Tag Archives: lupanares

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Portunus and Saint Mary of Egypt. Stories of Harbors and Prostitutes

As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.

The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome

 

portunus

Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.

The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here :)

As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian.  Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…

Why Saint Mary of Egypt?

According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began  a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.

Icon_of_Mary_of_Egypt_(Mstera,_19th_c.)

After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.

Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with  his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.

Mary_of_Egypt_british_library

The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt

This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and  in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.

This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.

Acca Larentia

We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!

Jacopo_della_quercia,_acca_larentia_01

When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.

Prostitutes all-over the centuries

If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.

In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!

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Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries :)

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Pictures Credits:

  • Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
  • Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
  • Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
  • The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.

 

 

 

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.

pianta_map

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.

Santa_Agnese_-_mosaico_Santa_Agnese_fuori_le_mura

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.

mosaico

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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Pictures Credits