Last month I interviewed Monsignor Pietro Caggiano of the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary in Pompeii – home to a significant collection of ex votos which has accumulated since the Sanctuary’s foundation at the end of the nineteenth century. Monsignor Caggiano has written about the theology of ex votos, and he has curated a new exhibition of ancient and modern votive offerings, now showing in the Pompeii Antiquarium. The interview took place in the Archivio Bartolo Longo on 7th April 2016.
JH: For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the Sanctuary in Pompeii, could you perhaps begin by describing the collection of votives that we find here?
MPC: It’s an extremely varied collection, because every gift reflects the means and intentions of the person who gave it. Some people bring a photograph stuck to a piece of card with writing on, while others visit a painter who knows how depict ships, for instance, and they tell the painter a particular story, which the painter then interprets visually.
JH. Are we talking here about votives dedicated in past decades? Or is this something that still happens today?
MPC. These things still happen today, although now you can also bring money or a cheque, or even write an email or letter. The types of votives given have changed over time.
If you look in our book Madre Bella [1990; English edition: Sweet Mother], you will notice that we chose to include different pieces as a way of demonstrating how, over these last 120 or 130 years, patterns of offering have changed according to the culture and the technology of the time. Recently we received a handmade pullover from a son who explained that it was his mother’s handiwork. So it depends on who makes the offering, as well as on exactly what that particular person has promised (‘I want to do this… If this happens to me, then I’ll do this, or indeed I’ll give something’). And there are also many ex votos which reflect religious commitments, such as ‘I want to become a good Christian’, or ‘I want to go to Mass every Sunday’. And in turn there are many, many grazie or miracles commemorated in the ex votos.
In the catalogue to the exhibition I write about our founder Bartolo Longo, who at one point in his life experienced a sort of conversion. He left his girlfriend and his profession, and he started to work here in Pompeii to help people, undergoing a religious change in himself as well. So essentially, everything we see here in Pompeii is the fruit of an ex voto which sprung from the religious miracle of conversion. Bartolo Longo gave this example of how we might change our own lives. For him, this was a kind of ex voto which lasted for 50 years. Everything he did was in answer to this vocation that he had.
JH. What you say here suggests that an ex voto can be seen as a process, something that happens over a period of time. Could we also see the sanctuary itself as an ex voto dedicated by Bartolo Longo?
MPC. Yes, every stone in these structures that he made – the sanctuary, the schools and so forth – these were all types of ex voto, in the sense that he built them in response to the promise he made to God after understanding that he had to change the course of his life. As I write in the catalogue, Bartolo Longo was himself a kind of ‘living ex voto’.
JH. May I ask about the practicalities of looking after the ex votos that arrive in the sanctuary? When someone delivers a gift like the pullover you mentioned earlier, what happens next?
MPC. Well, first it gets registered with a number, and then it goes into the deposito [stores], because there simply isn’t space to have all the ex votos on display in the sanctuary. Today we can count around 5000-6000 pieces, but nobody knows exactly how many offerings have arrived here since the beginning of the sanctuary’s history. There has been so much construction work, and so much moving of stuff from one place to another. Many ex-votos are fragile, and even a small amount of humidity can ruin them. Then there’s also the fact that many votives were intended to help build the sanctuary, and so got converted into money. For instance, if someone brought a wedding ring (saying ‘I’m giving this because the marriage is going well’, or something similar), then the ring often got sold to make money to keep the construction work going. And the people bringing the offerings know this – they know that we can transform their thoughts and acts, particularly since there was this need to maintain the structures of the Sanctuary, the schools and all the other buildings. Imagine that in the past there were eight hundred people living here – boys and girls who studied, ate and slept here, so you could hardly give them a ring to eat! Sometimes you need to sell these things, and people know that.
JH. Do they mind the fact that their gift doesn’t stay in the sanctuary?
MPC. No, and sometimes they suggest it themselves, saying ‘We’re giving you this: use it in whatever way you think best.’ So because of this, I don’t believe that anyone can say how many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of gifts have come here over the years. Even the inventories are subject to changes – there are wars, fires and so forth. So history doesn’t speak clearly about these things. You cannot ever find everything – it’s impossible.
JH. The exhibition that you are preparing now in the Antiquarium of Pompeii – please could you explain the theme for us?
MPC. The exhibition deals both with the history of ancient Pompeii and the story of ‘Christian Pompeii’. Even at the time of the Romans, people here had strong relationships with the divine, and often these people in the past made requests for help and gave ex votos. So there are archaeological pieces in the exhibition, but also some pieces from the Sanctuary. There are approximately 60 or 70 pieces from here – a symbolic selection, because of the space restrictions.
JH. Have you chosen the objects from the archaeological site too?
MPC. No, that was the Soprintendenza. The theme of the exhibition is Per Grazie Ricevute: la religiosità romana e la religiosità cristiana, and each of us is making our own selection to illustrate that theme. So we’ll have to wait and see what emerges!
JH. Do you expect that the narrative presented in the exhibition will be one of continuity between past and present?
MPC. Yes, there is a basic continuity, in the sense that the person offering each of these gifts has received a dono (or a miracle, depending on what one believes), and has exchanged this with their thanks, in the form of the votive.
JH. Is it always a case of saying ‘thank you’? Or do we sometimes find instances of people using the votive as a way to ask for a miracle – so ‘I’m giving you this thing because I’d like X to happen?’
MPC. Occasionally that does happen, and this is reflected in the Latin phrase do ut des – ‘I give you this so that you give me that’. In these cases there is a kind of contract being exchanged. This is much stronger in non-Christian religions, where the divinity gets treated like a human person. Here, the divinity is often seen as a person who has the power to harm you, too. So some of the gifts may express ‘I give you this so you don’t do me any harm’. Christians don’t tend to think like this, because we know that what we have is a grazie, a gift given from God. And this starts with the gift of life itself. It’s a gift that we are given from love, not because of anything that we’ve given in return. Sometimes humans are tempted to enter into that ancient kind of bargaining – I give you this if you give me that. But this isn’t really a good thing. One tries to teach people by saying ‘Whatever you give to the Lord, it will never match what he has given you. He has given you life, and if he cures you, it is for free’. So there’s this essential difference between the paganism of the Roman world, and monotheistic religions like the Christianity of today.
JH. Monsignor Pietro Caggiano, thank you very much.