In the year 304 at the age of twelve a young virgin of noble blood lost her life here.
I was in the Piazza Navona, steps away from the baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone built at the place of the girl’s martydom and named in her honor.
Her offense was refusing to marry the pagan son of a Roman official. Her penalty was condemnation to death. But because Roman law forbade the execution of virgins, the official, the prefect Sempronius, had the little girl sent first to a brothel so the sentence could be carried out.
The legend tells how she was dragged through the streets naked, how her hair grew long to protect her modesty, and how those men who tried to rape her were struck blind. When tied to the stake to burn to death, the wood would not light. She did not die until the exasperated officer in charge either cut off her head or stabbed her in the throat. A gruesome end for a young beauty.
Pope Innocent X commissioned the present-day church of Sant’Agnese as the family chapel for his Palazzo Pamphili. Begun in 1652, both the Rainaldi father-and-son team and the prominent architect, Borromini worked on it. Built on a Greek cross design, it has a dome supported by eight Corinthian columns of red marble, and an interior richly ornamented with gilded stucco and frescos.
One imagines a family chapel to be an intimate and quiet place. But, the morning I visited, it was as busy as the Via del Corso at the hour of the daily passeggiata when strollers walk arm-in-arm creating a tightly woven tapestry of humanity. Squeezing my way inside, and into the thick of the crowd, I could see why.
There behind a heavy red silk chord stretched across one end of the nave stood a bride and groom surrounded by their family and friends. The priest was in the middle of saying the Mass celebrating their union. On the altar, the martyred virgin, cloaked in her long hair, looked down on them. The bride also wore long hair, hers, black and wavy, with an elaborately embellished white veil and train. The groom, in black morning coat, stood silently beside her. Great urns of flowing white flowers framed the altar. The red silk chord kept a heaving mass of camera wielding tourists at bay as well as several late-arriving guests who, due to their tardiness, found themselves on the wrong side of the red chord.
Thinking that it was only architecture, sculpture, and painting that had brought so many to the church that morning, I was embarrassed to find myself an uninvited guest at a young woman’s marriage. But, under the protective gaze of Sant’Agnese, the wedding party and guests seemed not to notice the crowd, the cameras, or me. They were in their own moment, one that did not include the intrusion of strangers.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum