Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Church for Scolds - and for the Honorable Poor

I first ran across a reference to the Church of San Gregorio della Divina Pieta when studying up on the Ponte dei Quattro Capi.  The ancient sculpture  there that looks four ways was by some accounts not an original feature of the bridge but was moved there in the 14th Century. Moved there from...a tiny church with an unusual history.

This is right across the river where we are staying in Rome.  No doubt there has been habitation of this prime real estate going back to the very origins of the city.  And it was one of the few areas that likely continued to be occupied in the Dark Ages.  Rome's population plummeted for a variety of reasons not the least of which was the destruction of the aqueducts.  Not a problem with the river Tiber flowing past your doorstep.  The designation San Gregorio alludes to the supposed birth of Pope Gregory the Great circa 540 AD. This was when the Gothic Wars were intermittently besieging the City and devastating the surrounding countryside.

Probably there have been several pagan religious structures on the site, and the Janus sculptures may have come from one of them.  But the current building is fairly new, completed in 1729 as the latest in a series of churches recorded back to the 12th century. Oddly it is famous for its association with a non Christian group.

In 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered the establishment of a walled ghetto to be the involuntary home of Rome's Jewish community.  This was the second ghetto ever, the first being set up in Venice in 1516. Ghettos were usually established in unsavory parts of town, in Venice it was where the the waste from furnaces was piled, the term actually being a variation of "gheto" meaning "slag".

The Roman ghetto was a densely populated area with a few gates in it.  One gate opened up right in front of the Church of San Gregorio.  Jewish residents of the ghetto were required periodically to stand in front of the church and get a nice Christian sermon.  When it was noticed that some in the crowd were avoiding this by using ear plugs a bilingual inscription was placed on the church:

In Latin and Hebrew it derives from Isaiah 65, verses 2 and 3

2 I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people, that walk in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts; 
  3 A people that provoke Me to My face continually, that sacrifice in gardens, and burn incense upon bricks;

The proximity to the ghetto meant that this would be a flash point for tensions between Christian and Jew.  During the French Revolution the world was a bit...unsettled.  Naturally The Jews must be to blame somehow so a zealous bunch of Romans started to pile up wood against the gate of the ghetto with an aim of starting the entire fire trap of a community ablaze.

Emissaries of the Pope arrived and thanked the Christians for their enthusiasm but said that The Holy Father would really rather they did not do this.  Also it started raining so the salvation of the Jews of Rome could be regarded as Miraculous in a couple of different ways....Divine Intervention falling from the skies above, or common sense swaying a mob.  Take your pick.

In later years the church was dedicated to the Assistance of worthy families that had fallen into poverty.  This plaque alludes to that mission:

Translation:  Alms for Poor Honorable and Ashamed Families

No longer open for services it can now be rented out as a venue.  The complex interaction between Christian and Jew has been resolved, apparently in favor of the latter.  Notice the huge Jewish synagogue across the street on the site of the former ghetto.

Sadly persecution is not a thing of the distant past.  One one side of the synagouge we find this sad memorial, remembering a two year old child killed in a terrorist attack not so very long ago...

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