Tuscan Shrines

Summer has ended in a series of thunderstorms and the parched land is already speckled with shoots of green. No hailstones as big as tennis balls, the locals with vineyards and olive groves murmur in relief, but both harvests are bad this year. That is because of the drought. No rain since April. We have been on longer walks in the fresher weather and I have been amazed at the number of shrines, usually where tracks cross in the hillside, or sadly where a child was hit by a cart or an older person tripped and slid down a steep terrace on to the next one and died of the injuries. Most have an image of the Virgin Mary, many of Santa Margherita, the local saint, and still more of Padre Pio, perhaps the strangest of all.

Santa Margherita is the saint of Cortona. She lived in the 13th century in a small village, Valiano that you go through on the way from Cortona to Montpulciano. Her story is so familiar. She was beautiful but poor. A young nobleman noticed her when passing through her village to go hunting. He fell in love, promised marriage and the rest. Well, one day he went hunting. His dog returned to Valiano to find Margherita and lead her to where he had fallen from his horse and lay dying. Devastated, she decided to leave her village and walked to Cortona where she entered the third Order of Saint Francis. Her son was born and then lost to history. She was the obvious patron saint for Cortona. The hospital she founded was still there until a few years ago when it was moved to modern premises. Her figure in the shrine, hands clasped and eyes raised to heaven. is always dressed in the brown garment of the Franciscan order.

Padre Pio was a priest from the Gargano, the ‘spur’ of Italy. A poor boy, he entered the church just before WW1 where he served before he was invalided out. Not long before he died in 1968 I visited the Gargano and decided to go to see him. The main street of San Giovanni Rotondo was lined with clinics and places for the afflicted to stay. The church was crowded, and when Padre Pio appeared on the balcony arms were raised. He held up his hands to bless the congregation – they were covered in mittens. The wounds Christ suffered nailed on the cross – the stigmata – appeared on St. Francis’s body in the 13th century while he was praying on Mount Verna. Padre Pio was one of two or three others who have received the stigmata. A psychologist on one of my study tours had written a paper on the subject and gave me a copy. He said it was rare but possible for physical wounds to appear through intense thought, emotions or prayer. The church in San Giovanni Rotondo was filled with votive offerings from the grateful, often in the form of photographs attached to silver legs, hearts, arms, or whatever part of the body was healed through the help of Padre Pio. He has now been made a saint. The shrines have the same framed photo of him, and all of them have flowers, some sadly artificial, and a few have small holy water stoops.

Don Ferruccio, the local priest when we came to the area, is now 94. A few years ago he led a procession to all the shrines of the Virgin Nary in the valley. We joined the group of locals unaware of the large number of holy places in our valley, on 8 September, the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin. It was a pilgrimage that lasted long into the evening, ending with slices of salty ham taken down from the rafters and Tuscan bread with their rather raw red wine.

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