Every year, for centuries, 213 candles have lit up the church of Santa Maria dell’Orto in Trastevere, Rome.
The brothers of the confraternity of the same name, founded by pope Alexander VI in 1492, keep alive the 17th-century tradition of the “Macchina delle Quarantore” (Forty Hours’ Devotion Machine), with what is said to be the last intact device of its kind.
The “Machine” – in this case, a 19th-century wooden structure enriched with Baroque floral decorations – is a symbol of Jesus’s tomb, and set up on the major altar of the 16th-century church after the evening mass held on the first day of the Paschal Triduum.
The evocative lights remind us of the poem great Roman author Trilussa, born Carlo Alberto Salustri (1871-1950), dedicated to a humble candle: “In front of a Church’s Cross / a lit candle / is consumed by love and faith. / It gives all its light, / all the heat it has, / without considering that the fire / wears it out and lessens it little by little. / If you don’t burn, you don’t live. How beautiful / is the flame of a consuming love, / as long you are convinced that’s true! / I watch and ponder. The small flame quivers, / the wax drips, and smoke comes from the wicker” (
Davanti ar Crocifisso d’una Chiesa / una Candela accesa / se strugge da l’amore e da la fede. / Je dà tutta la luce, / tutto quanto er calore che possiede, / senza abbadà se er foco / la logra e la riduce a poco a poco. / Chi nun arde nun vive. Com’è bella / la fiamma d’un amore che consuma,/ purché la fede resti sempre quella! / Io guardo e penso. Trema la fiammella, / la cera cola e lo stoppino fuma… ).
This year, as has happened for centuries, the solitary candle Trilussa celebrated will be in good company until midnight on Maudy Thursday.