Streets shrines are everywhere in Italy – on the corners of city streets, at crossroads on rural roads, sometimes even in the edge of a field. They are a visual reminder of how the sacred was/is everywhere in everyday life in Italian cities, as people moved around doing their daily business. They mark space and make it hallowed. Sometimes you’ll still see people make a sign of the cross or kiss their hand as they walk past them.
A number of these images were miraculous – the famous ones in Florence include the Virgin at the church of SS. Annunziata and the Madonna dell Rosa at Orsanmichele. But the majority were local shrines such as this one. In pre-modern cities there were literally hundreds of shrines. In Renaissance Venice there were over 400; in Florence it may have been more, as many perhaps even as a thousand. At times of crisis – such as epidemics and plagues – these numbers might even double.
They wouldn’t all have been as elaborate as the Monteloro one, with its fourteenth-century fresco by Puccio di Simone and later Renaissance-style sculpted stone frame. But as a seventeenth-century commentator said “there’s almost one on every street corner or turn in the road; an image of Christ, of the Virgin Mary or of some saint or other, to protect the household or individual who had it painted”.
Assessing the degree to which this protection was quantified is difficult for historians, but it is perhaps interesting to think of these painted images a bit like CCTV cameras on today’s streets. Not only do we imagine some all-seeing eye behind them, but research shows that our behaviours are altered just because they are there. The most common expression of this change in behavior is the wearing of “hoodies” to obscure identity. In Giovanni’s time, as he reports, the presence of a street shrine might contribute to a tavern closing down, or lead gambling dens or brothels to relocate.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Neighbourhood Madonnas’ published online 2013, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/5-neighbourhood-madonnas-canto-al-monteloro/
Judith Spencer Chatfield, ‘A history and catalogue of Florentine street tabernacles from the Dugento through the Seicento’, MPhil thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1974
Edward Muir, ‘The Virgin on the Street Corner: The Place of the Sacred in Italian Cities’, in Religion and Culture in the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. S. Ozment, (Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, XI), Kirksville, Missouri 1987, 24-40
Fabrizio Nevola, ‘Surveillance and the street in Renaissance Italy’, for the collection ‘Experiences of the Street in Early Modern Italy’, Special Issue of I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance (publication in 2013)
Antonio Paolucci et al. eds., Arte, storia e devozione. Tabernacoli da salvare (Florence: Centro Di, 1991)