In due time, we would lean over the side of our 6th-floor terrace and throw down the key to the 15-foot-tall front door. Thank you, Madonella, for keeping our friends such good company on those cold winter nights before the arrival of the doorbell!

Text and photographs by Kristin Jarratt

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

Click here for more information about Rome.