Santa Francesca Romana is not an immediately familiar saint, even amongst the faithful. And yet in Rome she is very well-known, partly because she was born, lived and died in the Eternal City, and partly because of a rather curious connection. Although she died almost 600 years ago, St. Frances of Rome happens to be the patron saint of car drivers.
A church dedicated to the saint lies in the heart of Rome, close to the Colosseum. On the saint’s feast day (March 9th), the Basilica di Santa Francesca Romana becomes a magnet for the city's car drivers, drawing them to the church to have their cars blessed for another year of life on Rome's roads!
If you are curious to know how a figure who died hundreds of years before the invention of the internal combustion engine came to be the patron saint of car drivers, it all boils down to the popular belief that Francesca's path was always lit by an angel. This was enough for Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-39), who, in 1925, declared her to be their patron saint and protector. Pius XI was the first pope to travel in a car.
The saint was born (1384) Francesca Bussa de' Leoni in Ponziani, but was known to her friends as Ceccolella. In 1425, Francesca, who was a member of the Roman nobility, founded the order of the Olivetan Oblates of Mary. A few years later she set up a convent to house her order; it is located in the centre of her native city at Tor de’ Specchi, close to the Campidoglio. It was the only house of the order and remains in use to this day. The convent opens its doors to the public but once a year, on March 9th.
A room in the convent is decorated with a series of lively frescoes (1468), the work of local artist Antoniazzo Romano (c.1430-c.1510), which illustrate scenes from the saint's life.
Francesca died in 1440 and was canonised by Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21) in 1608. She is buried in the crypt of the basilica.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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