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chiesa sant'agnese

Saints and Prostitutes. The church of S. Agnese in Agone

Today’s tale is about the church of S. Agnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona, a story that spans between the Ancient and the Baroque Rome.

Piazza Navona and the Stadium of Domitian

This is probably one of the most popular square of Rome, with its distinctive shape and the famous fountain made by Bernini. The stretched shape, as you may know, comes from that of the stadium of Domitian (you already heard about him when we talked about the Colosseum, built by his family). Around 86 AD he had this stadium built for athletic competitions; this kind of games were called “agones” from a Greek word, and after it was probably named the square: it became “in agonis“, then “innagone“, “navone” and finally “Navona“. The buildings surrounding nowadays the square  are literally built ON the walls of the Roman stadium: around the square, in the lower levels of the new buildings, you can still see the travertine blocks of Domitian’s stadium.

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Our story begins in the ancient Rome, when the stadium was still there.

Saint Agnes

According to tradition, around the beginning of the 4th century AD there was in Rome this beautiful and virtuous woman named Agnes. Ok, she was probably only 13 years old, so it would be better to say a child, a girl, but on that time, 13 years old was the age for getting married and having children, so we’ll say a woman, even if she wasn’t already.

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Well, it happened that she was so beautiful that the Roman Prefect’s son fell in love with her. And this could still become a nice love story… probably the Prefect’s son was rich and could be considered a great catch. If only Agnes wasn’t Christian. And she hadn’t made vow of chastity, too. Hence she refused the Prefect’s son who, probably, went back crying to his father: the latter punished Agnes forcing her to become a Vestal Virgin.

The Vestal Virgins were a group of pagan priestesses (actually this was the only female priesthood in Rome), very powerful. They also had to made vow of chastity and that’s why Agnes was forced to become one of them. Also the story of the Vestal Virgins is really interesting, but there’s so much to say that I need another post…good idea for the future :)

Anyway the Vestal Virgins were pagan and therefore Agnes refused to join them because she was Christian.

And here we come to the stadium of Domitian because the Prefect of Rome, when Agnes refused to join the Vestal Virgins, condemned her to become a prostitute and that’s why she was brought to the stadium.

Prostitutes in the Ancient Rome

In the ancient Rome there were a lot of prostitutes and obviously brothels, called lupanares. This name comes from lupa, “she-wolf“, the slang for prostitute… And if you’re thinking to the most famous Rome’s she-wolf, the symbol of the city itself… well, yes, you’re probably right! Many historians think that the legend of the she-wolf was invented to hide and recall the real story, that probably Romulus and Remus were raised by a prostitute, Acca Larentia (who in the legend became the shepherd’s wife, who found the twins).
Anyway the lupanares were not the only workplace for prostitutes and we know that many of them used to sell themselves near the circuses and stadiums, waiting below the arches.

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Now it happens that the Latin word for arch is fornix (fornices plural) and, because the prostitutes were used to work there, this is the origin of the English word “fornication“, that you still use, maybe. At least the Red Hot Chilly Peppers do :)

The “uniform” of Roman prostitutes was the toga, the short male dress, so as to show more legs and make clear that they weren’t respectable women (worthy to wear the typical female clothes: a long dress, the stola, and a mantle, the palla). Wearing a toga was a so distinctive sign of  licentiousness that if a woman was found guilty of adultery, one of the punishments was to wear the toga. In addition, prostitutes also worn a red wig.

How Agnes became Saint

Going back to Saint Agnes, she was brought to the stadium to become a prostitute. But because of her holiness, the first man who tried to touch her was soon blinded by God (but don’t worry for him… Saint Agnes was so saint that she later prayed God to save him, and he had back his sight).
Did the Prefect recognized Saint Agnes’s holiness? No way! On the contrary he accused her of  being a witch and condemned her to be burned at the stake. And that’s still not the end of our story, because soon after she was put, naked, on the fire, her hair suddenly grew up to cover her nudity and the fire split.

statua sant'agnese

Neither this time the Prefect quit with her: she was finally beheaded and, yes, this time she died.

The Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone

Hence, according to tradition, Saint Agnes was martyred in the arches of the stadium and here a small shrine was built already in the 8th century AD.

In the same spot, in the sixteen hundreds, was built the present church, projected by the famous baroque artist Francesco Borromini, for the pope Innocent X Pamphilj. Many are the legends about the construction of the church and the famous Fountain of the Rivers, built by Bernini just in front of it, mostly related to the rivalry between the two artists…but we need an entire other post for all this :)

Anyway, in the meanwhile, if you’ll visit Piazza Navona, enter the church and  go to the chapel on the right: it’s dedicated to Saint Agnes and here is preserved her most sacred relic: her head!

testa sant'agnese

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