Posts Tagged ‘Piazza Navona’

Piazza Navona and ancient Rome

February 16, 2010

Carnival’s in full swing here in Rome, and Sunday saw Rose and I dodging excitable children in fancy dress on Piazza Navona as we took in a little street theatre.

More exciting than any of that, however, was the opportunity to regale Rose once more with my Piazza Navona facts.  Well now, lucky reader, your face too can glaze over with that impassive far away look of excited anticipation, because today I’m writing about the Piazza’s connections with ancient Rome.

The shape was determined by the building which used to sit there; Domitian’s theatre.  Designed for Greek sports the Latinized Greek word for ‘struggles’ (agonales) was associated with the place.  Over the centuries, this name evolved into Platea in Agone, Piazza N’Agone, and finally, today’s Piazza Navona.

Now, bang in the centre of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fountain.  There’s plenty of stories that could be told about as (as Rose would verify) but as this blog is about ancient Rome, let’s head for the church behind it.  This is San Agnese in Agone (named after the location of those Greek struggles once more) and here we find another link to ancient Rome.

Agnes was a 12 year old girl of aristocratic stock living under the reign of a favourite emperor of mine, Diocletian.  Ordered to marry an acquaintance of the Emperor, she refused on the grounds that she was dedicating her body

A fornex under Piazza Navona

to Jesus.  In the earliest surviving account of the story (St. Ambrose’s writings) the girl was put to death upon this refusal, displaying a stoic bearing which impressed Ambrose immensely.  However, the Catholic Church wouldn’t be the Catholic Church if it didn’t squeeze some sex into the story, and so as the myth developed, the naked girl was dragged to a brothel to be raped (thereby satisfying a law which forbade the rape of virgins).  Both the rape and execution were supposed to have taken place at the spot of St Agnese in Agone.

At one side of the Piazza, you can find an open archaeology site showing an arch or fornex.  If there were any truth to the more colourful versions of the young saint’s death, it would be to somewhere like this she would have been sent; these fornices underneath the stadiums were infamous sites of brothels.  Indeed, “going to the arches” became an idiomatic expression for visiting a prostitute in Latin.  For anybody interested in etymology, our own term “fornicate” stems from it.

Being a family friendly blog, I don’t want to end on such a seedy note, so let’s return to St Agnes.  Her other major Church in Rome St Agnese Fuori le Mura can be found a couple of kilometres to the east of Termini on Via Nomentana.  This church was built over the catacomb which held her corpse, and it’s here that lambs are ritually shaved to provide the wool needed for part of a new archbishop’s ceremonial robes.  Apparently the sole reason for the location is Agnese sounds like agnus, the Latin for lamb.  I don’t know for how many centuries the Catholic Church has been using that particular pun, but for ignoring the increasingly exasperated groans of the world around and just powering on through with it they command my respect at least.

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