In Rome the four letters S. P. Q. R. are to be seen on everything from dustbins and drains to street fountains and manhole covers.
However, two thousand years ago the letters would have been emblazoned on the standards of the mighty Roman legions. In the ancient Roman Republic the letters referred to the government, which was made up of the Senate and the Roman People: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus. Nowadays, the four letters are used as the official emblem of the city of Rome.
During the Fascist period (1922-1943) the letters were often accompanied by the fasces (from which the Fascist party drew its name), a bundle of wooden rods and an axe. In the days of ancient Rome the fasces were carried by the lictors, the figures who escorted magistrates through the streets of the city.
The famous four letters have come to stand for all sorts of things. To non-Romans, they became Sono Porchi Questi Romani (these Romans are pigs). To anti-clerics, they became Sono Preti Regnano Qui (only the priests reign here).
On March 24th the victims were transported to caves on the outskirts of the city where they were shot in groups of five. In the end, 335 were shot, for the authorities had rounded up five men too many. The Germans then blew up the entrances to the caves, thereby burying the bodies. The dead were exhumed and (most of them) identified soon after the German retreat in June, 1944.
There are wreaths, commemorating people who died in the massacre, attached to buildings throughout the centre of Rome.
The work was paid for by Cardinal Lorenzo Brancati, who was the chief librarian at the Vatican. The cardinal wanted his patronage to be recognised, but he knew a full-blown inscription would not be acceptable to the church. And so he came up with something more subtle.
The thirteen letters stand for: Frater Laurentius De Laureolo Consultor Sancti Officii Theologus Cardinalis Episcopus Custos Vaticanae Bibliothecae (Brother Lorenzo de Laureolo, Advisor, Theologian of the Holy Office, Cardinal, Bishop, Guardian of the Vatican library).
The painting (c.1482), which can be found in the Cappella dell'Annunziata, depicts, in addition to the two usual suspects, four other figures. The elderly man is Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) and he is presenting three girls to the Virgin Mary. The Madonna is giving each girl a small bag, which contains money. Cardinal Torquemada set up a fund which provided dowries for orphaned girls.
Each year twelve such girls were chosen and, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the dowries would be distributed in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva by no less a figure than the pope himself.
Copyright © David Lown 2001-2017. All rights reserved.