Ex voto. Gli italoamericani e le radici dell’antica Roma

La Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Monte Carmelo (un monte in Palestina) nella 115esima strada dell’East Harlem: fu la prima parrocchia italiana degli Stati Uniti. Il ‘culto’ di questa madonna sollevò polemiche tra il clero cattolico americano ma venne poi legittimato da Papa Leone XIII. La statua venne ‘incoronata’ nel 1904. Click for credits

English version

New York City, 17 luglio 1900

In quel giorno il New York Times scrisse:

“Little Italy [...] era in pompa magna ieri, il giorno della festa di Nostra Signora del Carmine. Una folla di italiani, variamente stimata tra le 40.000 e le 75.000 persone, assediava il santuario nella Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Carmine nella 115esima strada, dalle 4 del mattino fino a tarda notte. La folla recava in offerta candele di ogni dimensione, denaro, gioielli, figure in cera e in un caso un paio di occhiali”.

Nostra Signora del Carmine esce dalla chiesa nel 2004 durante la celebrazione del centesimo anniversario della sua coronazione. Click for credits

Abbiamo scambiato delle idee qui nel blog del MoR sul tema delle feste religiose italiane e sul loro significato.

Adesso vorrei richiamare l’attenzione su quelle figure in cera. Cosa sono?

Sono per lo più ex voto anatomici, cioè “modelli di arti o organi in relazione ai quali i devoti imploravano la Madonna perché sanasse le corrispondenti parti del corpo umano” – come scrisse il NYT in un altro articolo dello stesso periodo.

Ex voto. Museo d’antropologia e etnografia, Cagliari. Click for credits

Come osserva Robert Anthony Orsi (a p. 3 del suo libro The Madonna of 115th streetFaith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Yale University Press, 1985) :

“I venditori di articoli religiosi collocavano bancarelle lungo i marciapiedi, in competizione con il commercio locale in articoli religiosi. Le bancarelle erano zeppe di copie in cera di organi interni umani e modelli di arti e teste umane. Chi era stato guarito – o sperava di essere guarito – dalla Madonna dei mal di testa o delle artriti recava nella grande processione modelli in cera degli arti e delle parti del corpo malate, ben dipinte per farle apparire più realistiche. Il fedele poteva anche acquistare statue di cera raffiguranti neonati, amuleti per scongiurare il malocchio, come ad esempio piccole corna da indossare attorno al collo o piccoli gobbi rossi, il tutto venduto assieme a santini, statue di Gesù, di Maria, dei santi, e a parti anatomiche del corpo”.

Antica Roma, 342 a.C.

Marcia è felice. Suo figlio, di 14 anni, si è appena ristabilito da un terribile incidente di strada. Le gambe fratturate sono guarite e lui adesso può camminare nuovamente. La lettiga che la trasporta viene adagiata sull’acciottolato. Marcia ne esce ed entra in una bottega di fronte all’isola Tiberina dove si trova il tempio di Esculapio, il dio della medicina e della guarigione. Marcia acquista due gambe in terracotta che di lì a poco porterà al tempio del dio, come dono sacro e simbolo di gratitudine.

Ex voto anatomici dell’antica Grecia

Marcia è un personaggio immaginario ma un vera e propria bottega-deposito risalente a più di duemila anni fa – in piena epoca repubblicana – fu rinvenuta nella primavera del 1885 durante gli scavi per la costruzione del muraglione sinistro del Tevere.

Conteneva – come scriverà l’archeologo Rodolfo Lanciani nel 1898 (L’antica Roma, cap. III p.87, Newton & Compton, 2005) “un gran numero di oggetti anatomici in terracotta dipinta, finemente modellata, e rappresentanti teste, orecchie, occhi, seni, braccia, mani, ginocchia, gambe, piedi ecc. Si trattava di ex-voto offerti alle divinità greco-romane da madri e parenti riconoscenti”.

In realtà, Lanciani aggiunge, “sembra che all’ingresso del ponte Fabricio [chiamato in seguito anche Ponte Quattro Capi, vedi immagine sotto, ndr] che conduce dal Campo Marzio all’isola vi fossero botteghe per la vendita di ex-voto di ogni genere … “

Il Pons Fabricius, chiamato Quattro Capi, rimasto intatto dai tempi dell’antica Roma. Conduce all’Isola Tiberina dove si trovava il tempio di Esculapio. Click for credits

Ex voto anatomici offerti alle divinità in segno di gratitudine o nella speranza di guarigioni erano comuni presso innumerevoli popoli antichi. Esistevano in Mesopotamia, nella Creta minoica, nell’antico Egitto ecc, ma i reperti più numerosi sono stati rinvenuti in Grecia e soprattutto nell’Italia centrale dove la maggior parte di essi risale al periodo tra il IV e il I secolo a.C.

Numerosi gli ex voto anatomici anche nelle province dell’impero romano. In Gallia, l’attuale Francia, ad esempio, essi erano numerosi nei santuari della Dea Sequana, la dea celtica della Senna.

Robert A. Orsi nel suo bel libro sulla Madonna del Carmine a New York City non fa uso del termine ‘pagano’ in riferimento alla religiosità italoamericana del periodo 1880-1950.

Egli tuttavia parla di paganesimo quando descrive la reazione dei cattolici non italiani nei confronti della religiosità italiana. Gli italiani sbarcati in America vennero infatti accusati di superficialità religiosa e di strane pratiche pagane.

“In un aspro attacco pubblicato sul The Catholic world nel 1888 – riferisce Orsi a pag. 55 del libro citato – il reverendo Bernard Lynch criticò duramente ‘il particolare tipo di condizione spirituale’ degli immigrati italiani, che si nutrivano di pellegrinaggi, santuari, santini, devozioni, ma che mancavano di qualsiasi reale comprensione della ‘grande verità della religione’ “.

Nella pagina successiva Orsi parla di “un sacerdote italiano che passò tutta la vita nell’East Harlem e nella chiesa del Carmine” e che riferì all’autore di come “egli avesse sempre saputo che il clero irlandese era contrario alle devozioni della Madonna del Carmine perché le considerava superstizioni pagane:” “Ci vedevano come africani, come gente strana. E rifiutavano tutto ciò … Eravamo sempre guardati dall’alto in basso, come se stessimo facendo qualcosa di male … “.

English original

Post di argomento simile:

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Politeismo dell’antica Roma e venerazione dei santi (1)
Politeismo dell’antica Roma e venerazione dei santi (2)
Sopravvivenze della dea romana Fortuna

Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

The Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on 115th street, East Harlem, the first Italian Parish in the USA. The ‘cult’ raised controversy among the US Catholic clergy but was legitimized by Pope Leo XIII. The statue was ‘crowned’ in 1904. Click for credits

Italian version

New York City, July 17 1900.

The New York Times wrote on that day:

“Little Italy […] was out in gala attire yesterday, which was the day of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A crowd of Italians estimated variously at from 40,000 to 75,000 besieged the shrine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at 115th street and Avenue A, from 4 o’clock in the morning until late at night, bringing with them as offerings candles of all sizes, money, jewellery, wax figures, and in one case a pair of spectacles.”

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel exits the church during the 2004 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the statue’s coronation. Click for credits

We exchanged ideas in this discussion at the MoR’s about the significance of Italian religious feasts.

Now I’d like to draw attention on those wax figures. What are they?

They are mostly anatomical ex votos, i.e. “models of the limbs or organs they prayed the Madonna would heal” – another NYT article reports.

Ex votos. Anthropology and Ethnography Museum, Cagliari, Italy. Click for credits

As Robert Anthony Orsi observes (at page 3 of his 1985 book “The Madonna of 115th streetFaith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950”) :

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who has been healed – or hoped to be healed – by the Madonna of the headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the wax body parts.”

Ancient Rome, 342 BC.

Marcia is happy. Her 14-year-old son has recovered from a terrible cart accident. His fractured legs have healed and he can walk again. The lectica carrying her is now set down. She gets out of it and enters a shop not far from the temple of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing. She buys two terra-cotta legs that she will soon take to the temple of the god on the Tiber island, as a sacred gift expressing her gratitude.

Anatomical ex votos from ancient Greece

Marcia is fictional but a real ancient Roman shop going back more than a couple of thousand years earlier perhaps (the period of the Roman Republic) was discovered in the spring of 1885 in the foundations of the left embankment of the Tiber.

It contained – archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani wrote a few years later – “a large number of anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs, feet, ex-votos offered by happy mothers etc.” to the Greco-Roman deities.

In fact, Lanciani adds, “it seems that at the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte Quattro Capi, see image below), leading from the Campus Martius to the island [where the temple of the god was located, MoR], there were shops for the sale of ex‑votos of every description …”

Pons Fabricius, called Quattro Capi, the most ancient bridge in Rome. It leads to the Tiber Island where the temple of Aesculapius was located. Click for credits

Anatomical ex votos as offerings to a deity out of gratitude or in hope for healing were common in many ancient peoples. They existed in Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt etc. but the most numerous finds were unearthed in Greece and especially in central Italy where most of them date back from the 4th to the 1st century BC.

We also found anatomical ex votos in provinces of the Roman empire. In Gallia now France, for example, they were present in sanctuaries of Dea Sequana, the Celtic goddess of the river Seine.

Robert A. Orsi in his valuable work on NYC  Madonna of Mount Carmel does not make use of the term ‘pagan’ as for the Italian-Americans of the period 1880-1950 [I wonder why. I don't think there is anything shameful about the traces of ancient customs. Quite the contrary]

Paganism is though mentioned when he describes the reaction of the non Italian Catholics to the Italian religiosity. Italians were accused of religious superficiality and of weird, pagan practices.

“In a bitter attack published in The Catholic world in 1888 – Orsi refers at p. 55 -, the Reverend Bernard Lynch excoriated “the peculiar kind of spiritual condition” of the Italian immigrants, fed on pilgrimages, shrines, holy cards, and ‘devotions’ “but lacking any understanding of ‘the great truth of religion’.”

On the following page Orsi mentions “an Italian priest who spent his own life in East Harlem and at Mount Carmel” and who told the author that “he always knew the Irish Clergy were against the Mount Carmel devotions, viewing them as pagan superstitions: “They thought we were Africans, that there was something weird. They didn’t accept it at all …We were always looked upon as though we were doing something wrong…”.

Related posts:

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

See also the survival, in the Italian South, of the Greek notion of the ‘envious’ gods:

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Calcagni’s Memoirs. Carlo, Night Owl, Comes Back Home Late. Night Scenes (12)

Downtown alley by night in today’s Rome. Click for attribution

12th excerpt from the memoirs of Carlo Calcagni, my maternal grandmother’s eldest brother and a true Roman born almost one and a half century ago. Read all excerpts posted so far in English or in Carlo’s original Italian text.

Here the original Italian text of this post.

ψ

Having a small house and also needing more freedom our family had the men’s and the women’s departments. The males with my father, the females with my mother.

Only in the dead of night one could see my father (he suffered a bit from insomnia) wandering like a ghost around all departments, opening windows, letting pure and new air in and then closing all up again; and this invariably all nights, not just on one occasion, in summer and in winter, ‘to refresh the air’ he used to say.

The departments lasted untouched until some space was made due to the departure of two males for military service. Thus my father could have a room on his own while my mother remained with her two daughters, Agnese and Maria.

I on my own in another room since my father went to bed at 9 pm while I (by that time older and clerk) was a night owl and came back home at impossible hours and could therefore disturb my father’s extremely light sleep. My mother stayed up very late at night since when everyone was asleep she only felt free to collect her thoughts in fervent, long and exhausting prayer.

Then she prayed quite a lot for all of us, for her husband already much suffering, for her daughter, the nun, for us sons, for the other spinster daughter and also primarily because while in prayer she could well wait until I came back home so that she could serenely rest.

Every night one could hear this endless two-rooms-away duet between dad and mum:

“Rachele, turn off the light.”
“Has Carlo come back home?”
“Not yet.”
“What is he doing?”
“May the Madonna guide him and save him from danger. Turn off the light now.”
“I’m almost done.”

My mother at last heard a distant voice that was approaching and singing in the silence of the night. It was me who practiced in the nocturnal quiet in search of the best voice setting while phrasing some opera tune. Therefore when I entered our house I found complete darkness and the deepest calm, the only sign of life being Titino’s warmly and silent welcome (our dog.)

Sitting softly at the table without making any noise I ate the food now cold mum had prepared for me. The calm was though only apparent since my father certainly did not sleep and my mother perhaps neither.

Roman street lamp at night time. Click for attribution

At that point one could hear as light as a breath my father’s voice giving the family news, commenting for me on the facts of the day, criticizing me.

And I silent, without breathing a word …

“Yes, he (that is me) thinks he’s intelligent and understanding because he has studied (I was graduated in law) and instead he’s a twerp! Now he’s begun to study singing … but he has no voice!!”

And there followed the most ‘tactful’ allusions to my faults, to my manias or peculiar expressions.

“Well then, well then” was my pet phrase.

After which he softly and in spurts repeated excerpts from letters I had received, from invitation cards or postcards from my future wife that he had read, since he, the father, had the right to know everything, to read everything, even to open a letter addressed to me.

I remember that at Christmas time Bice, my future how future wife – at that time only our, or rather my acquaintance – sent me the cutest postcard with the image of a little angel knocking at a closed door, under which she had written:

“Unfortunately I do not know if I ever will be that little angel … “

And in the night my father punctual and in the silence of my very late dinner, with a petite voice full of intention, began to say and to repeat many times:

“Unfortunately I do not know ….”

Right. Unfortunately? Why then unfortunately … because I was my father’s real worry and continuous preoccupation. He talked not much with me anymore because I was grown up, I had studied, deemed myself self-sufficient and especially because he felt like a reticence to show his interest to me. I too felt a reserve and a sort of fear (pauriccia) towards my father; in substance I feared his caustic spirit and the power of his humour so much superior to mine.

However my mother told me that my father by coming home every evening minutely inquired about me and my doings.

“What is Carlo saying? What is he doing? Was he in a cheerful mood? Why doesn’t he take a wife?”

He cared after all a lot about me but didn’t want me to feel it, he didn’t want to confess it to me or, better still, he did not want to even admit it.

Original version in Italian
Published in: on February 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm  Comments (17)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Julius Caesar

Don Juanism

Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan was Spanish? And this craze about Rudolph Valentino and this helluva Latin lover thing? Italians do it better?

Not so sure though someone says there’s something sensual (and annoying?) in them and in our Latin cousins, something felt as sinful and almost amoral but, for this same reason, irresistible.

[Did a star like Madonna build her career partially upon this and other ambiguities? I'll think about it]

ψ

In other posts (see a list at the bottom) we had supposed connections between Latin folks’ behaviours and pre-Christian sexual mores.

In our last post we have imagined a connection between Italian cynicism and possible survivals of Paganism in our country.

It is time today to fathom a bit the phenomenon of Don Juanism.

Irritating Behaviours

Some Italian behaviours are irritating, without a doubt.

When the young males from here go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, as soon as everybody is drunk they think they are entitled to seduce ALL the German women around, and of course they are very much frowned upon.

When I was a silly teenager, I confess we used to hunt for female tourists all over the historical centre of Rome. We did this rationally, exactly like hunters do, and of course the majority of the women weren’t so happy about it (well, the minority was our shameless, or shameful, reward.)

This behaviour was sort of common to all Italians (more or less) but now it only gets marked the closer one gets to the South of the peninsula, where good or bad traditions are preserved.

The men from the Italian South tend to be sexually free, while the women are kept under control (or kinda.)

A patriarchal behaviour that is still alive in many Islamic societies (see Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, a Naguib Mahfouz’s character) and whose roots are prior to the Greco-Romans.

ψ

South Italian men try to seduce women, no matter what, when, how: they think they are all Casanovas.

And the Italian women? They are very provocative too in their own way although here we will concentrate on the men.

[Sept 2013 update: examples of South Italian women's provocative behaviour are provided by some characters depicted by Andrea Camilleri in inspector Montalbano's series of novels and TV series]

Another Side of Julius Caesar

Caesar's bronze statue (modern copy) in Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

There is something we have to understand. Searching far back in the past might shed light on present behaviours. Let us consider one of the most admired (and loved) Romans of all times, Julius Caesar (see above flowers from tourists at the feet of his majestic bronze statue.)

He had greatness in all he did, such a supreme soul, more rational than Alexander, abstemious, with intense intellect, courage, utmost strength and daring even in old age.

He had a great vision and many historians think today that without Caesar the Greco-Roman world could have perished many centuries earlier with massive consequences, which makes him even more a giant compared to the average man.

[below an updated Feb-2014-related-posts list]

Caesar's daughter Julia, wife to Pompey

Julia, Caesar’s daughter, became Pompey’s wife. Pompey was Caesar’s friend, ally, relative. Caesar nonetheless cuckolded him

And yet there is another side of Julius Caesar we might like less.

He was totally addicted to sexual pleasure (only ambition in him was greater, argues Montaigne) and he endangered his career a few times because of this.

Caesar was very good-looking and narcissistic. He tried to hide his thinning hair (like our prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.) He plucked the hairs of his body and made use of the most exquisite perfumes. He liked his skin to be as perfect as that of a woman.

He changed wife four times. He probably had an affair with the King of Bithynia Nicomedes IV (was Caesar bisexual? read here,) with Cleopatra queen of Egypt, with Eunoe queen of Mauritania. He perhaps slept with many of his soldiers.

He chose himself extremely beautiful male slaves (same-sex love not being such a misdeed in Rome provided men took the dominant, penetrative, role: read here.)

He cuckolded and was made a cuckold. He made love to Tertulla, the wife of Crassus; to Lollia, the wife of Gabinus; to Posthumia, the wife of Servius Sulpicius; even to Murcia, the wife of Pompey, to whom he later gave his beloved daughter Julia as a wife.

He also had a life-long affair with Servilia, the sister of Cato the younger, his great enemy. Servilia was the mother of Marcus Brutus, one of Caesar’s murderers – and possibly Caesar’s son.

ψ

Ok, ok, ok.

(if these were the ways of the best man in Rome …)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

[Note. All anecdotes regarding Caesar's sex life are from Suetonius' Caesar]

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4

About Caesar and France:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome
Conquest Of Gaul. Debate On Julius Caesar’s Conduct, Motives, Achievements (2)

On Caesar opening a ‘New Frontier’ to the Mediterranean and shaping the future of the ‘West’:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

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