Wherever you go in Italy, you will generally see one or more Madonella’s in the historical center of the city. The Madonnelle are small paintings or sculptures that generally have Mary as their subject. Especially in Rome, this form of “street art” is extremely developed. A good example is the Campo de’ Fiori, where you can see a Madonnella on every corner of the square.
The Madonnelle are usually located in an aedicula, a small temple-like structure attached to a wall. Mary is either depicted alone or with Jesus. Sometimes there are also saints present. Very rarely it is Christ himself who is on display.
The Madonnelle are meant to show how devout one is and sometimes also to remember someone or a miraculous event.
All kinds of techniques are used to create the Madonnelle, from frescoes and tempera paintings to oil paintings, etchings, bas-reliefs and sculptures. There are marble and earthenware figurines and there are mosaics and majolica.
Unfortunately, they are often damaged or even stolen by vandals. Sometimes they are then replaced by pictures.
The heyday of this form of street art was in the 15th and 16th centuries. As early as 1475, Pope Sixtus V, on the occasion of the Jubilee Year, had given exact indications of where the Madonnelle ought to be located.
Although the habit of attaching the Madonnelle started in the 15th century, this was more of a continuation than a new thing. As far back as in Roman times, sacred aediculas were attached to buildings, usually on intersections. They contained effigies of the various Gods, and were expected to protect the people at these intersections.
The last time the Madonnelle in Rome were counted was in 1999, before the Jubilee that was to take place in the following year. The count stopped at 522 statues or paintings.
Rome’s supposedly oldest Madonnella was placed in the Via dei Coronari in 1523. It is known under the name Imago Pontis and was made by Perin del Vaga.