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

When traipsing around the Palatine Hill, I think about the Sabines. After Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC and built its first houses on the Palatine, he 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. A custom developed of lifting and carrying a bride over the threshold to commemorate the Sabine women entering their homes by force instead of on their own. I'll bet quite a few people don't know the custom is tied to Rome’s founding.

The Sabines who assimilated with Rome wore mouth dropping gold. Livy and Plutarch are among the historians who mention the Sabine's heavy gold bracelets, worn on their “shield arms” (left arm.) Gold bracelets “from wrist to elbow,” of “great weight” Livy wrote. When I'm on the Palatine I think 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 huts made of mud and wood. Historian Mary Beard called it “a bit of a dump on the banks of the Tiber.” Excavated artifacts reveal Iron Age shepherds and farmers occupied the three hills that neighbored the Palatine. Interestingly, pot sherds found on the neighboring Capitolene Hill date to the twelfth or thirteenth century BC, a date that jives with the legend that Trojan War refugees entered Rome. Romulus and Remus, tradition holds, were descended from Trojan hero Aeneas.

From the Palatine Hill, it's possible to see Trastevere’s rooftops. I enjoy crossing the Tiber to roam around Trastevere. It's a part of Rome with absurdly narrow streets and medieval houses, some of which have religious shrines on the facade. In a sense, it feels like a small village, although I find incredible beauty in its mundane things like pots of basil and thyme near doorways, laundry hanging overhead, cobble-stone streets, and dark green ivy covering peach and ochre colored cracked plaster, and know what Goethe meant by knowing Rome "through small details."

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

Bar del Cinque Trastevere

The first time I went to Trastevere I used a taxi. This was years ago, before I learned how to navigate Rome’s impossible streets. En route, barricades stopped the taxi. It had come upon one of Rome’s incessant political demonstrations, this one a real doozie, with thousands of protestors and voices crackling over loudspeakers and I didn’t know if these people were Christian Democrats or Socialists or Communists or a labor union, but I did know my driver was pissed, “Terrible! Terrible! Impossible!" (Em-poh-see-blay), he said shaking his head and using animated hand gestures. We turned around. Later, after 
I learned the busses and subway, and how to detour around messes like transportation strikes, and discovered the bridges that cross the Tiber, I 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 when there I’m mindful that Caesar traced his ancestry all the way back to Rome's founder 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. According to tradition 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. Arguably 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 the words 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 a miracle that happened at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. In 38 BC, tradition holds, oil gushed out of the ground and flowed in the direction of the Tiber. The mysterious oil became known by its Latin name “fons olei” (oil fountain.) As typical with weird events, the sky raining blood for instance, it was the job of augurs with divination skills to interpret meaning. Once the Christians gained power, they reinterpreted the oil as a foretelling of Jesus' birth. In another version of the legend, the oil flowed on the day of Jesus’s birth. Pope Calixtus I  who reigned 218-222 was inspired by the miracle of the oil to found the church, which was constructed in the 300s on the spot where the oil gushed, then changed quite a bit.

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

(Selected Articles on

Consciousness Screwing with Us: Rice University’s 2023 Archives of the Impossible Conference

Garland Fielder Weighs In on Architectural Design and the Creative Process
A Talk with Angie Dumas About Her Blog "Da'Stylish Foodie" - Interview

Eating Garlic Beef at Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant - Mai's Immigrant Story

Visiting Azienda Agricola Casamonti in the Chianti Classico - Wine and Cinta Senese Pigs

My Visit to the Houston Farmers Market on Airline Drive

Romano’s Pizza - Houston Italian Restaurant - Vinny Quarto, Frank Fragale - History of Calabria Italy - Montrose Neighborhood Houston

Unraveling Mint Juleps, Pat O’Brien’s Patio, Julep Bar, Anvil Bar and Refuge

Eating Oysters at Topwater Grill in San Leon at Galveston Bay

A Talk with Food Guru George Graham about - Graham’s New Cookbook “Fresh From Louisiana: The Soul of Cajun and Creole Home Cooking” - Interview

Martha Stewart Visits Lucullus Antiques - Patrick Dunne - New Orleans

Avesta Persian Grill's Pomegranate and Walnut Stew, Cyrus the Great, Tajikistan

No comments:

Post a Comment