Lake Bolsena – the largest volcanic lake in Europe – is encircled by an array of charming medieval towns of Etruscan origin. For me, one of the most charming is Marta.
Nestled between the lake shore and farmland, Marta’s small piazzas and labyrinthine medieval alleyways wind down from the late 13th-century Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower) – all that remains of the papal fortress of Pope Urban IV – and through the Borgo dei pescatori (fishermen’s neighborhood).
The Marta area is not only famous for its lake fish but also for its eels memorialized by Dante in Canto XXIV of his Divina Commedia. Pope Martin IV ends up in Purgatorio among “the gluttonous” for his inability to resist Marta’s eels accompanied with the prized red wine, vernaccia. The Pope lived in the Papal palace of another Bolsena lakeside town, Montefiascone, and then in Perugia due to hostilites from Orvieto (close to Montefiascone0.
Pope Martin IV died in Perugia of severe indigestion after a banquet with eels cooked in vernaccia wine – and is in fact most remembered for his gluttonous love for eels rather than for any of his political interventions during his four years as Pope.
Along the only fluvial outlet of Lake Bolsena, the Marta River, remnants of the medieval cannara built to capture fish and eels in particular arches over the river.
The origins of Marta are ancient and a legend even links the town to Noah’s great-grandson! The Phoenicians, too, are considered first inhabitants and the name “Marta” may derive from the Phoenician “Marath,” though the origin of the town is also linked to the Etruscan king of Porsenna (present-day Chiusi).
On a recent walk there, I explored the narrow winding backstreets and flanking tall walls, evidence of the need for defense in the Middle Ages; in fact, in the 14th-century, the Papal fortress, Rocca di Marta, was considered one of the most impregnable of the Papal patrimonio.
Serenity reigns these days in the backstreets, belying past violence.
Another Pope is linked to Marta: the mid-16th-century Farnese Pope Paul III whose coat-of-arms with the lily is on the palazzo comunale (city hall) as well as on many another Marta palazzo:
A Farnese coat-of-arms is also at the base of the bellower, perhaps once a lookout tower of the medieval Papal Rocca and restored over the centuries:
In 1574, Gerolama Orsini, wife of one of Pope Paul III’s sons, Pierluigi Farnese – then papal governor of the Lake Bolsena area – sponsored restoration of one the most beloved shrines in Marta, the hilltop church Santa Maria al Monte built in local volcanic stone overlooking the lake.
Date of the construction of the first church here is unknown although we do know that the Benedictines were here until the 12th-century, living in an adjacent monastery. The motive of their departure from this sacred site is unknown but after abandonment, the edifice fell into ruin.
In the mid-15th-century, the Farnese papal governors amplified and restore this edifice which houses the 14th-century sacred image of the Madonna, perhaps most beloved ecclesiastical image in Marta for the people.
The name of the Farnese Papal delegate sponsoring the work is inscribed in the architrave over the door as if wishing to remind anyone entering to remember him with gratitude. The inscription honors Maria with “Ave Maria” and states that “Pietro Farnese made this work in 1485.” \
An image of the Madonna and Child is in the lunette but only traces remain of the fresco:
I visited the church recently with a friend for the first time – and what a splendid welcome that Saturday: the church had been decorated for a wedding:
The sheets of blue satin drapery under topped with bouquets at the end of the pews was no doubt meant to honor the bride and groom walking up that aisle; yet they seemed to me to be an elegant walkway up to the venerated image of the Virgin reigning over the altar:
Both the altar and the Virgin’s image were bordered with an array of creative wedding floral arrangements.
Many a sanctuary in Italy is tied to a legend with origins no one can remember: as the Italians would say, “persa nella notte dei tempi” (“lost in the nights of time”). So, too, is the origin of the image of la Madonna del Monte.
The elderly martani – each with their own variations, depending on how they heard the story- recount that centuries ago, the daughter of t baker headed to the mountain to gather kindling for the bread ovens where a bellissima signora appeared to her asking her to go back to town and ask her parish priest to have a church built on the mountain. She did so without any result until her third request. The priest then reluctantly accompanied her to the spot where the lovely woman had appeared to her and was shocked to see an image of the Virgin imprinted on a massive rock.
The priest decided to bring the image down to the village of Marta and the massive rock was loaded onto a cart pulled by two oxen but the further they went down the mountain, the heavier the cart became. The weight so increased that at a certain point, the oxen were on their knees. The weight did not increase going up but only going down. It soon became clear to all that the Madonna had to remain on the mountain.
A small shrine now stands on the place where the oxen knelt and la Madonna is back on il monte: in the Santuario della Madonna del Monte. The artist of the image is unknown – perhaps Tuscan. The Virgin in the traditional red and blue, colors of nobility, is flanked by John the Baptist and St. Peter and tenderly holds the foot of the Christ Child:
In a side chapel, many an ex-voto (a votive offering requesting a favor or thanking for a favor received) gives evidence of the martano devotion to their beloved Madonna. Each metal heart is incised with GR (grazie ricevuta) or PGR (per grazia ricevuta), thanking for a grace received:
After completion of the Farnese-financed restoration, il santuario was consecrated on May 14th, 1485. May 14th is date of the Passate, the most beloved of all festivals for the martani and linked to the ancient springtime rites of offerings to mother Earth and the most beloved of the seasonal goddesses of the Romans (Maia, Cerere) and of the Italic tribes (Feronia).
But at this festival, the offerings of springtime abundance are for the Virgin:
The sacred and the profane unite harmoniously in this festival linked to the rites of fertility and abundance and the agricultural tasks of threshing and harvesting – as well as fishing, for this is a lakeside town.
This celebration of the Madonna del Monte with processions is also tied to the mandating of a variety of processions by Pope Leo IV in the 9th-century though the official “birth” of this festival is late 16th-century following legislation by the town council.
As of the early 17th-century, the following categories participated in the procession: casenghi (those entrusted with the guardianship of landholdings), bifolchi (those working the land with oxen used for the plowing), villani (peasant farmers working in the fields) and pescatori (fishermen).
(And thanks, Patrick Nicholas – www.etruscacamera.it – for your photo here and the floral ones following):
The commemoration begins at dawn, with drums and bells announcing the festivities as well as the procession choir, traditionally made up of men only. The local band animates spirits as do the loud exuberant exaltations of the locals, shouting out ”Evviva Maria, evviva il santisimo sacramento, Evviva la Madonna!” who wish long life to the Virgin – and to the Holy Sacrament.
In costume and carrying their appropriate tools, the men of the town will participate in the corteo (parade) winding through Marta’s streets on May 14th – after nighttime celebrations of song and feasting on the 13th.
The women? They’ll be at their windows, flinging flower petals.
The grande passione of the locals is evident in all the work they put into their fontane, the festival floats adorned with flowers and the ciambelle (traditional sweet of the festival) and a variety of artistic decorations: scenes of rural life, miniature figures of the agricultural tasks, reproductions of scenes of the harvests of the olives, the grapes, the milling of olives and the baking of bread and even rusted, battered but treasured tools of rural work of years ago. These floats are called “fountains” as they are often adorned with sprays of water.
The corteo winds up to the Sanctuary of Madonna del Monte where wheat, fruits, vegetables, olives and fish are offered to the Madonna. The image of the Madonna del Monte on every fontana (float).
Finalmente, the procession reaches the square in front of the church and enters the sanctuary, after three passes around the church, the passate.
All along the way, the men – and young boys, too – had raised their straw hats whenever they invoked loudly and with great feeling those verses to the Madonna that all the martani know from a very young age: ”Evviva Maria, evviva il santisimo sacramento, Evviva la Madonna!”
Yes, long live Marta’s Madonna and the grande passione of the martani – which you can see – and feel in Luca Viviani’s photos of his town’s glorious festival.
The explosive enthusiasm and grande passione of the martani of all ages and all walks of life unites this lakeside village as they joyously celebrate their beloved Madonna al Monte.
Click here to read about another Bolsena lakeside town with magnificent medieval art and architecture
Read about Montefiascone, Latium hilltown, with many a hidden secret