Nestling in the hills of Italy’s green and verdant Le Marche region is the small town of Loreto an important pilgrimage site since medieval times. Loreto is a gorgeous hilltop town with a magnificent basilica and far reaching views across the Adriatic Sea.
LORETO – There is a very special and endearing legend associated with this town. The story goes that in the late 13th century, around about the time of the last Crusade, a host of angels carried the childhood home of Jesus from Nazareth, near Jerusalem, to the lush green hillsides of Le Marche half way down the Italian peninsula. This charming story is easy to visualise with a host of cherubic angels, wings out-stretched, conveying the ‘House of Mary’ eastwards across the Mediterranean. On arrival in Italy the angels set the simple brick house down on an inviting plateau with commanding views of the surrounding countryside and distant sea views.
SANTA CASA – Mary’s very simple brick house became known as the ‘santa casa’ (holy house). Despite the improbability of a group of angels carrying this small building from the Holy Land to the coast of Italy, I just love the idea of the cherubic angels balancing the house on their white fluffy wings……and in all honesty this is probably my favourite Christian story. Needless to say the arrival of the house was regarded as a miracle in Italy and Loreto has been a place of pilgrimage ever since. The vast and imposing Basilica of Loreto was built to shelter and enshrine the ‘santa casa’. The Basilica was remodelled and enlarged over the centuries to provide a suitable setting for this most exceptional of relics; the house that Jesus lived in. Bramante one of the most important architects of the 16th century was brought in from Rome to create a spectacular marble structure to support and enclose the ‘holy house’, he also worked on the entrance and facade of the church. Today the Basilica is known as the ‘Santuario della Santa Casa’ (Sanctuary of the Holy House). The sparkling white marble facade, in all its grandeur, is reminiscent of St Peter’s in Rome.
CHARMING – one of the most delightful aspects of a visit to Loreto, especially if you visit on a Sunday is the lively piazza in front of the Basilica. There’s an elegant fountain with water sparkling and tinkling in the breeze. Children hop, skip and jump across the marble paving stones, whilst family groups stroll and chat in the morning sunshine. At regular intervals a religious group, monks or nuns will walk earnestly along the shaded loggia that flanks the square, popping out into the bright Italian light and then marching up the steps into the church with a determined air.
BASILICA – inside the vast ‘Santuario della Santa Casa’ there is a wide, welcoming aisle leading pilgrims towards the ‘holy house’. The ‘holy house’ is entombed in a sculptural cacophony of cherubs and prophets, garlands and wreaths. It is a neo-classical confection of white Istrian stone that includes every Greek and Roman architectural element known to the stonemasons of the 16th century. The architects Sansovino and Bramante are both associated with this monumental tomb-like sculpture. It’s almost like a mausoleum for a house! My favourite scenes feature the angels laboriously carrying the house through the sky and then carefully setting it down on the Italian hillside of Loreto. Pilgrims wait patiently to be allowed access inside the stone edifice, which reveals a stark contrast. The ‘holy house’ within is dark brick, dimly lit and very simple. The walls are bare brick, the floor feels like dry earth (although it probably isn’t).
Visiting Loreto on a Sunday is an absolute joy. Even on the hottest summer day the air is much cooler on the hillside. The views to the Adriatic are spectacular. There’s almost always a group of pilgrims, a handful of nuns and a small group of monks making their way to the church. Regardless of your religious beliefs it’s impossible not to feel the spirituality in the air – it’s almost palpable.
The artist Lorenzo Lotto spent the last years of his life in Loreto – he had an amazing career – you can read more about him here: Lorenzo Lotto – artist
I’ve also written various articles about saints in recent months including:
- The legend of St Lucy – Santa Lucia in Italy – 13th December is her Feast Day
- Sant’ Apollinare in Classe
- Saint Catherine
- San Giorgio Maggiore
To join me on one of my unique journeys in Italy check out www.grand-tourist.com my web site to see what’s coming up next. We are currently working on:
Happy reading and even happier travelling!!
Updated: 7th December, 2021