As you approach the Ponte Sant'Angelo [Holy Angel Bridge] in Rome to cross the Tiber River on your way from the heart of the ancient city toward the Basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican hill, you are met by two statues of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul:
Pope Clement VII placed these two statues at the end of the bridge in 1535 where two chapels previously stood. One of the chapels was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdelene - whose left foot is enshrined in the nearby church of St. John the Baptist of the Florentines - and the other to the Holy Innocents. Pope Nicholas V ordered their construction to commemorate a horrific tragedy that occurred during the Jubilee of 1450.
|The Volto Santo, once housed in Rome|
and now housed in Manoppello
In the writings of Paolo di Benedetto di Cola dello Mastro, we find a description of that Holy Year:
I recollect that even in the beginning of the Christmas month a great many people came to Rome for the Jubilee... Such a crowd of pilgrims came all at once to Rome that the mills and bakeries were quite insufficient to provide bread for them. And the number of pilgrims daily increased, wherefore the Pope [Nicholas V] ordered the handkerchief of St. Veronica [the Volto Santo] to be exposed every Sunday, and the heads of the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul every Saturday; the other relics in all the Roman churches were always exposed. The Pope solemnly gave his benediction at St. Peter's every Sunday.
Because of the great number of pilgrims present at the Basilica of St. Peter on 19 December 1450, it was announced that the Holy Father Nicholas V would not give his customary benediction that evening; the crowds were simply too great. Consequently, the pilgrims left the basilica - mostly en masse - by way of the Ponte Sant'Angelo.
In his excellent and thorough work, The Holy Year of Jubilee: An Account of the History and Ceremonial of the Roman Jubilee (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1949), Herbert Thurston, S.J. gives us an account of what happened on that fateful day:
Some horses and mules took fright, and a block ensued. Many pilgrims were pushed down, trampled under foot, or fell into the Tiber. The castellan of St. Angelo caused the gates of the bridge to be closed to prevent others entering, but the fatal crush lasted for an hour. The dead were carried into the Church of San Celso. "I myself carried twelve dead bodies," writes the chronicler Paolo della Mastro, "and it was pitiful to see there one hundred and seventy-two corpses; the weeping and lamenting of those who found father, mothers, sons, and brothers among the dead resounded in the streets usque ad mediam noctem. Truly, it was misery to see the poor people, with candles in their hands, looking through the rows of dead who lay there. At midnight, by the Pope's orders, one hundred and twenty-eight were carried to the Campo Santo, near St. Peter's, where they were left all Sunday for identification. The remainder of the bodies were brought to Sta. Maria della Minverva, or buried in St. Celso (69-70).
To prevent so great a tragedy in the future, Pope Nicholas V ordered the removal of several buildings at the end of the bridge in order to widen the entrance to the bridge and allow the people to funnel in or out more efficiently.
On this 565th anniversary of their unhappy end, let us remember them in our prayers. These 172 pilgrim souls desired to look upon the Face of Jesus. May the Lord in his merciful love grant their desire and let the light of his countenance shine upon them forever.