The Rom or gypsies, as they used to be called, have historically held a precarious position in society and to say that they have suffered persecution seems an understatement if not a simplification. But in contemporary terms the dynamic between the Rom and the host society is a push and pull of hostilities, misunderstandings and culture clashes woven by both sides; a web of beliefs and behaviour ensuring that Rom make no advancements in our society but eternally remain in a cultural system of poverty on the outer fringes.

The paintings

The Rom Madonnas is a series of portraits of Rom women and children who make their living combing the streets of Rome asking for alms. These paintings strive to portray the people at the edge of mutually-shrouded worlds, which co-exist uneasily and almost never intermingle. Although engagement with the Rom women remains superficial, it is in these glimpses that we imagine we know them and can judge them by our standards. By looking at them we imagine there should be a solution to our strained relationship. The paintings are not only portraits but a pondering of how these women and children are compelled into the poverty trap.

Piet

In Italian the word piet means both piety and pity. This is what so many sculptors and painters have aimed to convey by depicting the Virgin Mary embracing the body of her dead son, Christ. Rome is home to the most famous and most revered version, the Piet by Michelangelo. It sits silently, masterfully carved as if rubbed out of hard stone. It is majestically displayed in St Peters basilica behind glass walls at a perfect distance, striking us with its simplicity, shrouded in legend. To millions of tourists a year it defines the virtues of sorrow, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, surrender, suffering and charity. Its strength equals its vulnerability.

The Rom women live their lives sitting on the ground with sleeping children cuddled in their laps. They pose themselves in the very form of a piet, legs splayed, swathed in long skirts, which are obligatory in their culture but appear old-worldly to ours. Their children, scruffy and sleepy, roll and play or sleep on their lap. The lap doubles as a platform of display in sculpture as in life. One could say the Rom are playing on the possession of children and maternal sacrifice for the sympathy that will earn them coins, using our sense of piet to pull our heartstrings.

Or perhaps they reflect Giottos Madonna Enthroned with the Madonnas lap/stage displaying the wise and alert Christ-child extending out to us. But the Madonna Enthroned, by her aloof motherly pride, insists on admiration, whereas the Piet propels us towards penitence. The Madonna Enthroned sits high above us ringed in gold; the Rom woman sits below us on filthy city streets. And the Rom child? He or she arouses no love nor holds out a solution to society, which in turn views the child as little more than a source of eternally- unsolvable social problems.

Facing the upturned palms and the sorrowful pleas, the public finds itself in a quandary: to give or not to give? Does giving really help? How to reconcile the desire to give with the helplessness of not being able or willing to give enough? How much is enough? Is it simpler to grow callous? And so abundant are the Rom beggars on the streets of Rome that one cannot possibly help each one who asks. So single-minded in their work are they that the public is left feeling hostile and helpless, taken advantage of, even threatened.

It is this tension from both sides of the cultural divide that ensures the Rom are left in their precarious social position, and we are left to argue our version of right and wrong with the Piet.

Helen del Giudice is a Chicago-born painter and has been living in Rome with her son for three years.She has been painting for around 20 years and gained a bachelor of fine arts at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in 2001.

Del Giudices work usually incorporates some form of portraiture. She is particularly interested inthe interaction between marginalised groups in society and the public at large; the harmony or disharmony of co-existence. The artist feels that the Rom cannot be ignored and they are part of the reason she came to Rome.

Del Giudice has exhibited her photographs, videos, installations and paintings in Rome, Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans. The artist is hoping to show her oil paintings on wood of the Rom Madonnas at a gallery in either Chicago or New York in 2006.