I live close to this little shrine and I love that people always leave flowers here. In summer, winter, rain or shine… and a couple of times, even in snow! … people come to this little portico to leave their floral offerings.
My children like to pass by and count how many flowers have been left on that particular day for Papessa Giovanna – or Pope Joan.
For that’s the over-one-thousand-year-old legend that keeps the offerings coming to this little spot in Rome’s Celio neighbourhood. And how can you not love a city that keeps its medieval legends alive and well in our modern world?
According to the legend, in the 9th century a young English woman disguised herself as a man, taking the name Johannes Anglicus, and became a monk. In July 853 A.D, this female monk succeeded Pope Leone IV, becoming Pope Giovanni VII (Johannes Septimus). She is said to have ruled until Easter of 855 when, following a mass at St. Peter’s, the papal procession passed through the neighborhood of Celio en route to the 9th century papal residence, St. John in Lateran – just up the hill from this shrine.
It is said that he excited crowds surrounded the Pope’s horse at the crossroads of Via dei SS. Quattro and Via dei Quercetti, causing the horse to rear, and sending the pregnant Papessa Giovanna (yes, the story gets better and better, doesn’t it?) into premature labour, thereby divulging her secret.
Later that day, she is said to have been killed on the banks of the Tiber and her body subsequently brought back to Celio to be buried in the very shrine which attracts visitors up until today.
The story has Giovanna’s successor covering up the whole incident and striking any mention of Papessa Giovanna from the annals of history.
Scholars for at least the past four centuries have rigorously debunked this myth, but legends which continue strong for over a millennium tend to weave themselves tightly into the local fabric and to still be worth celebrating.
It probably helps if the legend successfully combines mystery, power, sex, scandal and murder. A writer’s dream come true! And definitely another good reason to love the Eternal City.