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Postcard - The Madonna's Night on the Town

Evelyne Yohe (Antartide) from Colorado and Todi, Umbria

Trastevere's Festa de' Noantri (Procession of the Madonna del Carmine) is on the Saturday after the 16th of July. Trastevere is a neighborhood in Rome, across the Tiber from the historic center.

The nonnas press in with seemingly innocent, yet insistent, pushing; inching closer to the barred doors of Sant'Agata. Their faces are expectant, but in the tired, knowing way of women who have seen this festa every year for generations. Whether in stylish fashion or baggy widow's dresses and sturdy shoes, they wait as both pilgrims and judges. This festa will, of course, be the best ever, but it will also be compared to the decades of past enactments. Will the Blessed Virgin appear on time? Will the bearers stumble on the stairs under the load of the Madonna? The nonnas around me feel no discomfort or guilt about their critical judgment juxtaposed with their adoration of the Virgin and her festa . both are signs of their devotion.

The evening is gold with the low filtered sun. But the heat is beyond shimmering - everything in the piazza is flat with the heat. Here and there a nonna waves a paper fan to stir a breeze, sometimes for a grandchild. I'm grateful when they stir the air around me. I'm at the front of the crowd, at the foot of the steps of Sant'Agata, but crushed against the backs of the local mayor and the honor guard dressed out in cream suits with black ties, gold braid, white "Bobby" helmets, and white gloves. They're proudly refusing to melt, though the temperature hovers around the mid-90's even at 7pm. The Carabinieri have more practice looking crisp in their dark Armani uniforms, even when standing on ancient piazza stones that radiate the day's heat. Just another security detail for them, except that tonight they're guarding the Madonna.

The men of Trastevere hold aloft religious banners and crucifixes, waiting to lead the procession. The yellow and white Vatican colors hang limply from stone windowsills in the surrounding apartments. And there, amid all the holy images, I glimpse red and gold ribbons hung from a tall standard topped with the proud Roman eagle, and the inscription SPQR - the Senate and the People of Rome. The Madonna may belong to the world, but tonight she walks in the everlasting city as a citizen of Rome.

The local bishop arrives in his brocade finery, ready to lead the procession. All around me, the Trasteverini are murmuring about their Virgin. Yes, this virgin is theirs; she was found in the Tiber River by fisherman in the 1500's (or maybe the 1800's; it depends on which version of the legend you believe) and installed at Sant'Agata. And once a year, she ventures out into the neighborhood to bless the locals and visit the churches of Trastevere.

The faithful nonnas are restless. Fans move faster. Subtle waves move through the crowd as hot, tired feet shift weight and shift back again. Now the pleasant murmurs of neighborly conversation gain an edge. "Maria - Santa Maria." Where is the Madonna? Why is she so late this year? Of course, the Romans are always late, but this delay is getting bad marks from the judges. The pilgrims want their Madonna.

A door of the church opens and the crowd turns, but it's just a white-cloaked official sent out to confer with the honor guard and the Carabinieri about whether the sea of people needs to be pushed back to make more room for the giant baldacchino that houses the Virgin. The murmurs in the crowd get more strident. "Porca miseria, these men are delaying the Madonna's journey. Do they think they can keep Her all to themselves?" Keep her from her most devoted daughters? The daughters who have adored her since they could walk, who have prayed the Hail Mary over more illnesses, troubles, wayward children, wandering husbands, and backsliding relatives than any man, except of course Il Papa (the Pope). The tart smell of overheating bodies packed too closely together is now rising in the still air. There is no escape from the crush.

"Santa Maria!!" Suddenly the doors are open! Four altar boys on the steps ignite smoke pillars, and yellow and white smoke pours from either side of the doors nearly obscuring the eight white-robed men who slowly bear their precious load into the piazza. They silently struggle to settle the weight of Her on their foam shoulder pads, steeling themselves for the two-hour procession. The nonnas let out a cheer of admiration. La Madonna is shrouded in smoke, but as she moves into the piazza I can catch brief glimpses of the bronze baldacchino, the white satin dress, and the gold crown above a finely carved face. And then the very air begins to glitter. High atop the church are two metal tubes, and as though someone has reversed a celestial vacuum cleaner, they are spewing out inch-long rectangles of glittery foil. Silver on one side, gold on the other. The piazza becomes a kaleidoscope of swirling glitter and plumes of smoke. Between elbowing their neighbors to get a better view of the Virgin, and sending a year's worth of supplications to this visible form of their dear Lady, the nonnas and the nuns in the crowd scurry and stoop to gather handfuls of the holy glitter from the ancient stone pavers. They press the pieces of foil into the sweaty hands of their grandchildren to bring good luck during the coming year.

The Madonna follows the standard of Rome, and the local priests and bishop, as she makes her way down the Via della Lungaretta to start her tour of Trastevere. Four crucifixes guard the four corners of her platform. And behind her, a small band plays some melodic Catholic hymn. As she moves away, I wonder if Italian Catholics have hymns? If so, they must be love songs to the Madonna, not the great martial hymns of the Lutherans or the come-to-Jesus spirituals of the Baptists. Nevertheless, the Virgin is being serenaded on her journey.

This is her once-a-year night on the town. Her chance to see the world outside of her own little church, to watch her neighbors celebrate, and to take in the evening colors of Rome and the enticing smells of porchetta and carbonara. For two hours she'll see and hear so much more than the dour priests and worried supplicants that fill her usual days in Sant'Agata. And after her tour she'll rest in San Crisogono, a grand basilica across the piazza. Eight days from now she'll take a boat ride down the Tiber and then be carried back to her spot next to the high altar in Sant'Agata.

As I leave the procession and say goodbye to the Virgin, I imagine her face is lit with youthful exuberance as she begins her big night on the town.


www.romeartlover.it: Description of the Festa de' Noantri and photos.

Evelyne is an editor in Colorado, and owns a small house just outside of Todi, Umbria.

© Evelyne Yohe, 2005

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