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Brass Rubbings

By the Tombs of Peter and Paul

On Ethiopian pilgrims in Rome.


Sometime around the turn of the sixteenth century—the year 1497 is a tenuous anchor—the Roman church of Santo Stefano Maggiore came to be the refuge of Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims who had traveled across deserts and over seas to reside, as the pilgrims themselves often put it, “by the tombs of Peter and Paul.” Some of the church’s members surely stayed only for a few days or weeks, the time necessary to make the rounds of Rome’s holy sites and depart. Others remained for years, even decades; a number died and were buried there. On occasion, especially in and after the midcentury, the community hosted members of other non-Latin churches, but it was generally known in Rome as Santo Stefano “of the Indians,” in the parlance of the day, a distinctively Ethiopian community. It was also part of the Roman social fabric and was in that sense a Roman community under whose authorities and among whose population the pilgrims lived.

Santo Stefano remained an Ethiopian establishment until 1680, when a lack of inhabitants (already an issue in 1628, when it was temporarily closed and its library appropriated by the Vatican) caused its direction to be placed in other hands. But its most vibrant period as an Ethiopian community—and specifically as an Ethiopian Orthodox community—was the first half of the sixteenth century, when its population, autonomy, and influence were at their height.

Within this church, the pilgrims performed their own rites, in their own sacred language of Gǝʿǝz, under their own elected Ethiopian Orthodox officials and by the rhythms of their own reckoning of time. They devised their own regulations, established their own penalties, and received and disbursed donations. Santo Stefano was an outpost of Ethiopian Orthodoxy in Rome primarily because the pilgrims made it so. It nonetheless existed as a community at the pleasure of the popes, who for their own purposes agreed to provide the pilgrims with the church and other material support, and in the context of a broader Roman and Latin Christian society with a spectrum of views on Ethiopian Christianity.

The fortunes of Santo Stefano thus reflect Latin Christian powers’ evolving strategic interests in Ethiopia—as a Christian ally against Islam, as a church to be subsumed under the worldwide authority of the Roman patriarch, and eventually as a land ripe for Jesuit missionary activity. These fortunes also reflect the intellectual investments of Latin Christian clerics and humanists who saw in Ethiopia an ally in defending Catholicism from its Protestant detractors or, conversely, a proof of contemporary Catholicism’s flaws, an example of Judaizing heresy or of the value of ecumenical peace. As a non-Latin Christian community in the very capital of Latin Christianity, Santo Stefano found itself in the middle of the sixteenth century’s heated debates and often violent conflicts over the boundaries of religious belonging.

Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims were not only the object of such debates; they entered into them and shaped them by their actions and words. They arrived in Latin Europe as subjects of a Christian-ruled state in the highlands of the Horn of Africa, temperate in climate and rich in agriculture, whose church had by then existed for over a thousand years. In the monasteries that blanketed the realm—on the flat-topped mountains known as ambas, across the broad plateaus of Tǝgray, among the green hills and steep ravines of Amhara and Šäwa, on the islands in its lakes—Ethiopian monks had preserved biblical books lost to other Christian traditions; among all the faithful were preserved practices hewing to the model of the early Church. Their ruling dynasty, in power since 1270, claimed descent from the region’s ancient Aksumite rulers who had established the Christian Church in the mid-fourth century and had presided over a flourishing state known to merchants and chroniclers throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, this “Solomonic” dynasty, and the state over which it ruled, traced its origins yet further back to the son born of King Solomon and the Ethiopian queen of Sheba. When this prince returned from Israel to his maternal homeland in the company of Israel’s firstborn sons and the Ark of the Covenant, Ethiopia took its place as the New Jerusalem.

All this and more the pilgrims of Santo Stefano communicated to their host society through a series of collaborations. Records survive of more than a dozen of these over a forty-year span. They include the Gǝʿǝz psalter edited by Johann Potken and Tomas Wäldä Samuʾel between 1511 and 1513; the accounts of Ethiopian saints offered by two pilgrims in Pisa to Dominican listeners in 1516; interviews with five Ethiopian monks conducted by the geographical enthusiast Alessandro Zorzi in Venice between 1519 and 1524; the commentary on a European account of Ethiopia offered by several pilgrims in Rome in 1541–1542; the translation and interpretation of Ethiopian royal letters for the papal court by two pilgrims in 1536 and 1544–1545; the pilgrims’ correspondence with and preparation of Gǝʿǝz texts and translations for Cardinal Marcello Cervini and Guglielmo Sirleto in 1547; the print edition of the Gǝʿǝz New Testament and Mass ritual prepared under the aegis of Täsfa Ṣǝyon in 1546–1549; the concurrent production of printed Latin translations of the Ethiopian baptismal and Mass rituals; the comments on Ethiopia offered by Paolo Giovio in his historical work published in 1550, which invokes testimony offered by the pilgrims in Rome; and the treatise on Gǝʿǝz grammar published by Mariano Vittori, based on his instruction by Täsfa Ṣǝyon, in 1552.

Many of these collaborative projects offer valuable data on the backgrounds and outlooks of individual Ethiopian pilgrims, on the interests of their interlocutors, and on the evolving environment in which their interactions took place. But they are also significant as a phenomenon in their own right, for they attest to Santo Stefano’s role as a site of cultural interface—a mobile site, embodied in the pilgrims themselves as they resided in or moved beyond Rome.

This role was predicated on Latin Christians’ solicitation of the pilgrims as authoritative experts on their own culture and on the pilgrims’ willingness to educate and inform their audiences about it. Yet what has struck me repeatedly in analyzing these collaborations is how fraught this educational undertaking was. It was hampered by a bewildering array of Latin Christian preconceptions about Ethiopia, by doubts about and aspersions against the pilgrims’ orthodoxy and moral rectitude, and at a fundamental level by the need to translate across languages and cultures, with all the approximations and misunderstandings that could and did result. The complex processes involved in these efforts to proffer and receive the Ethiopians’ knowledge cut to the heart of the experience of the pilgrims in their diasporic context. They are also revealing of the longer tradition of European-based knowledge production about Ethiopia in which Santo Stefano played a founding role.

In late antiquity, Santo Stefano had been a monastery dedicated to the early Christian martyr Stephen, one of several that surrounded Saint Peter’s Basilica. Laid out on a northeast-southwest axis, its entrance faced the rear of the basilica across a large open space known in the early Middle Ages as Egyptum after the obelisk that rose nearby. Already in ruins by the early ninth century, the monastery was then rebuilt in the Romanesque style: a central nave, two side aisles, a transept, and a half-circle apse, with the necessary living spaces in adjacent structures on either side. It eventually became known as Santo Stefano Maggiore, “the greater,” to distinguish it from the other nearby monastery of Saint Stephen. It was indeed larger than the other monasteries circling the basilica, its nave over eighty-three feet long by twenty-six feet wide and flanked by generous side aisles more than sixteen feet across, the transept slightly wider than the main body of the church and twenty-one feet deep. Its ninth-century abbot tasked the monks with caring for the lame and the pilgrims who came to venerate Saint Peter’s tomb. Even then, it hosted pious strangers from distant lands.

In 1053, Pope Leo IX transferred jurisdiction of the monasteries around the basilica to the archpriest and canons of Saint Peter’s to ensure that the liturgy (which early-medieval monks were not always ordained to perform) was observed properly in Saint Peter’s. For a century, higher-ranking canons lived in its spaces. When a canonry was built on the south side of Saint Peter’s, Santo Stefano Maggiore became an auxiliary residence for minor clerics. By the thirteenth century, only a single canon slept in its spaces. Its fate thereafter is difficult to trace. It may have been damaged by an earthquake in 1348 and during the sack of the city by Neapolitan forces in 1413. By the 1450s, according to Maffeo Vegio, it was partially collapsed and uninhabited.

The mid-fifteenth century was also the time when the papacy, now recovered from the Great Schism and the conciliar movement that had challenged papal headship of the Latin Church, resolved to affirm its status by rebuilding Rome as a proper capital of the Christian world. Saint Peter’s was, of course, the principal object of attention. Nicholas V commissioned plans from the greatest architects of the day and ordered the demolition of the Colosseum so that its marble could be reused for the new structure. The open space behind its apse soon became known as the piazza degli scalpellini, or “square of the stonecutters,” because of the construction work that went on there. The ancient church of Santo Stefano Maggiore on this piazza was swept up in the general renovations. Over the next half century, the coats of arms of a series of popes were inscribed on the church to attest to their efforts. The exact timing and nature of these renovations remain obscure, and contemporary visual representations, which vary among themselves, are of little help. Most scholars agree, however, that by the early sixteenth century the church had been fortified within in ways that reduced its size. The columns separating the side aisles from the nave were (or remained, from a previous high medieval restoration) walled up to strengthen the structure. The side aisles were also closed off from the transept by brickwork. The triumphal arch through which the nave opened into the transept was blocked by a partition (tramezzo); if intended for structural support, this, too, may have been a solid wall. The roof seems to have been lowered, again to enhance stability; new windows were cut into the church’s sides, but the only windows giving onto the main, nave space appear to have been two high on the facade.

This was the church that became the center of an Ethiopian Orthodox community in Rome. When and how Ethiopians came to be established there, however, are questions on which contemporary sources are almost entirely silent. As the sixteenth century advanced and the community became ever more connected to illustrious men, its Ethiopian members appeared with increasing frequency in papal documents, the correspondence of high-ranking clerics, and the scholarship of men who consulted with them, even in works of art. None of them explain the circumstances of the community’s birth, nor do the manuscripts of the Ethiopians, whose documentary notices concerned themselves with the present and not the past.

What we do know—almost by chance, from an offhand comment in the Censualia Basilicae Vaticanae or account books of Saint Peter’s—is that on December 26, 1497, the canons of Saint Peter’s celebrated the Feast of Saint Stephen with the usual victuals but could not perform the customary Mass in Santo Stefano Maggiore quia Indiani ipsam ecclesiam violaverunt—because Ethiopians were violating the church. This is the first firm, contemporary record of Ethiopians in Santo Stefano. As a point of origin, however, it is slippery. It suggests that Ethiopians were present at Santo Stefano by 1497, but they could have been present much earlier, as many have affirmed. Conversely, the Ethiopians’ “violation” in 1497 seems to imply that they did not occupy it officially or stably even in 1497; the notice may reflect only a first, unsuccessful attempt, followed years or decades later by their stable installation in the space.

The origins of Santo Stefano as an Ethiopian pilgrim hostel-cum-monastery are thus a cipher, unmoored to a date. Without a date, or even a relatively narrow time window, one cannot look to a particular context or identify which actors were likely to be involved and their possible motives, much less explore the specific processes—who initiated the effort, with whose consent or protest, under what conditions—through which it took place. How does one tell a story with no beginning?

Ultimately no definitive conclusions can be drawn about the date of Santo Stefano’s inception as an Ethiopian space, the agents who initiated or negotiated it, the motives behind it, or the conditions under which Ethiopians initially occupied it. Accepting this lacuna at the point of origin, normally a site invested with explanatory power, runs against all our historical instincts. Yet the silence surrounding Santo Stefano’s origins may tell us something. It is striking that already in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century, investigators of Santo Stefano’s history had so little firm information about the community’s beginnings. Even at this time, there were no documents or even consistent oral traditions to call on: from early on, the community’s birth was obscure. This was no doubt a function of its ad hoc, informal nature, occupying (but not formally invested with) Vatican spaces and subsisting on papal largesse. In that sense, we might view the pilgrims’ precarity not as a temporary feature of the community’s beginnings but as a lasting condition.

This essay is extracted from Translating Faith: Ethiopian Pilgrims in Renaissance Rome (Harvard University Press, 2024).

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Samantha Kelly is professor of history at Rutgers University.