Lubriano’s Miraculous Madonna..and Unleavened Bread
They say that there have been more public and private apparitions of the Virgin Mary here in Italy since World War II than in any other country in Europe. I recently happened on a fascinating custom tied to a centuries-old apparition of the Virgin in a small town in central Italy – with a curious link to unleavened bread.
Last week, on an unusually hot May morning, my Roman friend Silvana and I were sitting near Lake Bolsena enjoying an espresso and mapping out our day. We had often explored the Lake Bolsena area and we were ready for a new discovery. I was skimming the Friday edition of the local paper when a curious article leapt off the page and made the decison for us: nearby Lubriano was moving towards the final days of their celebration in honor of the Madonna Santissima del Poggio, a sacred image of the Madonna long-venerated by the Lubrianesi. The article piqued our curiosity and we set out for Lubriano to investigate.
The road from Bolsena to Lubriano twisted and curved gently past stone farmhouses in the midst of rolling fields of wheat and alfalfa. Here and there, umbrella pines spread out over stately villas. Poppies dotted the landscapes and languorous bunches of white flowers drooped off the acacia trees lining the roads. The creamy yellow Baroque shrine of the Madonna Santissima al Poggio stood along the road at the entry into Lubriano, like an elegant sentinel. The wrought iron gate guarding the church portico was open but the church door was closed. A notice on the door indicated the telephone number of Don Luigi, the parish priest. We called him to ask when the church would be open and he gave us the name of a “signorina” who had the church keys. We called her and she promised to arrive in a few minutes.
A beaming teen-aged girl hopped out of a car shortly – and then another – and another. The girl who had answered the phone and was driving, Valentina, was not just any local “signorina”, we soon found out, but the very “Signora” we had read about in the paper that morning! The Signora di Lubriano had been chosen by Don Luigi himself on last year’s Feast of the Ascension (forty days after Easter) and all year had held a position most coveted (by the 9,000 souls) in the village of Lubriano: for the past year, Valentina had cared for a treasured portable copy of the shrine’s venerated image of La Santissima Madonna in her own home!
La Signora, Valentina, 18 years old, opened the shrine for us and introduced us to her friends, Nicoletta (18) and Michela (just 16), chosen by Valentina to be her two compagne della Signora, as tradition dictates. When we asked her reaction to being chosen Signora, she smiled and replied: “I was very surprised when Don Luigi named me Signora because I was only seventeen on Ascension Thursday last year and did not turn eighteen until the following August. Tradition has it that La Signora should be an unmarried young woman between the ages of eighteen and about twenty-two”.
Valentina told us about the year-long duties of la Signora e le due compagne: to clean the church, take care of the altar flowers and care for all of the priest’s vestments as well as the altar cloths. During the nine days prior to Ascension Thursday – la novena – Valentina and her parents had opened their home every night to those who wished to recite the rosary in front of the treasured portable copy of the Santissima Madonna. This veneration had continued all during the year: those devoted to the Madonna had gathered to recite the rosary one night a week in front of the altar in Valentina’s home. (La Signora can choose any day of the week from Monday to Saturday for the rosary recitation and Valentina had chosen Wednesday, her day off from her job as a cook – coincidentally, at the excellent restaurant where Silvana and I had decided to eat that day, Il Vecchio Molino).
Inside the eighteenth-century Baroque shrine, Santuario della Madonna Santissima del Poggio, the three girls pieced together for us the story of the venerated image of the Madonna Santissima which is hidden behind an embroidered linen cloth over the altar. Valentina, la Signora, is allowed to show the Santissima Madonna to the public – and she went behind the altar and tugged on a rope which lifted the cloth, bringing the Madonna into view. The Madonna Santissima holds her Son whose hand is raised in blessing. The original Madonna Santissima was frescoed in the fourteenth century in Byzantine style but over the years, the plaster flaked away until a devout Lubrianese repainted it in the early seventeenth century. An inscription below the Mother and Child tells us that the repainting was done by a certain Lionia D’Agostino “out of devotion”. According to one local legend, in the early seventeenth century a devout villager affixed an image of the Blessed Virgin to the trunk of a chestnut tree following a miraculous apparition here at the poggio (“small hillock”), which was then outside of the medieval walls of Lubriano and right along the road leading to nearby Bagnoregio. Popular devotion to the image grew rapidly – as did the number of miracles associated with this Madonna Santissima del Poggio.
Soon a very simple small shrine in local stone was built on the site of the miracle to house and protect the sacred image so venerated by the local populace. Devotion continued to grow and in the eighteenth-century, the noble family of Orvieto, the Monaldeschi, had the elegant Santuario built to replace the humble roadside shrine. At that time, the fresco of the Madonna Santissima was cut out of the wall of the primitive small shrine and placed over the altar of this glorious new Baroque church.
Before we left the shrine, Valentina and her compagne, Nicoletta and Michela, readily posed for a photo in front of the Santissima Madonna. The girls all then headed home for lunch and Silvana and I walked across the piazza in front of the shrine to book a table at Il Vecchio Molino – recommended to us by friends of Silvana – and by Slow Food! Since Valentina is chef’s assistant here, last year Don Luigi had thought best to call her a few days prior to request her presence at the Sunday Mass following Ascension Thursday (so that she could ask for the day off). At that Mass, Don Luigi was to announce her as la Signora for the coming year.
Valentina promised to come to the restaurant after lunch to take us to her home in the Lubriano countryside to see the copy of the Santissima Madonna del Poggio which had been in her care all year. Before lunch, Silvana and I walked the backstreets of Lubriano, stopping in at the other church of the town, San Giovanni Battista. On the Sunday following Ascension Thursday (this year, May 24, 2009), a stendardo (or banner) with an image of the venerated Madonna Santissima will be carried by Valentina from the Santuario to this church, named after St. John the Baptist.
Members of the Confraternita * in capes and cassocks will accompany Valentina, la Signora, as will her two compagne and members of her immediate family. The local band will offer a musical accompaniment of religious songs and children will scatter flower petal homages in the path of the banner bearing the image of the Madonna as the Signora and her group walk towards the church of San Giovanni Battista. Here in the church, the faithful will be awaiting the arrival of the banner and many of the women of Lubriano will be barefoot and dressed in black, their faces covered by long black shawls. As the procession leaves the church and winds throughout Lubriano, the women will carry huge candles, and recite prayers to the Virgin, imploring her to answer new requests or thanking her for favors received during the year. Joined in songs to the Madonna Santissima, the faithful eventually return to the Santuario for Mass. During the Mass, Don Luigi announces the name of the new Signora – who will receive the venerated copy of the Madonna from Valentina on the following Sunday, ie, the last Sunday in May. On that day, Valentina will wear a black dress and a black veil: her year as la Signora draws to a close. The new Signora, dressed in white and accompanied by her two compagne, will go to Valentina’s home to take the image of the Santissima Madonna to her own home for all of the coming year. Valentina’s many duties will then be over.
But for now, the sacred copy of the Madonna Santissima was still in Valentina’s home in the Lubriano countryside and after a buonissimo lunch on the terrace of the restaurant where she assists the cook, Il Vecchio Molino, she arrived to take us there. Her youthful-looking grandmother. Lina, gave us a warm welcome from the garden where huge pink peonies bloomed next to white irises. From her wide smile, we could tell how proud she was to be la nonna della Signora – and to have la Madonna in their home for a year. We followed Valentina upstairs to her own family’s apartment above to meet her mother, Simonetta, who could have passed for the twin Valentina’s grandmother! She told us, in fact, that the Lubrianesi themselves often mistake mother for daughter and vice versa.
In their living room, Signora Simonetta proudly showed us the altar the family had made for the arrival of the venerated copy of the Madonna Santissima nearly a year go. A pristinely-white hand-embroidered cloth covered the altar and roses and lilies flanked the Madonna. Vigil lights, as well as small statues and medals of saints dear to the family, had been placed in front of the Virgin. Other vigil lights were on the floor in front of the altar. Valentina and her mother offered us the traditional panettuzzi, small unleavened breads made by hand the day before – Ascension Thursday – by Valentina, her compagne and other young girls of Lubriano. After a blessing by Don Luigi, these panettuzzi would be given to those thronging the Santuario on the coming Sunday.
The dough is cut out with thimbles to form small circles which are then molded together to form the shape of a flower with five petals. After all, May, the month of regeneration and the flowering of hte natural world, is the “month of Mary”. For the Romans, May was the month of the sacred rites in honor of the goddesses, Flora and Bona, goddesses of fecundity and fertility. Offerings of food were made to the goddesses, too, and I can only wonder if tiny breads in floral form might have been offered to them…
The making of the hundreds of panettuzzi is long and arduous – twenty-five kilos of flour are used – and after their labors, the girls helping Valentina and her compagne are served the traditional dinner of frittata and salad by the Signora‘s family. In the past, the people of Lubriano were poor farmers but every farm would have had eggs and lettuces in the garden, Signora Simonetta explained as we followed her and Valentina downstairs to the large farm kitchen of Valentina’s grandmother, Lina. Here, the day before, this huge farm kitchen had been bustling with panetuzzi-making, the last task – and the most exhausting – of Valentina’s year-long stewardship as la Signora. We saw the results: baskets and a long box overflowed with the tiny flower-shaped unleavened breads (the Virgin Mary’s “roses”?) and Signora Simonetta and her mother, Lina, showed us the timbles used by the girls to cut out the hundreds and hundreds of round “petals” pressed together to form the panettuzzi. The panettuzzi will be saved by all who receive them as they are thought to have potent healing powers. Silvana and I will treasure ours – as a reminder of an extraordinary day.
(*Confraternities – “brotherhoods” – are pious associations dating back to the Middle Ages)
LUNCH AT “IL VECCHIO MOLINO”
We started our meal at Il Vecchio Molino with a delicious pappa al pomodoro, which alone could have brought fame to this little restaurant. “Pappa” means “baby food” in Italian and lucky the child who grew up on this baby food rather than Gerber’s! Fresh tomatoes are sauteéd in olive oil, with a bit of garlic and hot red pepper, then puréed. Grated crumbs of a simple crusty bread are then stirred into the hot tomato mixture. Divino! as the Italians would say. Ravioli stuffed with nettles and served with a cinnamon-tinged butter sauce followed. We tried, too, the homemade maltagliati (“badly-cuts”, ie, egg pasta dough cut into irregular strips) with a sauce of fresh spring vegetables. We skipped the tempting second courses, ordering mixed grilled vegetables with olive oil and balsamic vinegar as we had decided to go for the house dessert: chestnut flour crêpes stuffed with ricotta cheese and drizzled with melted chocolate.