When I first came to Italy I was loath to go into churches. Yes, there was art inside. It was murky art, dissolving into the shadows. There were the odd smells. Then there was the fact that every tour book told me to go to churches (push-back, you know).
Maybe had I encountered the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie first thing I’d have felt differently. A crocodile hangs from it.
Grazie, you see, is not only a thing you say when someone sets a plate of pasta in front of you at a restaurant or does you a favor. It’s a town just a few kilometers from Mantua in Lombardy. It’s so small they have to call it Grazie di Curtatone. Grazie is a frazione of Curtatone, meaning a “fraction” or a little slice of suburb administrated by the larger place, Curtatone.
But you want to know what the heck a crocodile is doing hanging from the rafters, don’t you? Well, I’ve heard several theories. Yes, there is water behind the Santuario and perhaps some poor fisherman pulled out a crock, wrestled it, had it stuffed, and convinced the priest to hang it overhead.
It could have been put there as a warning. The cheery Book of Revelations mentions dragons being a sort of devil in disguise, and perhaps the crocodile is there to remind you just how close the devil is, even when you’re in a Sanctuary. Here’s a more serious treatment of the issue: The crocodile of Santuario of Saint Mary of Grazie
But it’s the kind of curiosity that you like to see, no? Well, you should.
But that’s not all! It’s not just about the crocodile!
You see, another thing is going on in the church. People over the years have owed God for miracles received. The nave is lined with life-size mannequins “representing episodes of danger averted by divine intercession.” Every available space between the niches they occupy is taken up by ex-votos: hearts, hands, eyes, breasts, and pestilential buboes recalled from the age of the plague. Francesco Gonzaga, you see, built the first temple here dedicated to the Virgin Mary after the end to an epidemic of The Plague and it was completed in August of 1406, hence the plague connection.
Today the Sanctuary brings tens of tourists because it’s one of the most interesting churches you’ll see. Ok, maybe there are more, but really, this is off the beaten track deluxe. Go, just go. It’s quite amazing, see:
But even that is not all!
Central to the history and life of the Sanctuary is the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15th. From the early morning the streets of the village are invaded by a multitude of pilgrims, and later by the visitors of a traditional trade fair, which has reached an international fame for over thirty years thanks to the presence of the “madonnari” who with their coloured crayons change the asphalt into a phantasmagorical carpet, reproducting famous paintings of sacred subject. ~ Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie
Yes, there is a huge area in front of the church dedicated entirely to these sacred chalk drawings. International artists arrive with their chalks (each stick costs around $10, and many, many sticks of chalk are used in a drawing, especially if the surface isn’t smooth—and this asphalt isn’t, I can tell you).
American Jenny McCracken has “competed” in this competition (there’s no prize money) and it’s interesting to read: Chalk artist Jenny McCracken competes in Italy’s Grazie di Curtatone Madonnari
And finally, behind the church is a wildlife sanctuary where you can romp and play on the waterfront and even catch a boat along the Mincio river, which is connected to Mantua’s Lago Superiore. See Navi Andes
Getting to Grazie di Curtatone
Grazie di Curtatone is a ten minute bus ride or car trip down the SP10, Via Cremona, from Mantua. Or, take the boat from Mantova.
(Information gathered for this article came via the Rediscover Italy project, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)