Sitting high on a mountain overlooking the Tuscan port town of Livorno, Santuario di Montenero is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in this part of Tuscany.
It is reached via a rickety funicular ride from the suburbs below. Pilgrims come from all over the country – and indeed the world – to ask for protection and to seek penance from Our Lady of Grace, Mary of Montenero.
The first time I visited the Santuario was when I was taken there by Filippo, aka the Waspmaster. I was on my Vespa trip from Milan to Rome, the journey that became Vroom with a View.
Filippo said he wanted to show me the votive chapel. He thought it would appeal to my taste for the weird and bizarre. He was right.
The walls of the dim, dark chapel are lined with paintings, votive paintings, offered in thanks to Our Mary of Montenero by parishioners who believed she had interceded and saved their lives.
The paintings date from the 1800s to the present day and basically chronicled the bizarre, extreme and varied ways the Livornese have nearly died over the centuries.
As you’d expect from an important port town, there are plenty of paintings involving ships. There are ships being dashed against rocks, sailors tossed overboard and encounters with aggressive, vessel-eating whales. But there are also electrocutions, car accidents and, quite literally, a baby being thrown out with the bath water.
My favourites, however, are more niche. Like the woman being crushed by cart full of tuna. Or the guy being gored by a bull. Or the guy being kicked in the nuts by a horse. I wince involuntary every time I see that one.
The works are painted in a naive folk-art style and again, the changes in fashion and taste over centuries are reflected here too. In the old days it was primarily oil paintings. Around the turn of the century, it was watercolours. There was a brief flirtation with montages in the 70s. And the next time I visit I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hologram, or a video installation at the very least.
The one thing all the paintings have in common, usually in the top right hand corner, is Mary of Montenero herself, gazing down with an enigmatic smile and a protective gaze.
And doubtlessly wondering why the f*ck the Livornese are so goddamn accident prone.