Tuesday, February 28, 2012

La Madonna di Monte Mario

Today's photos:


1. The Madonnina di Monte Mario.

2. A close-up look at the statue.

3. This is what the statue looks like from Rome's Olympic Stadium.

4. And this is what the stadium looks like from the statue!

5. The 50th anniversary poster created in 2003. (For fifty years on the hill for peace yesterday and today).

6. A fireman examines storm damage. (internet photo)

7. Pius XII at the scene of the bombing of the San Lorenzo zone. (internet photo)



Of the thousands of statues, paintings and mosaics of the Madonna in Rome, perhaps the one which is most loved by the Romans is the statue which is the most visible. This visibility is due to two factors: the statue's size and its location. The statue itself, made of gold plated bronze and copper, weighs over seven and a half tons and is nine meters high; in addition, it stands on a base which is nineteen meters high. Furthermore, Its location is at the top of Monte Mario, the highest point in the city at 132 meters.  It was erected on April 4, 1953 as an ex-voto, a votive offering requested by the signatures of over one million Romans to thank the Madonna for sparing the city of Rome during WWII.


A curiosity


Despite its visibility from the city below, it is not easy to get to see the statue from close because it stands behind locked gates on the grounds of the Centro Don Orione, a catholic institution which houses both a rehabilitation center for the disabled and a high school. I was fortunate enough on my recent visit to meet don Giuseppe Valiante who graciously accompanied me to the rear of the property and allowed me not only to see the statue at close quarters, but also to climb the steps inside the base and come out on the platform at the feet of the statue, from where there is a spectacular view of the northern part of the city as well as the hills beyond. This view includes Rome's Olympic Stadium and next to it the headquarters of the Government's Foreign Ministry (State Department).


The story of this statue goes back to the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) who appealed to the people of Rome in early June of 1944 to beg the Madonna to protect the city from the destruction being caused by WWII.  The appeal of the pope came at a dramatic moment because at that time Rome was occupied by the Germans, while the allies were closing in on the city after the landing at Anzio/Nettuno.  It was feared that there would be fierce fighting with much destruction and bloodshed, particularly in the civilian population, when the allies actually entered the city.  A few days after the pope's appeal, however, Rome was liberated on June 4 as the Germans retreated to the north without opposing the entrance of the allies into the Eternal City.  The successful liberation of Rome was attributed to the intercession of the Madonna. Her official title, therefore is Maria Salus Populi Romani (Mary the salvation of the Roman people).


A curiosity


Many people think that Rome was completely spared from the wartime destruction. The fact is, however, that  In July of 1943, the allied forces made a devastating bombing attack on the San Lorenzo area of the city in an attempt to destroy railway connections.  Unfortunately the bombing killed many civilians and caused great damage to the area, including the ancient basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.  One of the first to reach the scene of this bombing was Rome's bishop, Pope Pius XII.  There is a dramatic photograph (see above) of the pontiff with his arms spread wide as he prays in the middle of a crowd of stunned survivors immediately after the bombing.


The artist who fashioned the statue of the Madonnina was Arrigo Minerbi, a Jew who had been saved from deportation to Nazi concentration camps by Romans who hid him from the Germans.  He refused any payment for his work, his way of thanking the citizens of Rome for what they had done for him.  He created the statue, in part, using brass pots and pans provided by the Romans themselves, making this a truly unique monument.


A curiosity


Many people who see a close-up of the statue are surprised to see that the face seems to resemble more Christ rather than his mother. The reason for this is that the artist gave to the Madonna the face of Christ as it appears on the Shroud of Turin. His reasoning here was that the face of the son often reflects the face of the mother.


Despite the statue's great size, the Romans have given it the nickname Madonnina (the little Madonna).  This diminutive, however, in the Italian language, can also carry with it the sense of affection or tenderness.  To render the idea of the name in English, it is as if a father would continue to call his daughter his "little princess" even after she has reached adulthood.


The enormous statue kept watch over the Eternal City without incident until the fateful night of October 12, 2009.  There was a vicious storm with high winds that night, and when people awoke the next morning, the first thing many of them noticed was that the statue was no longer standing at the top of the hill.  In fact, the storm had taken its toll, and the Madonnina had fallen and received serious damage, including one arm which was completely broken off.


For once, all the citizens of Rome, from whatever walk of life, and of whatever political and religious persuasion, were in full agreement: the Madonna di Monte Mario must be   repaired and returned to her position on the hill overlooking the city as soon as possible.  And, in fact, work on the restoration of the statue began almost immediately and was completed within ten months of the incident.  The statue was returned to its pedestal high above the city, and on June 24, 2010, none other than Pope Benedict XVI himself came to bless it in a solemn ceremony.  As the Pope himself stated at the ceremony: "This majestic statue of the Madonna has returned to keep watch over our city from the hill."


So the next time you happen to be in the Eternal City, let your gaze move up and toward the north so you can admire the magnificent sight of the Madonnina di Monte Mario.


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