Monday 10 June 2019

Tetchy Madonnas when you need them – Michelle Lovric

Make your way around any corner in Venice and you may lock eyes with a Madonna in a niche or a miniature chapel. She might be painted, sculpted or made from mosaic tiles. There may be a candle, a lamp or a vase in front of her. She usually cradles the Holy Infant. These street shrines are known capitelli (or capitèi in Venetian dialect). Many date back to the 15th century, a time when they provided not just metaphorical and spiritual illumination but actual street-lighting. Most are to be found, for that reason, in ‘sottoportici’ (tunnel-like passageways) or by bridges and near jetties.

The city appointed people to set a lantern in every capitello by night. There was a tradition of leaving flowers there too. To lend sanctity to business arrangements, contracts might be signed in front of them. And of course a Madonna might serve as a kind spiritual proto-security camera on the street: few would want to commit a crime in front of those steady eyes. Those were times when no one would have dreamed of stealing a holy image, but most often, these days, the Madonnas are behind bars, like solemn canaries in ornate cages.

There are more than 500 capitelli in Venice: 136 in Castello; 91 in Cannaregio; 43 in Santa Croce; 43 in San Polo; 114 in Dorsoduro, of which 35 are on Giudecca; 83 in San Marco. It is interesting to note that the highest proportion of the figures are in the poorer zones of Castello and Cannaregio. The painting above, by James Holland, is entitled A Shrine in Venice (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). It shows women of the city sewing, talking and praying in front of a capitello, which serves both as an extension of sacred space but also as a meeting place.

I’m not the only or even the first person to notice that the Virgins inside these little chapels often look rather disapproving. I discovered that my artist friend, Christine Morley, who’s recorded many of them, has also felt the aura of severity that radiates from some of these Virgins. To Christine, they seem like stern gate-keepers to a world beyond the wall, a secret place behind the forbidding bars and grates of their niches.

Of course, over hundreds of years these Venetian Madonnas have seen it all, which may account for their expressions. Meanwhile, full of grace She obviously is, but is not the Virgin Mary one of the most put-upon women ever?

A couple of years ago, I started holding conversations (in my head) with some of these dimly-lit ladies-of-the-night as I walked around the city. Those conversations took a turn I had not expected. This is why: although each street-Madonna is as individual as Her artist could render Her, each personifies the same Mother of God. So I felt that the Madonnas from Castello to Santa Croce would in fact talk with the same voice and have the same preoccupations – including annoyance at noisy passers-by waking the Holy Infant when She’d just got Him down.

No matter whether painted or carved, my Madonna-of-the-moment was always irreproachably virtuous in tone, but also just a little bit reproachful, not to say tetchy. Irritation is a gift for a writer: it scratches up interesting vocabulary. So you won’t be surprised to hear that this slightly vinegary Madonna-of-many-manifestations soon became a character in a children’s book, The Wishing Bones, which will be published next month.

Children have always had the run of Venice. It’s safer than cities with carriages and now cars. In The Wishing Bones, I write of the ‘secret sacred ties’ between Venetians, binding all her citizens to one another with affection. The picture below right shows mother holding her child up to a painted Madonna at capitello near the entrance to the Doges Palace (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). A slightly older Venetian child, on his or her daily journeys, would pass by dozens of Madonnas, and it seemed logical to me that their universal Mother would probably have a few things to say to them. I imagined that Our Lady would be keen on personal hygiene in a city that was obsessed with health matters (if Venice ever got the reputation of being a sick city, her international trade would have been in danger). So I thought She’d probably want Her supplicants to have clean hands. Running noses would be absolutely out.


Venice identifies comprehensively with the Virgin Mary. The city’s very founding date – March 25th – is the same as that of the Annunciation. This scene is depicted in marble on the Rialto Bridge. But in my book, Our (understandably Ornery) Lady has to deal with rival protectresses of the city: mermaids who live beneath it. Pagan mermaids and Madonnas – bound to be a problem. Then there’s a convent where fake relics of saints are churned out by orphans working as slaves in cruel conditions – an offence to any mother. Saint Lucy’s bones have been kidnapped. A prophecy dictates that, if this happens, the secret sacred ties between Venetians will break down, leading to blows and blood in the street. Really, for a Madonna in 1740, when The Wishing Bones is set, there’s a lot to be tetchy about.

The whole issue of mermaids and Madonnas is played out, in everyone’s favourite church of Santa Maria degli Miracoli. Inside, Tullio Lombardo’s friezes of beautiful young mermaids enclose an ancient miracle-working painting of a Madonna. In The Wishing Bones, the young Miracoli mermaids, clearly victimized by adolescent hormones, briefly flee their frieze to join the villains. (Then they’re very sorry).

Back to the real-lifeVenetian capitelli. They have their own story arc. While loved and maintained by the state and the public, the street-Madonnas have not been immune to passing time. By the middle of the nineteenth century the little chapels were under threat, some degraded by the centuries, some removed or damaged during restructuring and renovations. So in 1870 a group of young Catholics set up an organisation to defend them. The city was divided into sections and groups of young Venetians patrolled the streets, making sure all was well with the capitelli.

By the twentieth century, the chapels were under a different threat – chemicals coming from the factory suburb of Marghera. A new generation of capitelli protectors, the Amici dei capitèi, was formed but later absorbed into one of the bigger organisations that protect sacred monuments, I.R.S.E.P.S.

It's not surprising that the gondoliers still have their own waterborne capitelli. These little green shrines are to be seen at the stazioni where the traghetto services run. Inside their mullioned windows you can make out tiny Madonnas. If Venice were living her best life right now, those Madonnas would be doing something to protect her from the cruise liners.

But this is real life, and fiction can only imagine away the brutal ugliness and danger of the cruise ships. That’s increasingly hard, with the news of the massive Viking Sigyn running down a smaller vessel on the Danube in Budapest two weeks ago; with the vast MSC Opera smashing, out of control, into a river-cruise boat and then into the Zattere in Venice on June 2nd; with the 30th anniversary of Marchioness disaster approaching in August; with the Thames now threatened with the arrival of Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva, which is the length of a football pitch and hosts 1500 revellers. The great historic cities of Europe are succumbing to Dubai-ification.
Not just Venice but Barcelona, Amsterdam, Bergen and many others have succumbed to this brutal commodification by the mega-companies that run fleets of vast boats. The protest movements are energetic and creative, but what Venetians called 'interessi' are deeply entrenched. Too many people, it seems, have fingers in the pie: not just the cruise operators but also those institutions that licence piers and party boats; also, those companies that service and provide catering for them.
Too much greed leads to too many monsters cramming into the same far-too-finite waterways. The danger to life and the ruination of heritage views are all too visible; possibly worse are the invisible dangers of nitrogen oxide, sulphur and particulates, for marine fuel is many times more toxic that land diesel. These poisons make their ways into the lungs of the citizens and they also destroy public art. The statue at right, on the Gesuati church, is just a few hundred yards from where the MSC Opera struck the shore. In a city without cars, boat emissions are the only reason for the blackening and blunting of this saintly figure.

Writing about, and so living in the 18th century, I can blot the mega-ships off my horizons. However, into my next book, currently entitled The Palace that Ate Boys, has crept the notion of certain public offices in the city – those charged with protecting Venice – instead welcoming in a terrible blight in exchange for sackfuls of money …

Michelle Lovric's website
The Wishing Bones is published on July 25th in the UK.

Last week marked the second anniversary of the terror attack at London Bridge and the Borough Market. Five hundred people were locked in or out of their homes for days, as their streets became a crime scene. A year ago, at Southwark Cathedral, members of the community performed a play made up of excerpts of their longer testimonies. This year, the Cathedral has posted the text of Testimony online so everyone can read it.

1 comment:

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Michelle! Love the practicality of the candles to the Madonna also providing street lighting - and looking forward to The Wishing Bones.