On the Via dei Querceti, where it meets the Via dei Santi Quattro, stands a rather dilapidated street shrine. It would be all too easy to ignore and walk past, but the shrine marks the spot of one of the most curious tales of Roman folklore.
The Via dei Santi Quattro was once part of the route followed by the papal cavalcade (cavalcata papale) on its way to the cathedral. The pope is the bishop of Rome and the seat of his bishopric is the church of San Giovanni in Laterano.
Each newly elected pope would take part in a grand procession (known as Il Possesso), which would makes its way through the city from the Basilica of St Peter's to take 'possession' of his bishopric.
For centuries, the cavalcade proceeded up the Via dei Santi Quattro to this point before switching over to the adjacent via dei San Giovanni in Laterano. The reason for this sudden (and unnecessary) change of direction was the presence of a house, which was known by the Roman populace as that of 'Papessa Giovanna'.
Embedded into the wall, was a fragment of an ancient relief, which depicted a bare-breasted woman holding a child in her arms. In the middle of the 16th century, on the orders of Pope Pius IV, the plaque was removed and the house was razed to the ground.
Papessa Giovanna was the legendary Pope Joan, an Englishwoman who was elected to the pontificate as Pope John VIII. Joan had succeeded in being elected pope because she had disguised her gender. It was only when she gave birth to a child that the game was up. The birth had taken place on this very spot and both Joan and her baby were instantly murdered by outraged bystanders.
Blogging about Rome, its history, art and culture.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian, writer and guide