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The Madonna of ‘Roman Holiday’

Madonnelle Rome

© Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA

Our Lady of Divine Love - © Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

Marinella Bandini - published on 05/15/17

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck commented on today's image from our May tour of Rome's Little Madonnas.

We continue with our daily tour this month through a particular artistic expression of Marian devotion: Rome’s “Madonnelle” (“little Madonnas”). These are images of Mary—some of them miraculous—scattered throughout the streets and alleyways of the city. They are the object of much popular devotion. Follow the series here: Little Madonnas of Rome

Madonna of Divine Love: Viale del Policlinico

In war stories people tell in Rome, the Madonna is never absent—especially the Madonna of Divine Love. A beautiful shrine dedicated to her is found against the Aurelian Walls of Castro Pretorio, a few steps from the Umbert I Hospital, where those wounded in the war were hospitalized.

This shrine is actually a small chapel, with a front gate. “Ave Maria” is written over the entrance, and a small tile roof protects the shrine from the rain. Inside, under a blue mosaic vault, is a small altar; above it, inside a masonry niche, is a polychrome mosaic of the Virgin of Divine Love.

The story is that this little Madonna was placed here by a survivor during the war, in memory of the misfortunes that took place between July 19, 1943 (the first bombing of San Lorenzo) and the day when the Allies entered Rome, on June 4, 1944.

Various stories are told about miracles worked by the Virgin in the context of battle incidents. For example, some civilians escaped aerial strafing by throwing themselves in the shelter of the wall, under the image of the Madonna, to whom they attribute their salvation. There is also the case of someone who remained remarkably uninjured after having fallen on the tracks where the tram passed.

Episodes like these were typically followed by a gesture of thanksgiving. Consequently, this wall began to fill up with memorial “ex voto” marble plaques, which soon covered it completely. It is difficult to imagine what it must have looked like, when we see that same wall completely empty today. The plaques were removed and transferred to the shrine of the Madonna of Divine Love in the 1960s, in coordination with the creation of new infrastructure and the removal of the sidewalk that ran along the wall.

Madonnelle Rome
© Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA
Our Lady of Divine Love - © Antoine Mekary / ALETEIA

But that wall, while it was still clothed in the white marble of the ex voto plaques, was immortalized in a few scenes of the famous movie Roman Holiday. In answer to a question from Audrey Hepburn (Anna), Gregory Peck (Joe) explains, “People come, and whenever their wishes are granted, they put up another one of these little plaques.”

Vacances Romaines – MD015
Vacances RomainesRoman Holiday1953real : William WylerGregory PeckAudrey Hepburn.COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Paramount

“Lovely story,” she responds. And it is beautiful how the devotion has remained alive even after the wall has been stripped of the plaques. The shrine is always clean and orderly, the candles are lit, and the flowers are fresh. To the left of the mosaic is a marble plaque that reads:

So that no one may forget and despair, the City of Rome wants this sacred image to be venerated here because when we found ourselves in the midst of war, without any further escape, trapped between slavery and death, it alone smiled upon us.


Follow the series here: Little Madonnas of Rome

See more articles like this at Aleteia’s Art & Travel section.

Little Madonnas of RomeVirgin Mary
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