Slake Your Thirst in Rome

Rome is enchanting during the transitional time between late summer and early autumn, especially in the freshness of early morning.

In the afternoon, sometimes the breeze called the ponentino wends its way in from the sea to the west, allowing a break in the warm air. But when the sun is overhead at midday and the shadows have disappeared, leaving the city with a bleached-bone look instead of its more affable apricot tones, anyone outside wants to be in, under trees, in a trattoria, anywhere.

One such day I pushed open the door of a church in the center of the city and exhaled in relief at the dark coolness inside.

When my eyes adjusted to the soft light, I saw a curious sight. In a chapel just off the entrance door, an elegantly dressed Roman matron was waiting in line to drink water from a paper cup. In back of her shuffled an elderly man with gray whiskers, mumbling to himself. Next, two young students with backpacks stood quietly in line. Behind them a man with a briefcase waited, unperturbed by the slow progression of the line.

A young priest popped his head out from a room adjoining the chapel, checking on things, or anxious to close for lunch. (Many churches close at midday and reopen later.)

I noticed that each person knelt after slowly drinking the water, often gazing at a picture of the Madonna in the chapel or just sitting with bowed head.

I returned here often, to this church of Santa Maria in Via, and soon I, too, was in the line, awaiting my paper cup of water. Romans of all ages and social positions come here, to drink or carry a bit of water away to shut-ins.

But why the water? There had to be a miracle behind all this: This was Rome, after all.

Miraculous Madonna

Here is what is said to have happened. In the overnight hours of Sept. 26-27, 1256, a tile bearing an image of the Madonna floated mysteriously to the top of a well in a stable, then in central Rome, belonging to Cardinal Pietro Capocci. (Italians can be amazingly specific when it comes to miracles.) No workers in the stable could retrieve the picture, which always floated away from them, and the water began to flood the adjoining stables. Finally they informed the cardinal, who, putting on his red robes, descended with a full court of nobles to the stables. After saying a fervent prayer, he waded out toward the image. He was able to pick it up, and then the water receded. All remained in prayer before the image, which he had taken to his house.

The next morning Cardinal Capocci told the Pope what had happened. After investigation, the early Renaissance Pope Alexander IV (1254-61) told the cardinal to build a shrine for the image and expose it for public veneration. Cardinal Capocci had one built near the place where the miracle had occurred, so they could drink the water at the miraculous site. Finally the shrine, sometimes called “Little Lourdes,” was incorporated into Santa Maria in Via, which stood nearby. The origins of the church are ancient; it was mentioned in a papal bull dating from the year 955.

The image of Mary that had started all this is one of my favorites. Its endearing simplicity gives the chapel a touch of the real Madonna, come to offer us a refreshing drink from Paradise.

The cardinal placed other relics in the shrine, one of which was a stone said to be from Jacob's well, where Christ met the Samaritan woman. A painting showing the miracle and the cardinal graces a wall in the chapel.

During the 16th century, a rebuilding project in the church made it appropriate to include the miraculous well inside the church, in the shrine chapel with the icon of the Madonna. It had to be larger than the other side chapels to contain the water.

Now we all can enjoy the blessings of water and appreciate its essential role in life and holiness.

The Servants of Mary (Servites), to whom the church was entrusted, have an intensely Marian devotion. Their lives are dedicated to holy service as inspired by Mary, the servant of the Lord.

After the turmoil of World War II in Rome, the church became a center for sacred music, relieving some of the postwar tensions with the harmonies of their boys choir, which became well known. Santa Maria is a titular church for cardinals. Cardinals are given honorary dioceses in Rome, and their coat of arms usually appears in their church. One of the cardinals, Patrick Hayes, was archbishop of New York. His efforts in 1924 contributed to the excellent organ.

Charming Chiostro

The chapel across from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Well holds something dear to my heart, too: a year-round presepio scene, or Christmas village. Neapolitan in origin, the crèche has as a background the Bay of Naples.

While here, ask the sacristan to turn on the light. When you do, notice also the postcards and books available in the sacristy and also the paintings seen there. While there ask to see the cloister or il chiostro (key-AW-stroh). Part is modern, but the early harmonies can be seen in the arches and pilasters. It's a good habit to adopt, asking to see the chiostro, as they are often in churches but closed. Sacristans might like a small tip to open them.

Before leaving, notice the exquisite Chapel of the Annunciation, where a painting of that moment, of the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi are the work of a young Giuseppe Cesari, known also as the Cavalier d'Arpino (Knight of Arpino). He is one of many brilliant artists overlooked often in a city filled with the work of the more famous.

In the Chapel of the Crucifix, a wooden cross is flanked by four saints and set in front of a frescoed background, in which we see a distant hill with the three crosses and soldiers coming from the city.

When you leave this wonder of a church, turn back to see the façade, simple and lyrical in its beauty, redesigned and completed in 1681 by Carlo Rainaldi, who added the elegantly curved tympanum and candelabra to the second-story corners.

From here you may want to walk the short distance to the Fontana di Trevi, a must on every traveler's list, or save it for evening, when it's lighted.

Just don't leave without asking the intercession of the Blessed Mother, who's been known to float to the top of our “wells” when we least expect it—and when we most need her prayers.

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.