Monday, January 3, 2022

Discovering S.P.Q.R. and Miraculous Oil at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Trastevere - Image by

...we arrived at the piazza in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. There we found S.P.Q.R. and miraculous oil... (Virginia Billeaud Anderson - writes about Romulus founding Rome, the Sabines, Trastevere’s vine covered mediaeval architecture, and finding S.P.Q.R. and miraculous oil at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.)

Discovering S.P.Q.R. and Miraculous Oil at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

There are times on the Palatine Hill when I think about the Sabines. After founding Rome in 753 BC and building its first houses on the Palatine, Romulus realized Rome didn’t have enough women, which screwed up the gods’ plan to make Rome the center of the world and the Eternal City. So as Livy tells us, Romulus and his men kidnapped the neighboring Sabine women, forcibly carried them into their houses, and made them their wives. The abduction enraged the Sabine men of course, so they attacked the Romans, in what was Rome’s first war. Loyal to both groups, the women demanded they quit fighting. Ultimately things calmed down and the Sabine tribes assimilated into Rome, which helped expand its original settlement beyond the Palatine. Then began the custom of lifting and carrying a bride over the threshold, in commemoration of the Sabine women entering their homes by force instead of on their own. Arguably, most guys who carry a woman over a threshold are ignorant the custom originated with Rome’s founding.

I’m obsessed with the Sabine’s gold. Both Livy and Plutarch tell us the Sabine men wore heavy gold bracelets on their “shield arms,” that’s the left arm. According to Livy, the Sabines had gold bracelets “from wrist to elbow,” of “great weight.” I can lose my composure thinking about those gold bracelets.

Archaeologists discovered evidence of one-room thatched-roof huts on the Palatine that date to Romulus’s legendary 8th century BC reign. They also found part of the fortification wall Romulus built around Rome’s first houses. What this tells us is that before Rome was the center of the world, it was a tiny village with mud and wood houses, described by historian Mary Beard as “a bit of a dump on the banks of the Tiber.” Artifacts that were dug up reveal Iron Age shepherds and farmers occupied the three hills that neighbored the Palatine. Incredibly archaeologists excavated pot sherds on the Capitolene Hill that date to the twelfth or thirteenth century BC, a date which jives with the legend that Trojan War refugees entered Rome. The Trojan hero Aeneas, tradition holds, was an ancestor of the twins Romulus and Remus.

Standing on the Palatine Hill, it’s possible to see Trastevere’s rooftops in the distance. Often, I cross the Tiber and roam around Trastevere. Compared to swankier parts of Rome, Trastevere has a provincial quality, It feels like a village. There, you can stroll through absurdly narrow streets and past medieval houses and religious shrines on facades, and pots of basil and thyme near doorways and see laundry hanging overhead. I find incredible beauty in the neighborhood’s mundane things like cobble-stone streets, and dark green ivy covering peach and ochre colored cracked plaster facades, and I know what Goethe meant by knowing Rome "through small details."

A convenient place to have booze or a cappuccino is the Bar del Cinque near Vicolo del Bologna.

Bar del Cinque Trastevere

I’m in a taxi going to Trastevere, when barricades block the route. Up ahead is one of Rome’s incessant political demonstrations, and this one’s a doozie with thousands of protestors and voices crackling over loudspeakers and I don’t know if these people are Christian Democrats or Socialists or Communists or a labor union, but I do know my driver is pissed, in fact he’s downright disgusted. “Terrible! Terrible! Impossible!” (Em-poh-see-blay). Using outrageous hand gestures, he tells me in Italian I can jump out there or have him drive me back to where he fetched me.

At the time, I was less familiar with Rome’s impossible streets. After, I learned how to navigate the busses and the subway, and how to detour around messes like transportation strikes, and discovered the bridges that cross the Tiber, and realized it was stupid to taxi to Trastevere.

Campo dei Fiori Image by
David L. Lown

One day Donnie and I headed to Trastevere. We took a bus to Largo Argentina, then walked through the Campo de’ Fiori to stand near the spot where on March 15, 44 BC conspirators with daggers whacked Julius Caesar outside of Pompey’s Theater, causing him to bleed on Pompey’s statue. The theater ruins are hidden below the Palazzo Pio Righetti at Campo dei Fiori, and I’m mindful that Caesar traced his ancestry all the way back through Romulus. Then we walked to
Piazza Navona, gawked at the fountain, had a drink, then traipsed past the Pantheon which always makes me cry, and I’m aware our path traverses the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) where Romulus miraculously disappeared from the earth. He was perched on his throne, inspecting his troops, when a dark cloud descended and covered him. Then it lifted, and he was gone. Keep in mind though that Romulus was a son of Mars. Predictably he got beamed up by the gods. Then, we proceeded south past Sant’ Andrea della Valle, one of my favorite churches, then crossed the Tiber on Ponte Garibaldi, entered Trastevere and arrived at the piazza in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. There we found S.P.Q.R. and miraculous oil.

S.P.Q.R. is a political phrase invented to galvanize unity after a 494 BC revolt against patrician rule nearly destroyed Rome. The Latin letters stand for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates to “the Senate and the Roman People.” The phrase denotes the Roman state by listing its two important components. S.P.Q.R. symbolized Rome’s qualities - committed to conquest, militarily victorious, and the center of the world - and connoted sovereignty and legitimacy. In antiquity, the Romans inscribed S.P.Q.R. on triumphal arches and coins and Roman legions carried it into battle. After ancient times, the term continued to be used and it’s fun to gallivant around the city and find it on sculptures and buildings. S.P.Q.R. appears on the fountain in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. I photographed handsome Donnie at the fountain near the inscription S.P.Q.R.

Donnie at Fountain in front of Santa Maria in
Trastevere with S.P.Q.R.

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere with fountain
Image by

You can’t go two feet in Italy without encountering a miracle, so let me tell you about one that took place at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. In 38 BC, tradition holds a gush of oil spouted from the ground. Given the Latin name “fons olei” (oil fountain) the mysterious oil flowed for a day and a night running towards the Tiber. As with other unusual events, blood raining from the sky for instance, augurs with divination powers interpreted meaning. Later as Christians gained power however, they looked back on the oil as foretelling the birth of Jesus. In another version of the legend, the oil flowed on the day of Jesus’s birth. Inspired by the miracle, Pope Calixtus I (218-222) founded the church, which was constructed in the 300s on the spot where the oil gushed, with numerous alterations.

Not everyone believes the oil was divine. In the first century BC Emperor Augustus used this location to conduct mock naval battles with real ships for spectator-filled stadiums. Years after the aqueduct that flooded the sports arena quit flowing, the site became connected with dirty undrinkable water, possibly confusing “fons olei” (oil fountain) with “fons olidus” (dirty fountain,) nevertheless the miracle gained ground in Christian tradition. A fountain existed near the church in the 8th century, but it was not in the center of the square. The present fountain where handsome Donnie stood which was inscribed with S.P.Q.R. in 1873 was moved to the center of the square by Bernini in 1658 and rebuilt multiple times. It is supposed to be Rome’s oldest fountain still operating.

The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome, is worth a visit. In the nave are breathtaking granite columns with Ionic and Corinthian capitals taken from ancient Roman baths and temples. The apse is decorated with twelfth-century mosaics by Byzantine craftsmen and the nave has impressive 13th century mosaics. One mosaic depicts a nativity scene. Below the mother and infant is a stream of oil flowing to the Tiber. Near the church’s altar, on the spot the oil flowed, is the inscription “fons olei.”

Piazza at Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Image by David L. Lown
Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere from the Cafe di Marzia

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