Chapter 6 A Faith between Two Worlds

Expressing Ethiopian Devotion and Crossing Cultural Boundaries at Santo Stefano dei Mori in Early Modern Rome

In: A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome
Olivia Adankpo-Labadie
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From the end of the 15th century, the church of Santo Stefano dei Mori hosted Ethiopian pilgrims during their stay in Rome. Santo Stefano dei Mori or degli Abissini, sometimes called Qeddus Esṭifānos in Ethiopian documents, had various functions. It was both a hospice, which provided room and board for visiting Ethiopian pilgrims, and a place of worship. Much attention has been given to this particular institution since the early studies of Marius Chaîne, Sylvain Grébaut and Mauro da Leonessa. Scholars have underlined how papal hospitality was deeply rooted in military projects: Ethiopians were regarded as Prester John’s subjects and precious allies in the Crusade against the Ottoman Sultanate. Nevertheless, Santo Stefano dei Mori progressively became a site of encounter between Europe and Ethiopia. European humanists met Ethiopian learned monks, who taught their language and transmitted their manuscript culture. Surprisingly, the fact that Ethiopians belonged to a non-Chalcedonian Church never aroused Catholic antagonism in the 16thcentury. On the contrary, erudite pilgrims like Tasfa Ṣeyon were extremely well inserted in Roman intellectual networks. The Ethiopian community in Rome therefore had an ambiguous but privileged status. Their position, at the fringe of confessional identities, raises several questions: how did the Ethiopians explain the organization of their Church and describe their religious dogmas to Roman Catholics? How did they live their faith as pilgrims outside their country? To what extent were the pontifical circles able to grasp the specificities of the Ethiopian faith? This essay answers these questions through an in-depth analysis of Santo Stefano dei Mori’s ‘archives’, preserved in the form of Ethiopian manuscripts and papal documents. This study will enable us to consider Ethiopian pilgrims of Early Modern Europe as actors of the religious diversity in Rome.

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