I tell people all the time when they come to Italy they have to look up. There is so much above eye level here that you don’t want to miss. When you look down a winding alley in an ancient village, it’s a beautiful sight. Three or more story buildings all leaning on each other, just at the right angle, painted in faded pastels of pink, orange, beige, and yellow, mixed in with the raw stones. The cobblestones slant toward the middle just enough to channel the rainwater away from the doorsteps. Flower pots, window boxes, and benches adorn the fronts of houses providing a jolt of color against these muted tones. But if you don’t look up, you miss details that will make you sigh.
Shrines, Capitello, and Madonnelle in Italy
One the most endearing things here are the many shrines that are scattered around and generally exist above eye level. They’re in the sides of buildings, on corners, in walls, and free standing on the roadways. Called capitello or madonnelle, they are there to offer a blessing to those who ask. Like so many things religious, these started as pagan shrines depicting various deities to ward off evil and protect travelers. Eventually they came to have Catholic themes – mostly the Madonnna and child.
A Secular State
It’s no secret that Italy is a Catholic country. However, Catholicism has taken a hit in the last few decades and while about 80% of Italians identify as Catholic, only about a quarter of them attend mass regularly. This figure is even lower for younger Italians, making you wonder about what the religious future will look like. My own very unacademic research bears this out. However, for all the bluster about not being religious, Catholicism still remains a very important, albeit transparent, part of Italian life.
Italy is technically a secular state with separation of church and state. In practice, however, the lines are very blurred. As Americans who are very sensitive about religious inclusivity, some of the things we witness cause us to inwardly gasp. Like the time we went to the dedication of the new city hall and the priest led the procession through the piazza and blessed the building and the crowd gathered. Or the time we went to the L’Intrepida, a big bike race, and before the first bike set out, everyone was blessed by the priest. When we ask about this seeming contradiction, Italians shrug and say that’s just the way it is. They’re not bothered by it and they certainly don’t find it odd. And that’s one of the things I love about Italians. They pretty much live and let live, knowing that there’s always something bigger to worry about than the priest scattering holy water on the steps of the city hall.
Blessings for the People
The shrines are works of art. Some are breathtakingly gorgeous and others are rustic and simple, almost crude. They reflect the skills and emotions of their creator. I would love to know the story behind each of them. Were they put there by the owner in an attempt to attone for something? Or simply as a way to remind us that we all need a little help along the way? Whatever the reason, they exist for us all to either enjoy or use and I think that’s one of the most generous things imaginable.
Some are for very specific purposes. Being the good Baptist that I am, I can’t differentiate between the different various saints and their meanings, but the Italians know. Once we passed one that had a multitude of flowers and other offerings at its base. Michelangelo told me it was for women wanting to have a baby. I guess I can see it now – the Madonna cradling her belly as if to say “If I could do it, you can, too”. Now, I imagine that most women wanting to have babies are under 40 and if Catholicism is waning most amongst this group, then who is putting all these offerings at the feet of the Madonna? Maybe they’re just hedging their bets, thinking that it can’t hurt to ask the Madonna for help. But I suspect that when they put their offering there, they looked into her eyes, then closed theirs, and said a little prayer. And deep down they felt a connection and a comfort and maybe a little hope.
One of my favorites is this one in Anghiari. It’s a free standing shelter, almost a chapel. One of the things I love about it is that it’s just next to a batch of trash dumpsters, so you can multi-task and dump your garbage and get blessed all on the same trip. It’s neat as a pin, even has a broom and dust pan stashed in the corner. I imagine that if you come to leave an offering or just for a blessing and you notice the floor is dirty, you do your part and tidy up. There are always plants, flowers, and candles artfully arranged around the main image. This one seems to be all about Mary and the baby Jesus, although there is one image of St. Rita in there. You can never go wrong adding in the patron saint of impossible causes, in my opinion. It’s kind of a catch-all for everything that could be going wrong.
There’s something very comforting about walking through a village, or down a country road, and looking up to see a shrine. They almost all have offerings – a small bunch of flowers, a rosary, a cross – and you know that they exist to ease suffering. People come to them and give thanks for what they have, seek the blessings that are out there for us all to uncover, or try to find relief from pain. And I like to think that after someone spends a minute or two standing in front of them, in gratitude or supplication, they walk away stronger.
These shrines are a relic of a time gone by but they still draw people to them. You don’t see shrines being put on new buildings or sitting atop new walls. That makes them even more precious to me. These aren’t church sanctioned things, they are gifts created by ordinary people. Gifts that span the centuries and offer a guidepost for navigating through the uncertainties of life.