Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, some little Roman boys were playing ball in the street, like boys all over the world in every era. Over their heads was this nondescript fresco of the Madonna and Child, plastered onto the side of an apartment house. By chance, one of the boys threw the ball and it hit the Madonna, who promptly started to bleed.
Things in this neighborhood were never quite the same again.
After the Church did an investigation, and concluded that the boys really weren’t playing a joke of some sort, the miracle was declared to be genuine. The Madonna was detached from the wall and taken into a tiny church nearby, where it became the focus of local devotion.
During the Renaissance, the tiny church was radically rebuilt into a much grander edifice–but the worn and faded Madonna was still the central focus of attention. It was sheer coincidence that while the new baroque church was being erected in the late 1590’s and early 1600’s, the great Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens came to town.
Most art-buffs know that the bulk of Rubens’ work was done at his studio in Antwerp, with a fair bit completed in London. They don’t realize that he also spent a couple of years in Rome, where he studied the Italian masters and practiced their style by copying some of their great paintings. But the huge canvas that he painted for the main altar of this church was an original work, and it is designed such that the old fresco of the miraculous Madonna is at the center, in a cut-out section surrounded by Rubens’ graceful, swirling angels lost in adoration.
Rubens then completed an oval Madonna and Child of his own, to cover the original one, which is now displayed on feast-days and other special occasions. A mechanism (which doesn’t require electricity!) was designed to slide the Rubens Madonna sideways, underneath his larger canvas, revealing the much older, miraculous Madonna and Child beneath that.
As is so often the case in Rome, there is no sign in this church explaining what we’ve just told you. You’re simply supposed to know–and to be honest, if you’re a local Roman, you do know, so there’s little point in writing up a long explanation and hanging it in the church, right? When we take clients to the baroque churches clustered in the center of Rome, we always start right here, and make a point of showing them this Rubens. We can tell clients when they can see the miraculous Madonna revealed, too. If you’re keen on wandering the center of the city during your stay, shouldn’t you make sure that you don’t miss out on miraculous icons, fabulous artworks and the history behind them all?