Il Santissimo Bambino by Anonymous

On the Capitoline Hill, in Rome, stands a church, twelve hundred years old, called Ara Coeli. It is unpromising in its outward appearance, but is rich in marbles and mosaics within.

The most precious possession of this ancient church however, is a wooden doll called Il Santissimo Bambino—The Most Holy Infant. It is dressed like an Italian baby, and an Italian baby is dressed like a mummy. We often see them in their mothers' arms, so swathed that they can no more move than a bundle without any baby inside of it. Their little legs must ache for the freedom of kicking. The dress of the Bambino is very different from that of a bambino after all, for it is cloth of silver, and it sparkles all over with jewels which have been presented to it, and it wears a golden crown upon its head.

This is the history of this remarkable doll, as devout Roman Catholics believe. You must judge for yourselves how much of it is truth and how much fable.

They say this image of the infant Saviour was carved from olive-wood which grew upon the Mount of Olives, by a monk who lived in Palestine; and, as he had no means of painting it with sufficient beauty, his prayers prevailed upon St. Luke to come down from Heaven and color it for him. Then he sent it to Rome to be present at the Christmas festival. It was shipwrecked on the way, but finally came safely to land, and was received with great reverence by the Franciscan monks, who placed it in a shrine at Ara Coeli. It was soon found to have miraculous power to heal the sick, and was so often sent for to visit them, that, at one time, it received more fees than any physician in Rome. It has its own carriage in which it rides abroad, and its own attendants who guard it with the utmost care.

One woman was so selfish as to think it would be a capital thing if she could get possession of this wonder-working image for herself and her friends.

"She had another doll prepared of the same size and appearance as the 'Santissimo,' and having feigned sickness and obtained permission to have it left with her, she dressed the false image in its clothes, and sent it back to Ara Coeli. The fraud was not discovered till night, when the Franciscan monks were awakened by the most furious ringing of bells and by thundering knocks at the west door of the church, and, hastening thither, could see nothing but a wee, naked, pink foot peeping in from under the door; but when they opened the door, without stood the little naked figure of the true Bambino of Ara Coeli, shivering in the wind and rain. So the false baby was sent back in disgrace, and the real baby restored to its home, never to be trusted away alone any more."

This marvelous escape is duly recorded in the Sacristy of the church where the Bambino safely dwells under lock and key all the year, except the time from Christmas to Epiphany, when it comes out to receive the homage of the people.

We went to see it last Christmas.

As I told you, the church stands on one of the Seven Hills of the Eternal City; it is approached by a flight of stone steps as wide as the building itself and as high as the hill. There were many beggars on these steps; some old and blind, others young and bright-eyed. Beside the beggars, there were people with tiny images of the Baby in the Manger, toy sheep, and pictures of the Bambino for sale.

When we went into the church, we found one of the chapels fitted up like a tableau. The chapels are something like large alcoves along the sides of a church. Each is consecrated to some saint, and often belongs to some particular family who have their weddings and funerals there.

It was in the second chapel on the left that we found the scene represented. The Virgin Mary was dressed in a bright blue silk, adorned with various jewels. In her lap lay the Bambino, about the size of a baby six weeks old. I do not believe St. Luke painted its face, for it was not half so well done as most of the wooden dolls we see. An artificial mule had his nose close to the baby's head. Joseph sat near, and in front the shepherds were kneeling. All these people were of life-size, made of wood, and dressed in real clothes. Beyond them was to be seen a pretty landscape—sheep, covered with real wool, a girl with a pitcher on her head coming down a path to a sparkling fountain of glass. In the distance was the town of Bethlehem. In mid-air hovered an angel, hung by a wire in his back from the ceiling. On pasteboard screens, above the Virgin and Child were painted a crowd of cherubs looking down, and in their midst God the Father—whom no one hath seen nor can see—was represented in the likeness of a venerable man, spreading his hands in blessing over the group below.

A great many little children were coming with the older people to look at all this, and talking, in their pretty Italian tongue, about the "Bambino."

Epiphany, as perhaps you know, is the day kept in memory of the visit of the Wise Men where the Star in the East guided to our Saviour's cradle. On that day, Il Santissimo Bambino was to be carried with all ceremony back to the Sacristy; so we went to see that.

We were glad to find the Blessed Virgin had two nice silk dresses; she had changed from blue to red, and the Bambino was standing on her knee. The Shepherds had gone, and the Wise Men had come, all very gorgeous in flowered brocade and cloth of gold, with crowns on their heads, and pages to hold their trains.

It was yet an hour or two before the "Procession of the Bambino" would proceed; so we went out of the side door of the church to stray about the Capitoline Hill in the meanwhile.

We went down the steps where Tiberias Gracchus, the friend of the people, was killed, some two thousand years ago. That brought us into a small square called Piazza di Campidoglio. It is surrounded on three sides by public buildings, and in front has a grand stairway leading down to the street. It was in this very spot that Brutus made his famous speech after the assassination of Julius Cæsar. We crossed the square, went up some steps and through an archway.

A company of little Romans were playing soldier there, and the small drum-major made the walls of the capitol resound with his rattling music. That reminds me to tell you that Santa Claus does not visit Italy; but an old woman, named Navona, comes instead. She may be his wife, for aught I know; in fact, it seems quite likely, for she has a way, just like his, of coming down the chimney, bringing gifts for the good children and switches for the naughty. These must have been very good little boys, for every one of them seemed to have a new sword or gun. Probably Navona has to keep the house while Santa Claus is away about his Christmas business, and that is the reason she does not reach her small people here until the night before Epiphany, the 6th of January.

We went down a lane of poor houses, dodging the clothes which hung drying over our heads, and came to a large green gate in the high stone wall of a garden. We knocked, but no one answered. Presently a black-eyed little boy came running to us, glad to earn two or three sous by going to call the custode. While we wait for him to do so, I must tell you why we wished to go through this green door. You have read, either in Latin or English, the story of Tarpæia, the Roman maiden, who consented to show the Latin soldiers the way into the citadel if they would give her what they wore on their left arms, meaning their bracelets, and then the grim joke they played after she had done her part, by throwing upon her their shields, which were also "what they wore on their left arms."

It was to see the Tarpæian rock, where she led her country's enemies up, and where, later, traitors were hurled down, that we wished to go through the gate. Presently the keeper came, a rosy young woman, leading a little girl, who was feeling very rich over a new dolly she was dangling by its arm.

We were admitted to a small garden, where pretty pink roses were in blossom, and the oranges were hanging on the trees, though the icicles were fringing the fountain not far away. On the edge of the garden, along the brow of the cliff, runs a thick wall of brown stone; we leaned over it and looked down the steep rock which one assaulting party after another tried, in old times, to scale.

It was on this side that the Gauls were trying to reach the citadel at the time the geese saved the city. Do you know that for a long time, annually, a dog was crucified on the capitol, and a goose carried in triumph, because, on that occasion, the dogs failed to give the alarm and the geese did it!

We looked down on the roofs and into the courts of poor houses which have huddled close about the foot of the hill, but beyond them we could look down into the Forum, where Virginia was stabbed, where Horatius hung up the spoil of the Curiatii, where the body of Julius Cæsar was burned, where the head of Cicero was cruelly exposed on the very rostrum where had often been seen the triumph of his eloquence. Opposite to us stood the Palatine Hill, a mass of crumbling palaces; a little farther off rose the mighty wall of the Coliseum, where the gladiators used to fight, and where so many Christian martyrs were thrown to the wild beasts while tens of thousands of their fellow-men, more cruel than lions, looked on, for sport.

Just at the roots of the Capitoline, close by, though out of sight, was the Mamertine Prison, where St. Paul, of whom the world was not worthy, was once shut up in the dismal darkness of the dungeon.

As we went from the garden back to the Piazza di Campidoglio, we saw something unusual was going on in the palace on the left of the capital. In the door stood a guard in resplendent array of crimson and gold lace. Looking through the arched entrance, we could see in the inner court an open carriage with driver and footman in livery of bright scarlet. Something of a crowd was gathering in the corridors. We stopped to learn what it was all about. An Italian woman answered, "La Principessa Margarita!" and an English lady close by explained that the Princess Margaret, wife of the crown prince, had come to distribute prizes to the children of the public schools. Only invited guests could be present, but the people were waiting to see her come down. So we joined the people and waited also.

It was a long time and a pretty cold one. A brass band in the court cheered our spirits now and then. The fine span of the princess looked rather excited, at first, by the trumpets so close to their ears, but they stood their ground bravely. If one of the scarlet footmen tightened a buckle, it raised our hopes that his mistress was coming; the other put a fresh cigar in his mouth, and they sank.

Meantime the guard in the gold-laced crimson coat and yellow silk stockings paced up and down. At length there was a messenger from above; the royal carriage drove under the arch close to us. There was a rustle, and down came the princely lady, dressed in purple velvet, with mauve feathers in her hat, a white veil drawn over her face, and a large bouquet in her white-gloved hand—rather pretty, and very graceful. Before entering her carriage, she turned to shake hands with the ladies and gentlemen who had accompanied her. She was very complaisant, bowing low to them, and they still lower to her. Then she bowed graciously to the crowd right and left, and they responded gratefully. She smiled upon them, high and low, but there was a look in her face, as it passed close to me, as if she was tired of smiling for the public. She seated herself in the carriage; the lady-in-waiting took her place beside her, the gentleman-in-waiting threw over them the carriage-robe of white ermine lined with light blue velvet and stepped in himself.

Then the equipage rolled off, the scarlet footmen getting up behind as it started. This princess is very good and kind, greatly beloved by the people, and, as there is no queen, she is the first lady in the kingdom. Her husband first and her little son next are heirs to the crown.

This show being over, we hastened back to the church, fearing we had missed the Bambino in our pursuit of the princess. But we were in good time. On the side of the church opposite the tableau was a small, temporary platform. Little boys and girls were placed upon this, one after the other, to speak short pieces or recite verses about the Infant Christ. It was a kind of Sunday-school concert in Italian. The language is very sweet in a child's mouth. There were a great many bright, black-eyed children in the church, and most of them seemed to have brought their Christmas presents along with them, as if to show them to the Bambino.

There were ragged men in the crowd, and monks, and country-women with handkerchiefs tied over their heads for bonnets. One of them who stood near me had her first finger covered with rings up to the last joint. That is their great ambition in the way of dress.

At length the organ ceased playing, and the notes of a military band were heard. Then we saw a banner moving slowly down one of the aisles, followed by a train of lighted tapers. Over the heads of the people we could only see the banner and the lights; they passed down and paused to take the Bambino. Then they marched slowly all around the church—people falling on their knees as they passed by.

Out at the front door they went, and that sacred image was held high aloft, so that all the people on the great stairway and in the square below might get a sight of it, and be blessed. Then up the middle of the church they came, to the high altar. This was our chance to see them perfectly.

First the banner with the image of the Virgin on it was borne by a young priest dressed in a long black robe and a white short gown trimmed with lace; next came a long procession of men in ordinary dress, carrying long and large wax candles, which they had a disagreeable habit of dripping as they went along.

"Servants of great houses," remarked a lady behind me.

"They used to come themselves," answered another.

Then followed Franciscan monks in their brown copes, each with a knotted rope for a girdle, and sandals only on his bare feet. After these came the band of musicians, all little boys; and now approached, with measured tread, three priests in rich robes of white brocade, enriched with silver. The middle one, a tall, venerable-looking man, with hoary hair and solemn countenance, held erect in his hands the sacred dolly. As it passed, believers dropped upon their knees. When he reached the high altar, he reverently kissed its feet, and delivered it to its custodian to be carried to the Sacristy!