Today, 18th of March , we are just starting our second week in isolation. The streets are empty and everything is incredibly silent, without the...
On December 8, a snow-white papamobile leads a caravan of black limos from Vatican City to the Column of the Immaculate Conception in Piazza Mignanelli, the southwest extension of Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. Dedicated shortly after Pius IX declared that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the moment of her conception, was preserved from all stain of Original Sin, this monument stands in front of the Palace of the Propagation of the Faith.
Few Romans actually believe in the Immaculate Conception. The crowd is here to enjoy the spectacle and to get a head start on its holiday shopping. Today, after all, marks the beginning of the Christmas season. But in a city of red tape, everyone admires the bureaucratic neatness of church dogma. As a personal favor, Pio IX had allowed his Boss’s mother to retroactively receive the sanctifying grace available to ordinary people only after birth in the sacrament of baptism. It was the ultimate grandfather or rather grandmother clause.
His Holiness descends from a bulletproof glass booth and blesses the spectators. He carries a wreath of white roses decorated with a gold ribbon. The Spanish ambassador and several Spanish cardinals greet and invite him to sample tapas after the ceremony. The Spanish embassy to the Holy See is conveniently located across the square. The Mayor of Rome, wearing a tricolor sash, bows and introduces the Prefect of the Department of Fire Watch, Public Rescue, and Protection.
Dressed in uniform, the Prefect puffs his chest and presents his own wreath. With a red ribbon as long as a dragon’s tail, it bears the motto “Flammas domamus, donamus corda.” We tame flames, giving our hearts. Back in 1857, Rome’s firemen had volunteered to raise this 40-foot column to the Immacolata: 220 stouthearted lads worked under the direction of architect Luigi Poletti. Sixty-two years later, long before any pontiff made a pilgrimage to Piazza Mignanelli, the pompieri began the tradition of offering flowers—not for pious show but to beseech the Madonna’s protection. For all these reasons, the Holy Father tolerates the Prefect’s cheek.
A delegate from the Naples City Council kneels and kisses the Pope’s ring. He smiles sheepishly and prays no one will mention a lingering controversy concerning the column. Ostensibly, Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, had commissioned the monument to honor the memory and to lobby for the beatification of his first wife, the saintly Maria Cristina of Savoy. Actually, Ferdinand was atoning for his great-grandfather Carlo di Borbone. Because the Vatican had refused to recognize his coronation, Carlo had abolished the chinea or hackney: a white mare and a sum of money the King of Naples was obliged to offer the Pope as a feudal tribute every June 29 (the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul). Even after 270 years, relations remain awkward.
His Holiness and the dignitaries process to a waiting fire truck, which the Pope sprinkles with an aspergillum. He hands his wreath to the Prefect, who mounts the truck and climbs to the top of a retracted aluminum ladder. The Pope flicks a switch. A motor whirs, and the ladder slowly rises. Ascending, the Prefect caresses the Corinthian column, sculpted in my day from Cippolino marble but unearthed in 1777 during the construction of the monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione.
Once, this column might have been topped by a helmeted Minerva brandishing a spear. Now it supports a smiling Maria on a crescent and globe, stomping a serpent. The Prefect places his wreath at the Virgin’s feet and slips the Pope’s wreath around her right arm, where it will remain until next December.
Everyone looks up, including the four statues at the column’s base. These represent the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs who supposedly foretold the Immaculate Conception: David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Moses. Moses’s lips pucker within his forked beard. Whenever I try to talk to him, he whistles. Possibly he disapproves of so much idolatry; but in a piazza thronged with so many unemployed, the whistling may connote other sentiments.
Unshaven men admire the papamobile: a white Mercedes-Benz SUV. The last Pope was German, so Mercedes offered the Vatican a huge discount on a shipment of twelve. One for each apostle. Does this explain why Mercedes sponsors the Christmas decorations on Via dei Condotti? The company logo hangs from the trees like Stars of Bethlehem. The papal license plate reads SCV: “Status Civitatis Vaticanae,” Vatican City State. But the men claim it means “Se Cristo Vedesse.” If Christ could see this.
Pasquino’s secretary is Anthony Di Renzo, associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. You may reach him at email@example.com.