web designer, writer, editor and ceremonialist

Loreto and the beautiful south

20 August 2005

View from LoretoI was very disappointed with Loreto – it is just too big, too grand and too full of Catholic tat in appalling taste. This is where Mary’s house in Palestine is supposed to have miraculously appeared by means unknown. Others say that a local family paid for the house to be transported, stone by stone, during or soon after the Crusades. Apparently some archeologists are convinced that it is a genuine house from Palestine of the correct era, but of course no-one can prove whose house it once was.

Either way, the house is now completely covered in marble, statues, tourists and “do not” signs. 

Santuario della Santa Casa in LoretoThere were some really devout people at this huge place. And the Madonna? Well, for some reason she just didn’t affect me, perhaps because I felt too far removed, there were layers of glass and a lot of distance between us punters and the Lady. But she is certainly very dark of skin. Photographs weren’t allowed, and there were many people about; it would have felt extremely disrespectful to start snapping away. I contented myself with reading the English guidebook, which told me that the statue was black because of centuries of candle smoke, then went on to say that the present statue was replaced in 1921 and “unfortunately” the artist made her black again. Unfortunately? Disregarding the racist implication of this, it is an odd statement. Surely the artist was briefed better? Perhaps s/he simply assumed that the Madonna was black because the church liked her that way? Or because it is well-known that she should be black? There are no answers, of course, only questions.

Incidentally, if these Madonnas turn black because of candle smoke, why are so many equally ancient ones very white and pink after centuries?

Padre PioI did buy a tiny statue of the Madonna, for a Catholic friend. Also a cute little Pinnochio puppet for my partner’s grandson …. then left as quickly as possible. I drove south, about 150 miles, having found a ridiculously cheap hotel room in a place called San Giovanni Rotondo, which turns out to be another place of pilgrimage – to a Padre Pio, of whom I must confess I had never heard. Turned out also to be in the middle of nowhere – there’s always a major snag with these bargain rooms! Once more I found myself clinging to the side of a mountain in deepening dusk. Anyway, apparently, Padre Pio was a Capuchin monk who received the stigmata and went on to become a great healer and miracle worker. He was due to be canonized, I’m not sure whether that has happened yet. His photo was all over the hotel, and looked rather benevolently over my bed last night – a fabulous room of white tiles, marble and a queen-sized bed, all for a little over £20.

The south of Italy is very different from the north – much less green and lush, the part I’m in now looks a bit like the arid red landscape of cowboy movies. It also looks much poorer and more sparsely populated, and I’m still a long way from the deep south. But at last, I got to see lemon trees and olive trees!

So now I’m in Manfredonia, which is a tiny bit below the “spur” of Italy’s leg, on the Adriatic coast, if you’re following this on a map (and if not, why not?!) As I was taking a photo of the Black Madonna in the church here, prior to wandering about, the batteries died on my camera and the spares I’d bought in France decided not to work either. I came in search of a battery shop and found this computer shop with one internet machine for hire – great synchronicity!