When in Rome: The Legend of Papessa Giovanna (Pope Joan)

Just for the record: I was not sleeping through all those years of religious education lessons, nor was I drifting off during my beloved European history classes. Nevertheless, I had never heard of the Papessa Giovanna (Pope Joan) until I moved to Rome, into the same neighborhood where the only female Pope’s secret is said to have been discovered and where she is to have been buried.

According to the legend, in the 9th century a young English woman disguised herself as a man, taking the name Johannes Anglicus, and became a monk. In July 853 A.D., with Papal elections far less complex than those of today, this female monk succeeded Pope Leone IV, becoming Pope Giovanni VII (Johannes Septimus).

Image from the “Liber Cronicarum” (1493) courtesy William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan website

She is said to have ruled until Easter of 855 when, following a mass at St. Peter’s, the papal procession passed through the neighborhood of Celio en route to the 9th century papal residence, St. John in Lateran. The excited crowds surrounded the Pope’s horse at the crossroads of Via dei SS. Quattro and Via dei Quercetti. This caused the horse to rear, sending the pregnant Papessa Giovanna into premature labour, and thereby divulging her secret.

That spot is marked today by an ancient portico, where tourists and Romans alike stop by and leave flowers. This spot is just three blocks from the Colosseum, at the foot of the hill leading up to the medieval SS. Quattro Coronati abbey-fortress.

Poor Giovanna did not survive long once she gave birth to a son and her secret was discovered. She was flogged and tied by her feet to her horse, then dragged through the streets of Rome. Later that day, she is said to have been killed on the banks of the Tiber and her body subsequently brought back to Celio to be buried in the very shrine which attracts visitors up until today. The story has Giovanna’s successor covering up the whole incident and striking any mention of Papessa Giovanna from the annals of history.

There is also a religious image of the Madonna and child which marks the infamous crossroads. It is thought to be the oldest religious image painted on a Roman street and is believed to have been originally painted in 1000 A.D in memory of Giovanna. The image has been subsequently restored and changed, most recently in the 16th century.

Scholars for at least the past four centuries have rigorously debunked this myth, but legends which continue strong for over a millennium tend to weave themselves tightly into the local fabric and to still be worth celebrating. It probably helps if the legend successfully combines mystery, power, sex, scandal and murder.

On your next visit to Rome, my tip is to stop by Giovanna’s shrine and maybe even leave a flower for the unlucky Papessa. It may just be medieval folklore, but it still makes for a pretty good story – even 1155 years later.