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The façade of the Gesù, a major sixteenth-century church, and its piazza, a major 21st-century traffic node, almost empty (all images courtesy the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

ROME — At 6 pm on March 27 Pope Francis made an extraordinary appearance in the locked-down and rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square. He was being broadcast live across the world, giving a rare speech, Urbi et Orbi, “to the city and the world,” a form of address that is traditionally only used at Christmas, Easter, and upon the election of a new pope. Behind him, lit up dramatically against the façade of St Peter’s, were two sacred images that had been brought out especially for this event. One was the icon of the Virgin called the Salus Populi Romani, the “Salvation of the Roman People,” from the 13th century, and the other was a wooden crucifix from the following century which had miraculously survived a church fire when the rest of the building had been reduced to ash, and which was carried in procession in 1522 through the city when it was devastated by a bout of the plague. Both images have been venerated for centuries, along with a host of other religious imagery in the city, for their special protection against pestilence.

Pope Francis in front of the miraculous cross of San Marcello, after his Urbi et Orbi speech in the empty St Peter’s Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This was a particularly harsh day for Italy. Deaths from the coronavirus outbreak had reached 969 in the previous 24 hours — a new high — and total deaths since the beginning of the outbreak in the country numbered 9134. Everyone in Italy was scared. Two of the three state television networks broadcast the pope’s speech. He repeated a verse from Matthew 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” He spoke humanely of our common need for comfort, and after he had finished, he went to pray silently in front of the two sacred images. The piazza was spectral. He and a few attendants were alone in the vast space.

Just 19 days earlier, as a severe quarantine was imposed on areas of northern Italy afflicted by the coronavirus epidemic, Pope Francis did not give his customary Sunday speech from the window of the Apostolic Palace. The crowd in St. Peter’s Square watched him on the four papal jumbotrons as he delivered his blessing along with a short homily. I wondered why he allowed the crowd to gather there at all. They were putting themselves in danger of infection from each other, while he was safe in his palace above. In the end, as if to unite himself with the faithful from which he had initially separated himself, he opened the traditional window and waved to those gathered below.

Both the pope and the faithful who gathered below his windows were following a powerful impulse far older than they knew. A long and fascinating history of conflict interweaves disease, faith, and recovery. The Church is a community, a body of the faithful, and when the individual believer’s body is suffering, the believer has historically been drawn both to the faith, for solace and healing, and to the community, for comfort and nursing. What happens when an epidemic strikes and that profoundly human urge becomes part of the problem? Rome, as always a laboratory for the great human experiment of civilization, tells this contradictory story eloquently.

Inside the empty Chiesa Nuova, with its ceiling frescoes by Pietro da Cortona and altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens

Last time I was in St. Peter’s, I was fascinated by a 13th-century statue of the apostle (with a contested and unsettled provenance). Pilgrims and tourists lined up to stand before it. Everyone kept a discreet distance from each other. One by one they approached. Then they stretched out their hands and caressed its worn bronze foot. Some kissed their hand and then touched the foot, while others put their hand to the foot and then to their faces. As I stood watching them, I couldn’t help but be struck, once more, by the fearless physicality of Catholicism, as if faith alone were sufficient to overcome the threat of bacterial transmission, as if objects held sacred were exempt from the laws that govern the rest of the physical universe. This was three months ago, before I’d ever heard of the coronavirus.

All over Rome there are traces of the same need for physical contact with the holy. In the church of Sant’Agostino there is a 16th-century statue of the Virgin of Child Birth, whose marble foot had to be replaced with silver because it was so worn from the touch of supplicants — usually anxious fathers expecting a difficult delivery. Now the metal foot is also worn smooth. Two small marble crosses were inserted into opposite piers of the Colosseum, which was thought to be a site of Christian martyrdom. An inscription below each cross states the number of years and days you would be spared Purgatory if you kissed it. Theoretically you could go back and forth between these crosses and kiss your way out of Purgatory. If this all sounds like a recipe for disease transmission, it probably is.

An image of the worn foot of the statue of the Virgin of Child Birth in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The curative power of prayer has been a mainstay of Catholic faith from Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century to Mother Teresa in the 20th. Prayers to specific saints, like St. Roch and St. Sebastian, patrons of plague victims, were thought to be particularly effective. People gather at churches and chapels dedicated to doctor/saints such as the brothers Cosmas and Damian, not only in the hope of a miraculous cure, but also for the comfort of the community. In the eighth century, the sick could sleep in the chapels of the anargyroi (in Greek, “those who heal without payment”) and hope for a curative dream. In some hospice churches, like that of S. Maria in Cappella, there were beds placed in the side aisles even in the 19th century. Religious orders administered cures and ran hospitals, and indeed still do. But there were always situations in which herbal remedies and prayer were desperately insufficient.

The Black Death of the mid-1300s, which wiped out from between a third and a half of Europe’s population, was one such situation. In Venice, a major trading center, ships arriving were required to wait for 40 days before debarking passengers, because that was sufficient time for the bubonic plague to show its signs and take its casualties. The translation of “40 days” is una quarantina di giorni in Italian, and we get our word “quarantine” from it. But quarantine, enforced isolation, clashed with the medieval and early modern idea of the ecclesia, the church as a community, united in good and in bad times.

Left, Via di Monserrato, full of parked cars, empty of people, and, right, Via Giulia, a street cut through the urban fabric in 1508 by Julius II, almost completely without movement or traffic

The struggle between ecclesia and quarantine had lasted in Rome for more than three hundred years when a plague originating in the port of Naples began to push outward in spring of 1656. It spurred a tiny revolution that marked a turning point in the difficult relationship between worship and epidemic.

A reproduction of the venerated Madonna in Santa Maria in Portico (Madonna del Portico) on the facade of Palazzo Cavalletti in Piazza Campitelli. The church of Santa Maria in Portico in Naples is dedicated to the same image (photo by Lalupa via Wikimedia Commons).

In Rome, the most renowned protectress against the plague was the Madonna del Portico, a tiny precious icon of the Virgin and Child. A mere 25 centimeters tall, it is made of silver and champlevé enamel, and dates from the late 1200s. It was venerated in the church of S. Maria in Portico, in a low-lying area of the city. Nearby was the bridge to the Tiber Island, whose buildings had frequently been used as a lazzaretto or plague hospital. The church, run down and poor, was already the center of a neighborhood prone to illness, but in May 1656 the bubonic plague arrived in Rome from Naples. Pope Alexander VII activated a special health commission headed by a priest, Girolamo Gastaldi, who was put in charge of the lazzaretti in the Papal States.

Gastaldi took strict measures immediately. He closed all but eight of the city gates, and subjected everyone entering to a quarantine which he imposed on the entire city, closing up whole houses if even one inhabitant was ill, using a highly visible wax seal of contagion that, if broken, would act as a silent informant to the police. The residents would have to wait out the 40 days, with food raised up to the windows in baskets with twine. Holy water was no longer used in the churches. The terminally ill were isolated on the Tiber Island, the lazzaretto brutto or “terrible plague-house.” The gates of the Jewish Ghetto were closed. The furniture of a room in which a victim died would be burned in the street. In an unpopular gesture, Alexander VII ordered the church of S. Maria in Portico closed. But crowds continued to gather in the nearby streets until dispersed by the police and nobles had themselves smuggled into the presence of the holy image via the back door. In December 1656, the city government announced a public vow to move the holy image to a more dignified church, and from that day the plague seemed to abate. In reality, of course, it was Gastaldi’s policy of isolation that had started to work.

The Tiber Island and the “lazzaretto brutto”, with boats full of the dead, detail from Episodes in the Plague in Rome of 1656

By August 1657 the plague had run its course. Of the population of Rome, which was approximately 120,000 people, 15,000 deaths were registered between May 1656 and August 1657, an astonishingly low number given that Naples lost half its population of 300,000, and Genoa also had a 50% death rate. In fulfilment of the public vow, the Madonna del Portico was upgraded to a better church, S. Maria in Campitelli, in 1662 — in the dead of night so as to prevent rioting.

The goods of plague victims thrown out into the street and burned, detail from Episodes in the Plague in Rome of 1656

In 1684, when he was governor of Bologna, Girolamo Gastaldi published the first formal manual of quarantine: the Tractatus de avertenda et profliganda peste politico-legalis. The Tractatus became the principal manual for plague response. While thoroughly Catholic in its form and outlook, it concerned itself more with the physical rather than the spiritual health of the faithful. Its counsel seems very familiar in today’s Rome: Protect the gates; maintain quarantine; keep watch over your people. Also, close sites of popular aggregation, from taverns to churches with plague-preventing icons to St. Peter’s Square itself. Don’t gather at icons or touch the feet of statues.

Episodes in the Plague in Rome of 1656 etching (published 165-?) (Wellcome Library, London; Wellcome Images)

On March 9, 2020, a state decree extended the quarantine of Lombardy and 14 northern provinces to all Italy, effectively locking down 60 million people, including me. The government suspended all public gatherings, sports and cultural events, and even religious ceremonies, including Mass, weddings, and funerals. The following day, Pope Francis ordered the closure of St. Peter’s Basilica, the square, and the Vatican Museums. On March 11 another decree closed most businesses. All these actions stem indirectly from Cardinal Gastaldi’s Tractatus. Whether or not quarantine will save us remains to be seen. But the empty streets of today’s Rome are infinitely safer for us, its residents, than the 1656 streets teeming with the faithful in front of a locked church, kneeling in the mud to pray for the Virgin’s intercession while the epidemic passed silently from person to person like an invisible sword.

The statue of the Virgin of Child Birth (1515–1521) by Jacopo Sansovino in the Basilica of Sant’Agostino (photo by Peter1936F via Wikimedia Commons).

With the advent of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic tendency to defer to Church authority in all things weakened and medicine entered the sphere of science, where it remains. But the role of prayer in fighting epidemics has never disappeared. On Sunday, March 15, Pope Francis left the Vatican to make a solitary pilgrimage through the deserted streets of Rome to visit those important holy images against the plague: the Salus Populi Romani and the miraculous crucifix in the church of San Marcello. Both these images were closed to the public, during the plague of 1656–57 and are now in the present crisis. The pope, in making his journey on foot like a penitent, was standing in for all the faithful, to carry out the prayers of his flock, who could watch him remotely on television. The line between the spiritual and the practical had been drawn in 1656 when Gastaldi closed the churches, but the pope’s visit to the two healing icons reasserted the spiritual and miraculous nature of healing, building a tiny bridge between the need for social distancing and the need for social solidarity.

Even as a non-believer I think this bridge has value. The existence of a spiritual component in healing is a human constant, which expresses something inside us that reaches upward in search of a hand reaching downward. And this same something extends outward, to other people, in search of connection. Human contact of some kind is widely acknowledged to be an influence on healing. We are social animals and feeling the love and care of our communities helps us heal. In the person of the pope there is a meeting point between the believer’s longing for the divine and his or her longing for human contact. Father Bernard Healy, of Rome’s Irish College, explained to me why the pope made his solitary appearance in St. Peter’s Square under the rain.

The Pope is there on behalf of everyone else. It’s not that he as Pope has more “right” to be heard than anyone else, but rather that he has a responsibility for everyone, and so part of his responsibility is to lead the whole world in prayer. He’s there representing us in that he’s praying what we all want to pray; he’s also leading us in that his words are shaping the prayer that we’re all making.”

The direct efficacy of prayer on disease is debatable. But prayer as an act of reaching out is both a solitary and a social act, joining people with each other and with something larger than themselves. As I watched Pope Francis, a white figure against the background of the piazza at dusk, I felt both skepticism and a certain reluctant awe. I could understand why believers might take solace from his prayers in front of the holy images that had comforted centuries of worshippers. And I also thought of Cardinal Gastaldi, long forgotten, who codified the quarantine process that had led us to this scene, with the vast darkness of the empty square representing the isolation that protects us and, paradoxically, joins us together.

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Anthony Majanlahti

Anthony Majanlahti is the author of the bestseller The Families who Made Rome: a history and a guide and other books about Rome. He is currently writing a single-volume urban history of Rome from...