We are in Rome again, and even in the Italian capital there are some singular “oddities”. After the doll hospital, I talk you about a skull that resides in a glass reliquary in a small basilica, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, surrounded by flowers. Lettering painted across the forehead identify the owner as none other than of the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine.
However, knowing just exactly whose skull it is, of course, is complicated. First off, there was more than one Catholic saint known as Saint Valentine. Second…there’s the approximately 1500 years between those martyr’s deaths and the enthusiastic distribution and labeling of bodies in the Victorian era. Finally, and most curious, there is the fact that no less than ten places claim to house the relics, all around the world!
If you remember, the origins of the February 14th holiday are already quite confusing, and little is really known of the real man (or men) behind the St.Valentine’s myth.
What is known (more or less) is that at least two men by the name of Valentine (Valentinus) were known in Italy and died in the late 3rd century, while a third Valentine was lived in North Africa around the same time. The two Italians were buried along Via Flaminia, and as a saint, Valentine first gained real notoriety in 496 when Pope Gelasius I made February 14, originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a feast day dedicated to St. Valentine.
The stories of the different men seem to have merged into one over time, including most of the mythology about Valentine being a patron of lovers, helping early Christian couples to marry in secret, only dating to the 14th century thorugh, among other thinghs, the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer.
The Basilica of Santa Maria itself is very old, standing on the site of an ancient Roman temple dating to the second century BC. Most of what you see today dates to the 8th and 12th centuries, including the crypt located beneath the altar, and the skull can be found in the side altar on the left side of the church. While you are at the Basilica, you can stop by the portico to visit with the famous Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth), a large marble disc that was used in the Middle Ages as a lie detector. But this is another story….