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It’s an Italian Thing

Anyone who’s ever driven through an Italian neighborhood in an American city has seen household shrines of the Blessed Virgin. The “bathtub Madonna” is proverbial kitsch. What’s cool is that there’s nothing new about it. The archeological record shows that Christians in every age and place have cobbled together odd items to build shrines to Mother of God and her Divine Child. The oldest Roman and the oldest Coptic images of the Virgin show her nursing the baby Jesus. (You’ll find both here.)

As in the age of Constantine, so today. Marian shrines are as ubiquitous on the streets of Italy as they are in the Italian-American neighborhood where I grew up. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, even as it crossed the ocean.

Now, a new book of photographs by Steven Rothfeld and text by Frances Mayes takes us to that ur-source — the streetside shrines built into nooks of buildings in Italy. It’s appropriately titled Shrines: Images of Italian Worship. The photos dominate; the commentary is spare and poetic. The shrines photographed range from gorgeous Della Robbias to cloying plaster mass-productions. All bespeak a piety that is warm, homey, integral to everyday life. Mayes is the bestselling author of Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy and many other books.

We’ll see these shrines aplenty on our on our May 2007 pilgrimage to Rome. Consider joining us for the trip!