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Loreto is an important hill town to the south of Ancona, and home to one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy. It is inland from the Adriatic coast in the Marches region of central Italy.
The main attraction for visitors to Loreto - pilgrims or otherwise - is the imposing basilica and fortress complex which also includes the museum and the Holy House of the Virgin Mary.
You will find similarities at Loreto with Lourdes in France, with the combination of religious conviction, coachloads of sick people, important religious monuments and outright commercialism being rather unseemly if not outright troubling.
Exploring: Loreto Cathedral and Piazza della Madonna
A visit to Loreto can start from the large 'Piazza della Madonna' and the impressive Loreto Basilica, built by Pope Paul II (1417-1471). The work began in 1469 to a plan which foresaw the building of a church-fortress, because in 1468 the area had become subject to Turkish raids along the Adriatic coast.
The most talented architects of the time were called upon to design Loreto Basilica, such as Baccio Pontelli (1450-1492), Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) and Giuliano da Sangallo (1484-1546). It was created in the gothic style, but after intervention by Giuliano da Sangallo it also took on a Renaissance tone, especially with the dome that clearly incorporates the style of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1466), responsible for the dome on the duomo in Florence.
The Istrian stone façade of the church was begun in 1571 by Giovanni Boccalini and completed by Giovanni Battista Ghioldi (1587) while the three doors of the façade were made by the Recanati School of Sculpture (16th-17th century). The belltower was a later work, by Luigi Vanvitelli [1700-1773].
The church has a Latin cross form (which means that the arms of the church are the same size) and under the dome is the “Holy House” of the Virgin Mary (see further down).
The town attracts several million visitors each year, including four million pilgrims, because of the story that the house of Mary - the Santa Casa - was flown here from the Holy Land by a group of angels in 1293. From late spring until autumn trains packed with pilgrims, the sick and the needy arrive in Loreto to attend mass which is held both inside and outside the cathedral.
The interior of the basilica is very important because it is decorated by the works and frescos of the most renowned painters of the time. The “Holy House of Mary" is a work of immense artistic value as well as religious, being clad with white marble to a design by Bramante (1444-1514).
In the sacristy you can see frescoes by Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494) and Luca Signorelli (1445-1523), while in the dome we have the "Four Evangelists" by Cristoforo Roncalli, known as “Pomarancio” (1553 ca.-1626). There are also numerous chapels in the cathedral containing various artworks.
To the left of the Basilica in the centre of Loreto is the Apostolic Palace, a work by Bramante and Antonio da Sangallo.
Loreto Museum and Art Gallery
Inside the Apostolic Palace is the Museum and Art Gallery, which features eight paintings by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) who lived in Loreto the last years of his life, as well as tapestries and sacred furnishings. As well as numerous paintings the museum also contains other works of great value, which were donated by illustrious Italian and European personages who visited the shrine, including valuable donations by the Medici of Florence and Christine of Lorraine.
One of the highlights of the museum is the silver and ebony crucifix, a gift from Joan of Austria (1535-1573), the wife of Grand Duke Francesco I of Tuscany. This crucifix rests on a base of finely carved ebony and was the work of Giambologna, active at the court of Francis I. He specialized in small articles of an absolute technical perfection to suit the refined taste of the Prince, who loved to donate these small objects to foreign sovereigns and churches, to demonstrate the munificence of the Medici court in Florence.
Another extraordinary work, which was a gift by Christine of Lorraine (1565-1637), is the hanging that covers the front of the altar. At Christmas in 1620 Christina of Lorraine, particularly devoted to the Virgin, "who some years before had performed a miracle on her predecessor, healing from paralysis" donated this silver cloth with embroidered flowers of polychrome silk and adorned at the centre by a gold cross, flanked by arms of the Medici and Lorraine.
History tells us that this was also beautifully presented in a frame with a base in white and red jasper from Sicily, which rested on four pillars in lapis lazuli with bases in yellow jasper from Cyprus, and supporting a cornice with a frieze of amethyst and jasper plan.
The Holy House of the Virgin Mary
Because of its importance to the town it is useful to have some knowledge of the Holy House of the Virgin Mary. Remember that legend tells us that, in December 1294, the stones of the "house of Nazareth” were transported here by angels in flight.
In reality, studies have shown that transport by sea in some ships operated by the Crusaders is a more likely possibility. After the Christians were expelled from the Holy Land by the Muslims the “Holy House” was first transported to Trsat in Croatia (1291), then to Ancona in 1293 and finally to Loreto in December 1294.
Studies on the stones of the "Holy House" confirm their Palestinian origin, because they use techniques that seem typical of the work of the Nabataeans. There are numerous graffiti on the rocks, similar to Judeo-Christian-II of the fifth century and found in the Holy Land, particularly in Nazareth.
Inside the "Holy House" the image of Our Lady, the "Black Madonna", is venerated and is a typical colour of old icons due to centuries of smoke from oil lamps and candles. The original statue, dating from the 14th century, was brought to France in the Napoleonic age but it was destroyed by a fire in 1921. The present image dates from 1922 and is a work by Leopoldo Celani using cedar wood of Lebanon from the Vatican gardens.
Other things of interest in and near Loreto
Moving from the Basilica and continuing along Corso Boccalini you reach Porta Romana and the city-walls, built around 1520. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, this gateway it was completed with four bastions in the 17th century. Enthusiasts of the Italian poet Leopardi can also visit his home - he was born in Loreto in 1798.
Along the coast of the nearby Adriatic Sea there are several well equipped seaside resorts such as Porto Recanati.
Woodworking and traditional handicrafts are one of the strengths of Loreto, which still offer articles worked in silver, ceramics and wood of excellent value. Equally important here is the tradition of cooking which uses tasty products such as “vincisgrassi”, “stuffed olives” and “crescia sfogliata”.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Marche guide.