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from issue no. 11 - 2005

«A lighthouse of safety and of rescue in the storms of life»

The Shrine of the Madonna of Mount Berico is one of the most important places of Marian devotion in Europe: the Madonna twice appeared here, in 1426 and in 1428, to an elderly woman from Vicenza during a terrible plague in the first half of the 15th century

by Pina Baglioni

The arcades linking the city of Vicenza to the shrine: the construction, finished on 7 march 1746 by the architect Francesco Muttoni, stretches for 700 meters and has 150 arches, as many as the beads of the Rosary. They are divided into groups 
of 10 and symbolize the 15 mysteries.

The arcades linking the city of Vicenza to the shrine: the construction, finished on 7 march 1746 by the architect Francesco Muttoni, stretches for 700 meters and has 150 arches, as many as the beads of the Rosary. They are divided into groups of 10 and symbolize the 15 mysteries.

«The people of Vicenza, and not only them, have taken the Madonna at her word: every first Sunday of the month, at least thirty thousand people climb up here to ask for a grace or to give thanks for having received one, or simply to pay a visit to the Virgin Mary. At the end of every mass – there are nine throughout the day – it takes most of an hour for people to leave the church. They’ve almost got to be pushed out», Father Alessandro Bertacco jokes complacently. Language professor for thirty-eight years in the high schools of Vicenza, since he retired he has been rector of the Shrine of the Madonna of Monte Berico. He is decidedly a lucky man: at Monte Berico there is a “problem” of abundance. A great joy for him and his Order, the Servants of Mary, who have been guardians of the shrine unbrokenly since 1435. «Sometimes we don’t know how on earth we’re going to confess all these people. The average, on the first Sunday of the month, is of twenty thousand confessions. I and my fellow brothers, twenty-five in all, but only twelve operational – because the others are too old by now – spend as many as ten hours in the confessional. And the best thing of all is that many, many young people above all come to ask for the sacrament». So true is it that in December 1972 more confessionals had to be built next to the basilica: two large chapels, one upper and one lower, with thirty confessionals, added to those inside the basilica.
And even this is little compared with what happens on every 8 September, the feast of the Nativity of Mary. The number of pilgrims almost doubles, with the presence of the civil and religious authorities. The city of Vicenza, already on the eve of the feast, is inundated by thousands of people. Many of them, from the nearby cities of the Veneto and Lombardy, set off some days before, moving by stages, to get there in time on the morning of the 8th for the vigil and the “dawn mass”, at 5.30am. Many others come from Belgium, France, England, Germany. At times even from Brazil and the Philippines. «They’re emigrants from the Veneto indissolubly linked to their Heavenly Mother», says Father Alessandro. «A link that is sustained by our monthly magazine The Madonna of Monte Berico that is now a hundred years old: thousands of subscribers, in every part of the world, write to tell us their problems and of their love for the their land of origin and for the Madonna. And I, who edit it, every month publish the letters of some of them. I’ve even been to visit them, above all in Europe, to let them know that the shrine and the Servants of Mary are always by their side.»
The first Sunday of the month, then, and 8 September, feast of the Nativity of Mary: around these two dates, dear to the heart of the people of Vicenza, unfolds all the history of the Shrine of the Madonna of Monte Berico, the most important in the Veneto and one of the greatest centers of Marian devotion in Europe.

Monte Berico, a slice of paradise
«The site is very beautiful, high up, lit by the first rays of the rising sun, with an immense view in front of fertile countryside dotted with mansions and smiling villages. Looking left one can see as far as the distant valleys of the Astico, of the Brenta, to Bassano, to Asolo, with the majestic backdrop of the Alps; to the right the view stretches to the Euganean Hills, to Padua, to Venice standing like a solitary queen in the lagoons. It would seem that the Virgin chose this spot so that the people of Venice might see her, and turn to her as a lighthouse of safety and of rescue in the storms of life».
Climbing the hundred meter hill, that overlooks the city of Vicenza to the south-west, one enjoys the same marvellous scene that the poet and priest Giacomo Zanella described in his To the Madonna of Monte Berico, 2 August 1875. A solemn scene, enriched by seven hundred meters of arcades, that, starting from the city, run without a break to the eastern facade of the shrine. Built in the second half of the eighteenth century to the design of the architect Francesco Muttoni to provide cover for the pilgrims’ climb “uphill”, they contain 150 arches, the number of beads in the Rosary. And every ten arches has a space on the wall of which is frescoed one of the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. There is also another road, the earliest way up to the Madonna: the climb of Le Scalette, with its 192 steps, that lead out under a majestic triumphal arch that shows the architectural influence of the artist who put his name on and revolutionized the face of Vicenza: Andrea Palladio.
In short, Monte Berico is a slice of paradise. At the center of which rises the unmistakable outline of the shrine. Where Baroque and Gothic co-exist: a Baroque facade is in fact repeated identically on each of the three sides. And the fourth, west-facing side, is Gothic fitted into the Baroque. The Gothic façade is all that remains of the shrine built after the two apparitions of the Madonna to a woman from Vicenza, on 7 March 1426 and 1 August 1428. Those were terrible years, years of plague. But also splendid, for the gesture of mercy that the Virgin Mary granted to Vicenza, a city by then reduced to utter wretchedness.

1404: the plague comes to Vicenza
An extremely valuable document, listed as Codex 1430 and kept in the Bertoliana Biblioteca in Vicenza, tells in detail of the happenings in the city between 1426 and 1430. It is the main historical source, set down by public notaries in November 1430, which documents the Processus formally conducted by the Communitas Vincentiae and by the judge consul of the commune Giovanni da Porto. The reason for the proceedings, decided on by the high civil authorities of the city, is made clear in the first words of the document: to present «the marvellous and stupendous construction of the church of the glorious Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, on the hill, called “sacred”, and the miracles and the other prodigious happenings that took place up there». Miracles and prodigious happenings that took place after a very long period of suffering. Those, too, amply documented by the Codex: «From the year of the Lord 1404 up to beyond the year 1428 this unhappy city with its territory was shaken and tormented almost continuously by most serious pestilence and sickness. And so this province was stripped of its population and of its people. The inhabitants either died from contagion or, in order to flee the plague, abandoned their houses for years, not without heavy expense and trials».
And yet that 1404 had promised to be prosperous: the citizens, in fact, after a series of tyrants – the Lords of Padua, Cangrande della Scala and Gian Galeazzo Visconti – who had fought within its walls for the conquest of the city, had decided to ask the protection of Venice. And on 28 April 1404, in the persons of two noble citizens, Gian Pietro Proti and Giacomo Thiene, the people of Vicenza had spontaneously delivered themselves to the Republic of Venice, receiving in exchange a conspicuous number of privileges, both of an economic sort and in terms of legislative autonomy. But precisely in that period the plague spread through the city, leaving death and devastation behind it.
Other archival documents show, for example, that in the Benedictine monastery of the Santi Felice e Fortunato there were only three monks remaining; there were nine nuns at San Tommaso; the Camaldolesians had declined to two and the Carmelites of San Giacomo, in October 1428, in pleno et generali capitulo, were five in all. And the same was true for the other monasteries of San Lorenzo, of San Michele and of San Pietro. Meantime the people of Vicenza prayed, implored and did penance. In vain. It seemed that Heaven was deaf to their cries and that the Lord had forgotten them.

Left, the statue of the Madonna of the Shrine of Mount Berico: tradition attributes it to Nicolò da Venezia. It was sculpted between 1428 and 1430 and set on the high altar in the early days of the shrine. 
It was crowned on 25 August 1900 by 
the Patriarch of Venice Giuseppe Sarto, 
the future Pope Pius X. After a series of attempted thefts, the original crown on the head of the Madonna was replaced 
by a copy

Left, the statue of the Madonna of the Shrine of Mount Berico: tradition attributes it to Nicolò da Venezia. It was sculpted between 1428 and 1430 and set on the high altar in the early days of the shrine. It was crowned on 25 August 1900 by the Patriarch of Venice Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Pius X. After a series of attempted thefts, the original crown on the head of the Madonna was replaced by a copy

«I am the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ…»
In those terrible years there lived in Vicenza a woman of almost seventy, Vincenza Pasini, who went up Monte Berico every morning to take food to her husband, Master Francesco di Giovanni da Montemezzo, who had a small vineyard up there, though his main occupation was that of marangone, carpenter. The old couple were from Sovizzo, a little village a few kilometres from Vicenza, and, having moved to the city some years earlier, dwelt in Borgo Berga, on the slopes of Monte Berico, facing the church of Ognissanti. The Codex reports that the woman Vincenza led a simple and honest life, in devotion to the Lord and to his Most Holy Mother, towards whom she nurtured an exceptional devotion: her days were regulated by much prayer and by many good works, and her attendance at church and liturgical functions, but especially her charity towards all, made her a true and genuine Christian.
On 7 March 1426, hora quasi tertia – at nine in the morning – the woman, as always, climbed to the top of the hill. Once there, she saw in front of her a woman, as the Codex puts it, «in forma speciosissime regine perfulgide», in the likeness of a most beautiful queen, with garments more resplendent than the sun, wreathed in a fragrance of a thousand scents. In the face of such beauty, the poor woman became faint and swooned to the ground, while the food for her husband, lying in a basket, remained untouched. Then the beautiful lady took hold of her right shoulder and raised her from the ground and said: «I am the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ who died on the cross for the salvation of men. I beg you to go and say in my name to the people of Vicenza they must build in this place a church in my honor, if they want their health back, otherwise the plague will not cease». So Vincenza, weeping with joy and kneeling in front of the Madonna, replied: «But people will not believe me. And where, O glorious Mother, to find the money to do these things?» «You will insist so that people do my will, otherwise they will never be rid of the plague, and until they obey, they will see my Son angry with them», replied the Madonna. And she went on: «As proof of what I say, let them dig here, and from the dry living rock water will spring, and, as soon as the building begins, money will not lack». So saying, she marked the spot on the ground in the form of a cross with a twig and even drew the shape of the church to be built. She then planted the twig in the ground, right on the spot where the high altar of the shrine now stands. But there was more: «All those who visit this church with devotion on my feastdays and on every first Sunday of the month, will be given an abundance of the grace and the mercy of God and the blessing of my motherly hand».
The terror of having to face the city alternated in the heart of Vincenza Pasini with the unspeakable joy of her meeting with the Virgin. She went down into Vicenza and when she began telling everyone she met she realized that no one believed her. Not least because, with all the plague deaths, people had other things to think about. She even went to the bishop, Pietro Emiliani. And it was worse than groping in the dark. The high prelate let her talk for a while, then dismissed her as crazy. The plague meantime got worse. And Vincenza went on with her life of work, prayer and works of charity. And on feastdays, climbing the hill to pray on the spot where she had met the Madonna.
The document that brings together all the testimony from the inquiry says that two years later the Virgin again appeared to Vincenza Parisi: exactly on 1 August of 1428. Moved again by pity for the stricken city, the Madonna repeated the same words, making the same request and the same promise to the old woman. Back down in the city, and shouting into people’s face, Vincenza was this time believed by the common people and the city authorities. The news that the Madonna had appeared a second time on the hill ran through the city in a flash and many people passed through the gates of Vicenza to climb the hill. And at that moment the members of the Commune, the Council of a Hundred and the Council of the Five Hundred, gathered in the great Hall of Government, decided to build, as quickly as possible, a church on Monte Berico. The Codex tells us: «The decision taken and trusting only in the hope of God and in the counsel of the glorious Virgin, the building of the church was begun on 25 August of that same year 1428». Only twenty-four days after the second apparition.
The Madonna had spoken to Vincenza of water that would spring from the living rock on the spot where the shrine was to be built. And so it happened: while the digging was going on «a wonderful and incredible quantity of water welled out like a spring… overflowing like an abundant river that ran down the hill with great noise», our Codex again informs us. And, according to another promise of the Virgin, money flowed in copiously: a series of wills have been found in the Vicenza state archives and published by Father Giocondo Maria Todescato, with dates and names of every testator, that testify to the great generosity of the people of Vicenza in the construction of the shrine. And to throw further light on what occurred we have another precious document of 15 July 1434: the transcription, held in the Biblioteca Bertoliana, of the text on a marble tablet that has been lost: «The building having begun on 25 August, the great plague partly disappeared and, the church having been completed in three months, all this province was wholly free of such calamity, so that from that day, by the help of God, it no longer suffered from the ill». The document is of great importance not least because it reveals that these miraculous happenings occurred under the pontificate of Eugenius IV, while Francesco Foscari was Doge of Venice.

The Mater misericordiae and the Madonna of the Magnificat
The documents do not say who built the church of Monte Berico or how it was done. All that we know, taking account of the little that has come down to us intact in the interior of the Baroque Basilica, is that it was a simple church with basilica groundplan built between August and the end of November 1428. Fortunately the statue of the Madonna, today on the high altar backing on to the south wall of the basilica, the only remains of the earlier Gothic church, is the one set up in the church of 1428. The Codex describes it as: «An imperious image in marble… painted with skill in various and precious colors». The very fine statue in the soft stone of the Berici hills, that tradition attributes to Nicolò da Venezia, is one meter sixteen centimetres tall and follows the classic pattern of the Mater misericordiae. She stands facing forward with an open smile on her face, framed by curls that the gold-fringed veil sets off. Her gown has golden arabesques, and a fine blue cloak with red lining and gold hem hangs from her shoulders. The Madonna spreads her mantle with her hands to welcome, kneeling at her feet, four on the right and four on the left, the representatives of the people of Vicenza, of every social class – one sees it from their dress –, who invoke her protection: «Mostrati Madre» [Show yourself Mother] one reads in the inscription on the pedestal of the statue. There is a crown on the Virgin’s head. On 25 August 1900 the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, future Pope Saint Pius X, climbed the hill to crown the Madonna. After a series of attempts at sacrilegious theft, in place of the original – a jewel of indescribable beauty, made by forging together trinkets with other pieces of greater value donated to the Madonna over the centuries – we now unfortunately see only a copy. The original crown is kept in a safe place.
But there is another image of the Virgin Mary, dating to those years, rediscovered in 1932: the fresco of the Madonna of the Magnificat by Battista da Vicenza. At present it is on the right wall of the modern confessional building, and it reappeared during work to provide the area surrounding the old statue of Mary with a marble lining: in this fresco the Virgin, in a lilac robe covered by a blue cloak, is sitting on a marble seat and is portrayed as being close to giving birth: it is undoubtedly a votive painting, commissioned to ensure a successful birth.

The background of the shrine

The background of the shrine

The Servants of Mary take possession of the Shrine of the Madonna of Mount Berico
Vicenza, by now saved from the plague and with its shrine at the top of the mountain, had become a fixed destination not only for the inhabitants of Vicenza, but for people coming from all the other cities of the Veneto region. Codex 1430 notes that çan infinity of miracles fell like rain on the pilgrims, who, especially on the first Sunday of the month, according to the promise of the Madonna, crowded the little church. In the period from the second apparition of the Virgin Mary to the beginning of the Processus formally drawn up by the civil authorities about the facts of Mount Berico, Vincenza Pasini had in any case died. Now a subject of popular veneration, the pious woman was buried in the church of Ognissanti, on the slopes of the mountain; her bones were transferred to the shrine in 1810, after the demolition of the church of Ognissanti. Today they are to be found in a white marble urn in the crypt of the Basilica.
And in the midst of all the events that had so positively changed the mountain, it was also necessary to build a monastery and then invite a religious order to look after the spiritual needs of the pilgrime: the first to arrive, at the end of 1429, were the friars of the Order of Saint Brigid. They were then replaced, by will of the Vicenza city council, of the new bishop of Vicenza, Francesco Malipiero, and of Pope Eugene IV, by the Servants of Mary, who took possession of the shrine and monastery on 31 May 1435. The new friars were immediately taken to their heart by the people, not least because their head was a saintly man: Fra Antonio da Bitetto. And after 570 years the Servants are still on Mount Berico. In fact, precisely because of the profundity and reputation for sanctity that immediately enveloped Fra Antonio, and as a consequence the shrine, numerous general chapters of the Order were held on Mount Berico in the course of the centuries.

The Shrine is enriched by works of art
At the end of the fifteenth century the Servants of Mary were at a loss to know how to direct the flood of pilgrims climbed the hill to implore the Madonna. Both in summer and in winter they were forced to hear mass outdoors. The friars, however, wouldn’t hear of modifications to the little church for fear of compromising its structure, suggested directly by the Madonna. Only between 1450 and 1454, when problems of public order had already occurred at the shrine because of ovecrowding, were additions carried out, and the original body of the church was extended west and later divided into three naves. With the passing of the years a choir was built for the friars, the façade of the church was defined and a hostel for pilgrims erected where the new monastery, built in 1954, stands today. Well-known artists were invited to beautify the shrine and all the other buildings. If one takes a look at the present sacristy, for instance, there is an extraordinary Pietà, a fresco by Bartolomeo Montagna, painted in 1500 along with another Pietà over the altar to the right of the basilica’s high altar. But the most precious painting in the whole shrine is to be found on the east wall of the ancient refectory, now a picture gallery: it is the Banquet of Saint Gregory the Great by Paolo Veronese. The great artist painted it specifically for this space in 1572 on the commission of his maternal uncle, Friar Damiano Grana, prior of the shrine between 1571 and 1573 and portrayed by his nephew almost at the center of the scene. Veronese’s masterpiece has undergone series of attacks. The last notable one occurred during the course of the first War of Independence when the Austrians sacked the monastery and ripped the canvas into thirty-two pieces with their bayonets. Apart from Veronese, Andrea Palladio, the major architect of the Renaissance, was invited to the Shrine of the Madonna of Mount Berico, to work on the design for the extension of the church in the second half of the sixteenth century.
Unfortunately there is no longer any trace of the famous “Palladian addition”, that elongated the basilica towards the north from the ancient southern wall and ended with a new façade. It was demolished at the end of the seventeenth century when the Servants of Mary asked the citizens of the town for contributions to «complete and perfect» the main Palladian north front with the addition of a «portico for the comfort of travelers» and got a response beyond expectations from the leading figures of the city. On condition, however of removing the “extension” by Andrea Palladio and rebuilding the church from scratch, with the exclusion, obviously, of the southern wall, the ancient one where the statue of the Madonna was enshrined. Carlo Borella of Vicenza, the owner of the largest construction business in Vicenza, was invited to oversee the site, and it was he who built the Baroque building complex that we see today. While it was the sculptor Orazio Marinali who filled both the exterior and interior of the church with an impressive number of statues, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He summed up in three “acts” the miraculous events at the origin of the shrine, in the bas-reliefs, set above the three doors into the shrine. A shrine that, beginning simply and humbly, continued to grow through the years. In 1707, for example, Fra Ferdinando Gabrieli, who had been prior of the monastery some years before, decided to renovate at his own expense an area above the refectory corresponding today to the museum of the shine. This, the Counselors’ Hall, holds in one of its rooms the portraits of the seven Servite theologians nominated, in different periods, counselors of the Venetian Republic, and the busts of various father generals of the Order between 1653 and 1716. The Hall also contains the more than 150 votive offerings left over the centuries: done both on wood and canvas, they recount, in simple somewhat naive style, a striking series of disastrous falls from horses, from windows, into a lake or a river. Not to mention violent attacks, accidents, congenital handicaps and dangerous illnesses. Overall a tide of mishaps, all successfully dealt with by the maternal intervention of the Virgin Mary. It is perhaps one of the most moving and beautiful places in the whole shrine.
Apparition of the Virgin to Vincenza Pasini, a lunette wall oil painting by Rocco Pitacco in the Basilica in 1883

Apparition of the Virgin to Vincenza Pasini, a lunette wall oil painting by Rocco Pitacco in the Basilica in 1883

And after four centuries of loving hospitality to pilgrims, especially to the very poor, and of grandiose works of embellishment urged by the tireless religious, the Servants of Mary were forced by a decree of 11 May 1810 to leave the shrine. Napoleon in fact suppressed all the Orders and Congregations in Italy, enjoining them to discard the habit, and the regular religious, those not from Vicenza, to return to their native villages or towns of. The church of the Shrine of the Madonna of Mount Berico became a subsidiary chapel of the local parish church of San Silvestro. In reality, thanks to Zaguri, the bishop of Vicenza, two fathers of the Servants remained on Mount Berico. All the rest were to return on 26 November 1835, at the urging of Bishop Giuseppe Cappellari and with the endorsement of the Austrian emperor.
But despite the forced vacation of the Servants of Mary, the two fathers who had remained in the monastery continued to bring changes to the shrine: the new bell tower, the replacing of the main sixteenth century altar, the setting of the statue of the Madonna in a marble niche to make it more visible. Even bringing the altar forward to enable pilgrims to pause in the spot where the Madonna had appeared to Vincenza Pasini, a moment pictured in a silver medallion, supported by two marble angels, set at the foot of the statue. It is the custom for pilgrims, when asking Mary’s favor, to lean their heads on the silver medallion and establish direct, perceptible rapport with the Madonna.

1917: The Madonna of Mount Berico saves the city of Vicenza yet again
There is another crucial day, other than that of the first Sunday of every month, on which the Madonna of Mount Berico is particularly well disposed to pilgrims. It is that of 8 September, the feast of her Birth. There is a special reason going back to the First World War. On 25 February 1917 the city of Vicenza, immediately behind the lines of the conflict that was raging some tens of kilometers away, made a solemn vow to the Madonna of Mount Berico, promising that «if our lands are kept safe, we vow to keep the day of Your Birth perpetually holy as a sacred feastday». Since then, because the Madonna answered the prayer of the people of Vicenza and kept the was from reaching and destroying the city, the 8 September is a local holiday. And in that same year 1917, because the Bulletin of the Servants of Mary gave prominence to the apostolic letter of Benedict XV expressing hope for an immediate end to the fearful conflict, the shrine was accused of defeatist pacifism and the government ordered the silencing of the bells. All of this explains the gift to the shrine, in 1919, with the war just over, of a gigantic tricolor, made by 100,000 Catholic women, in memory of all the fallen. And it also explains the break at Mount Berico in the journey of the remains of the Unknown Soldier from Redipuglia to Rome, to the Altar of the Fatherland. So also the construction and name of the large Victory square. Inaugurated on the 23 September 1924, it opens on one of the most extraordinary panoramas in the whole of the Veneto. Seventeen meters of the summit of Mount Berico, facing the shrine, was removed to create a vast area: a grandiose rectangle with the two sides enlivened by a Baroque curve: the cropping of the hill has thus enabled the view of the vaster horizon towards the foothills of the Alps, Pasubio and Grappa. If one wanted another important date connected with the shrine there is 11 January 1978, when Pope Paul VI hailed the Madonna of Mount Berico as principal patron of the city of Vicenza in these words: «In Italy, in the diocese of Vicenza, for more than 500 years the clergy and people have venerated in unbroken worship and fervor the glorious Mother of the Divine Redeemer under the title of “Madonna of Mount Berico”… We decree that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, honored with the name of “Madonna of Mount Berico”, be declared and from now on truly be the principal patron next to God of the city and diocese of Vicenza. We greatly hope that from now on, the devotion to the Mother of God, frequent prayer and a renewed knowledge and imitation of her Son will flourish at the shrine even more».

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