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It's difficult to just wander around in Rome and not learn something.  In fact, you have to try pretty hard to not find interesting things. A classic example is the day we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  We were going on to make a stop in the Pantheon a couple of hundred feet away.  First though, we decided we desperately needed some cappuccinos.  We were already in the piazza in front of the Pantheon.  Rather than break the food budget for the remainder of the day, we figured we'd walk a ways away and get the price down.  The cost of food or drinks in Rome is inversely proportional to the distance to a tourist landmark.  And the price goes up and down exponentially.




So we wandered up a small street in a northerly direction for another couple of hundred feet until we found this sidewalk trattoria and cafe.  As we were finishing our cappuccinos and bathroom visits, we noticed a very distinctive small church across the piazza.  Not being in any particular hurry and curious, we stopped to look at it.




The baroque facade of the church was quite different from most Roman churches we had visited.  We found it was named for Santa Maria Maddalena (St. Mary Magdalene) and belongs to the Order of Saint Camillus de Lellis.  The first church built by the order at this location was constructed in 1586 and replaced with the current building in 1699.  Note the red cross over the doorway and in the design of the stained glass window at the top.





This is the central nave of the church with the altar and apse at the end.




As you can see, the inside of the dome is frescoed as is the vault ceiling.  The colors of the stained glass wash out on this picture due to the high contrast but they all contain a red cross in their design.




The frescoed vault of the ceiling.




The organ is located above the front entrance.




One of the small chapels off the nave.  Note the small framed picture.  A blow-up of it is shown below.




The blow-up of the framed picture shows a nun with a red cross on her habit attending someone who appears to be ill.  I was beginning to get really curious about this business of a red cross, never having noted it elsewhere in Roman churches.



When we got back to our convent guesthouse room, I did some searching on the internet for information on the church and the Order of Saint Camillus de Lellis.  Even the Wikipedia article is hard to find because it's filed somewhat differently.  You can read the full biography of the saint here if you're interested.  It's a story of one man's journey from being a mercenary soldier, a dissolute gambler, and worse into being the agent of works of mercy resulting in his being declared a Saint by the Church.

To summarize it briefly, Camillus was born in 1550 near Naples. Both he and his father were mercenary soldiers working for first one warring state and then another.  Camillus was an inveterate gambler and apparently excelled at a number of other vices. He received a leg wound in one of the battles that he was in which never totally healed the rest of his life.  After leaving the mercenary soldier business, he became a laborer at a Capuchin monastery.  Eventually he became a Christian.  He went to Rome where he was admitted to a hospital for treatment of his leg wound.  Developing an empathy for sick and wounded people, he formed a group of volunteers who performed nursing duty for the indigent ill and wounded.  He studied at seminary, was ordained, and formed his volunteers into a religious order to care for the sick.  The order adopted as it's symbol a red cross.

The Order eventually extended to providing medical services between various warring cities in Italy.  Since none of the combatants saw any need for providing first aid and medical treatment, the Order simply took on the task themselves.  An epidemic of bubonic plague in Rome heightened public awareness of Camillus' people since they selflessly treated as many plague cases as they could.  Some seemingly miraculous healings were said to have taken place at the hands of Camillus.  Until he died in 1614, Camillus continued in his work.  His leg injury never healed and in his later years, he was sometimes forced to crawl from one ward of a hospital to another to care for his patients.

In a battle in 1601, the tent used by the Camillans for triage and storage of supplies was totally destroyed by fire with the exception of one item:  a religious habit bearing the Red Cross of the Order of Clerks Register, Ministers to the Sick (the name of the order prior to it being renamed after Camillus following his death).  This event was interpreted as divine approval for their symbol:  the Red Cross.

There is no record of any connection between the Red Cross of St. Camillus and the use of a red cross as a symbol by the International Committee of the Red Cross founded centuries later.  Coincidence?