Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 22, 2012

Reason #5,354 to love Rome – Pope Joan

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.

Poor Giovanna did not survive long once she gave birth to a son and her secret was discovered. She was flogged and tied by her feet to her horse, then dragged through the streets of Rome.

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.


  1. […] There is no news yet as to when the site will once again be open to visitors. Nevertheless, a visit to Colle Oppio is still a pleasant stop during your stay. From Colle Oppio, you’re just a short stroll to a medieval landmark I mentioned in an earlier post, the Shrine of Pope Joan. […]

  2. […] Enjoy your visit to medieval and Ancient Rome at the Basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo. For more of medieval Rome, see my earlier post about the nearby Shrine to Pope Joan. […]

  3. Oh there must be a Dan Brown style book in this somewhere! What a great story. I had heard there was a Pope Joan but never knew the whole story – thanks for sharing. Keep counting those flowers.

  4. Hi Grace! There actually is a novel on Pope Joan, that I believe was made into a movie. I haven’t read it yet. I live near this shrine and my neighborhood is full of fabulous old stories and legends, so I get a kick out of seeing the flowers left for poor,fictional Giovanna.

  5. […] For more tips on medieval Rome, see my posts on the SS Giovanni e Paolo basilica and the shrine to Pope Joan. […]

  6. […] visiting the Ludus Magnus, you are just three blocks away from the portico marking the spot where  Pope Joan’s  true identity was discovered. Why not enjoy a short stroll in the pretty neighborhood of […]

  7. Reblogged this on Pro Unione and commented:
    When i lived in Celio, at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, this was one of my favorite quirky little places. Marian shrines cover the city at nearly every corner, often small and easy to miss. This one is said to mark the spot of the legendary Pope Joan’s labor. I came across this other bloggers pictures and account of the story, and it seemed worth sharing, just for a little something fun!

    There is also one of the best pizzerias of Rome just across the street, if you happen to come by…

    • Thanks for reblogging! Ah, you lived in Celio, too. A great neighborhood, full of history (and legends). And yes, I know the pizzeria, Li rioni, very well. I love it, too!

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