Hospitality for Pilgrims in Rome
Anna Foa

The Jubilee from the Middle Ages to modern times

The first Jubilee in Christian history was in 1300, proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII. An enormous influx of pilgrims arrived in Rome, so many that the city, lacking accommodation, lodgings and inns, was unable to house them all. The crowds were such that as recalled in Canto XVIII of Dante’s Inferno, a system of alternating traffic was introduced in order for them to cross the Sant’Angelo Bridge. In the centuries that followed the situation would grow even worse and pilgrims belonging to the different confraternities would fight, weapons in hand, for the right of way on the bridge.

On the occasion of the Jubilee of 1300, Romans created provisional inns by transforming their homes into lodgings, a practice that would continue for centuries, until today. During the first and in subsequent Jubilees, women played a fundamental role in the work of providing hospitality. Given the risks and difficulties of long journeys on foot through unknown places fraught with danger not only to their baggage but also to their chastity, there were fewer women than men who participated as pilgrims. Instead, women in Rome became innkeepers, hostesses and nurses, alleviating the pilgrims’ weariness with food, drink, warm rooms and comfortable beds. Often, although perhaps not always true, municipal authorities feared that prostitutes might hide in the ranks of these innkeepers, and thus inns without signs were mistrusted and thus authorities sought in vain to control and discourage them.

Until well after the 16th century the Jubilee was a business opportunity for innkeepers, since pilgrims paid for their board and lodging and had to stay for at least a fortnight in Rome in order to make the repeated visits to the basilicas necessary to gain the Plenary Indulgence. During these 14 days they also had to sleep and eat. However, from the mid-16th century, in an atmosphere of increasing religious discipline, the mercenary aspect of accommodation during the Jubilee sharply declined since the network of more or less improvised hostels and inns was replaced by the network of hospitals and confraternities which played the role of providing assistance free of charge as a religious obligation.

Pilgrimages increasingly acquired a group character, the number of individual pilgrims dwindled and the part played by secular confraternities developed. Here too the role of women was very important, particularly that of those belonging to the upper classes, aristocrats and upper-middle-class women, who spared no effort in offering the services of hospitality. They washed the pilgrims’ feet and waited on them at table. It was they who were responsible for welcoming the pilgrims and for collecting funds, and they who financed the hospices and hospitals.

However, let us attempt to trace this process a little more closely. As the Jubilee of 1300 was marked by the flourishing of inns and hostels, somewhat similar to today’s bed and breakfasts, in subsequent Jubilees too the problem of how to lodge, feed and help such a large, number of pilgrims remained open. This was particularly true during the important Jubilee of 1450, which seemed to mark the end of Rome’s decadence after the period of the exile of the popes in Avignon and the great Schism. Just as it was ushering in the great season of city planning which was to change its aspect, Rome attracted an incredible number of pilgrims, so many that 1,022 official lodging houses were listed in the city, that is, those equipped with the standard sign, as well as many other non-official ones, namely, homes transformed into hostels. Offering hospitality to pilgrims was one of the most nagging problems which characterized that Holy Year: many people slept outside and, despite the increase in their number, the lodging houses and hostels proved insufficient to meet the need.

In the Jubilee of 1500 an important role in organizing accommodation was played by Vannozza Caetani. She was the lover of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who acceded to the papal throne in 1492, and was the mother of his four children. When she ceased to be Alexander VI’s favourite, Vannozza became an able businesswoman and, among other things, an innkeeper, making the most of the circumstance of the Jubilee to take on the management of at least five inns. These included one called della Vacca, one of the best in the city, where it seems that in addition to board and lodging pilgrims were also offered courtesans and prostitutes. In this case they might have thought that the Plenary Indulgence to be gained in the following days would cancel their every sin. The former favorite of the Pope followed the example of the Roman people, but she operated at a higher level. Vannozza invested, earned and expanded her business affairs with the Holy Year, also making the most of the favourable attitude which the authorities could not fail to take towards the woman who was the mother of the Pontiffs children. Indeed she was not exempt from the suspicion of usury and, as we have seen, of pandering.

Towards the mid-16th century in the atmosphere of renewed devotional fervour, hospitality for pilgrims also and above all became a superior form of religious devotion. The steadily increasing confraternities equipped themselves to offer pilgrims accommodation free of charge. In 1548 St Philip Neri founded the Archconfraternity of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. In the Santissima Trinità boarding house, as in the hostels of the confraternities, men and women were given separate quarters. The number of women pilgrims, perhaps not as low at the outset as people usually think, increased, since records show a considerable female presence.

However, it was through the assistance women provided that they became truly dominant. The iconography of the Roman Pietà came into being, depicting a provocative woman suckling an old man, which we see in so many paintings of the time, from Caravaggio to Rubens, wholly Baroque in symbolism. The female role is explained, especially at the level of the upper classes of society, by the involvement of women of the nobility in the works of the confraternities and in assistance. Sumptuously dressed, these Roman noble-women would serve the pilgrims at table and wash their feet, dusty after their long journey. It also happened that grand courtesans would sometimes infiltrate among these women, also to carry out the gratifying and honourable task of tending to and comforting the pilgrims.

In the Jubilee of 1675 Queen Christina of Sweden, having converted to Catholicism and moved to Rome, took part in a sort of purification ceremony in which the most unbridled luxury was juxtaposed with poverty, coloured silk fabrics against the worn and sober clothing of the pilgrims. A quite unusual figure, Christina claimed a central role not only in assistance but even in the management of the Jubilee. She was the Queen of Rome, or at least was seen as such by the Romans. At the opening of the Holy Door, contrary to all etiquette, she raised her somewhat raucous mannish voice to tell off the English Protestant gentlemen who had failed to kneel. Everyone heard her, including the Pope, but pretended they had heard nothing. Thus, with her but also with other female figures of the time, the charity of hospitality was transformed into a Baroque theatricality for the apparent purpose of serving as an example. Yet it was also a none too well concealed means for them to outshine others, and especially other women.

The era of the women hoteliers and that of the charitable ladies who spared no effort in offering hospitality ended with modern times, the crisis of the Church in the 18th century and the end of the temporal power of the Popes. Men and wo- men carried out beside each other the religious task of the Holy Year pilgrimage. The network of parishes, confraternities and religious institutions replaced — although not entirely — the medieval network of houses turned into hostels. Prostitutes, confined to brothels until fairly recent times, no longer infiltrated in their garish clothes among the noblewomen intent on practising Christian charity. It was now hard to confuse them.

The pilgrimage, once a risky moment of crossing a threshold, became a journey, no longer on foot as in the centuries of the Middle Ages and in the early modem era, but on trains or buses equipped with certain comforts. Are women still innkeepers? Yes, perhaps, but as hotel owners or employed by real estate agencies, and without mixing religious devotion with the desire for profit and worldliness.


L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 December 2015, page 12

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