Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

14 August 2009

The Weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia

Our flight into Rome airport had landed before dawn and we were set to drive to Tuscany that day. But before I would ever allow myself to reach the Appenine slopes I, the world’s greatest sceptic, was determined to satisfy an urge to visit ‘miracle city’ otherwise known as Civitavecchia.

It was in February 1995, in that undistinguished seaport ninety kilometres north of Rome where tourists used to pause only long enough to catch the ferries that regularly leave for Sardinia, that a statue of the virgin Mary was reported to have wept blood.

Since then, news of this event had dried up (as had, I suspected, the blood) but at first it was greeted by the world press as highly noteworthy, and by the mayor and local business-bodies of Civitavecchia as a hook upon which they might hang a renaissance of this city of which twenty-one percent was unemployed. They thought it might rival Lourdes and quite early it was reported that pay-and-display carparks and additional accommodation were being planned, along with ice-cream and souvenir stalls, to cater for the expected religious lust of pilgrims to spend money.

The statue originated from Medjugorge in Herzegovina, part of Yugoslavia. Its owner, an electricity worker named Fabio Gregori, kept the madonna in his front garden where its ‘red tears’ were first observed by his five-year old daughter Jessica.

Thereafter pilgrims jammed the Civitavecchia highway until the local bishop, Monsignor Girolamo Grillo warned that a little scientific examination might not go amiss. A sensible idea for it was one of at least a dozen iconic weepings reported in the last ten years, and past examinations of such ‘miracles’ by the ‘Madonna Detectives’ had revealed scams such as that perpetrated by a Florentine company manufacturing small valves capable of insertion behind a statue’s eyes and remotely controlled!

Some credence attached to the madonna by the findings of doctors at Gemelli Hospital (where the pope goes for medical and surgical treatment) who declared the liquid to be blood. Further support came from the bishop who announced, in an interview on national television that he was a believer: ‘I had just finished mass; I, my sister and two Romanian nuns were having a little pray when the statue began to weep again. My sister actually touched the bloody tears.’

On Good Friday of 1995, the madonna was placed in a chapel for safe keeping. Meanwhile the local police expressed horror at the prospect of thousands of visitors invading their town (where the council had already set up their temporary parking areas and portable lavatories and for which planners were designing a one thousand-seat ‘sanctuary’ and a permanent parking building). Under some pressure magistrates intervened to order the police to seize the statue for more tests. Dark suggestions were made that scientists might compare the blood from the madonna with Fabio Gregori’s…

Incensed, the bishop next announced that he’d go to court if necessary to get the statue back; in this he was supported by the communist mayor on the principle that ‘most Civitavecchians believe’. Besides, ‘It’s good for business. Let’s exploit it, pump it, promote it. Give the people what they want. The Vatican could take twenty years: we can’t wait that long for our hot dog and souvenir stands.’

Meanwhile Italy’s consumer rights custodians ‘Codacons’ warned of ‘abuse of public credulity by the “Miracle Industry” who mass-produce miracles’. Their president, Giuseppe Lo Mastro, noted that of 291 cases of crying madonnas over the years only fourteen have been officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as miraculous.

Late in the week of 2 April a judge ordered DNA and other tests to be performed on members of the Gregori family, an order which promptly squashed a planned parade on Good Friday which would have seen the madonna carried in a bullet-proof glass container to be lodged in a specially built chapel in the church of San Agostino.

Thereafter news petered out until, in July 1995, a Professor Luigi Garlaschelli of the University of Pavia opined that a hollow statue of porous alabaster, such as the Civitavecchia madonna, fired with a glazed outer skin, filled with human blood and sealed could, if scratched with a very sharp object, weep. Gregori steadfastly refused to have his blood tested!

I was fascinated by this affair and wanted to go to Civitavecchia in 1997 but was unable to get there. But while in Italy I read, in a weekly supplement that came with the newspapers from England, a paragraph which told that a spokesman for Pantano, a suburb of Civitavecchia, hoped that the weeping statue which the Vatican has hailed miraculous would attract tourists. Four hotels and a shopping complex were planned and the port, it was felt, might be able to accommodate cruise ships with passengers…

It was thus with some curiosity that a few years later we at last drove along the straight, and obviously new road that leads from the main highway to the church of San Agostino. We arrived at the same time as the first of the tourist coaches and immediately looked for the weeping madonna. Inside the church she did not yet have a specially built chapel, she was housed in the east end of the south aisle. A small white figurine, she stood in a stone Disneyland grotto encased in thick glass. Her case was surrounded by tracts, posters, leaflets, books, statuettes, plastic flowers and photographs, mostly grainy over-enlargements showing copious trails of what looks like tomato ketchup flowing down her face. Recorded music played from a looped tape which repeated itself indecently often. The madonna looked like a cheap memento such as would have graced a thousand Victorian mantelpieces.

I watched the faces of the pilgrims who shuffled past. Many had come a long way. I had come from half a world away. Some, mainly old people, had tears in their eyes; most gazed blankly, their missions accomplished, their expectations flattened; some sniffed cynically. I sneaked a photograph while eyeing a ‘guard’ who made to approach me then looked away, bored. Meanwhile the sweet-faced little plaster statue stood innocently inside her glass prison.

Outside in the brilliant sunshine the ‘Miracle Industry’ was getting ready for a new day. More coaches were arriving to fill the enormous carpark while stall vendors were laying out their souvenirs; madonna paperweights, madonna ashtrays, madonna pencil sharpeners.

I picked up a 15 euro statuette and asked the woman ‘Marmi?’

‘Si, si, marmi.’ She replied earnestly.

I made a groove in the ‘marble’ with mythumbnail but no tears flowed.

More coaches; then the whiff of sausages and onions floated on the morning air from a hot dog stand.
‘I can’t take too many more miracles,’ I said to my wife, ‘Let’s get out of here.’



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.