Margherita Clavarino is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at the Warburg Institute, where she is researching miraculous prints in early modern Italy. She has an interest in both printed ex-votos and votive offerings related to miraculous printed imagery.
The Church of Saint Bartholomew of the Groom, in the namesake seaside town of Liguria, in the province of Genoa, hosts an eighteenth-century print on paper which is venerated for its miracle-working properties, known as ‘Nostra Signora del Soccorso’ (Figure 1). The foundation legend of this miraculous print is quite unique. The image was donated to the Church by two Jesuit missionaries, Cancellotti and Costanzo, in the year 1715. According to tradition, the two Jesuits donated a printed banner to every parish church in the area, but the Church of Saint Bartholomew was the only one to preserve that gift.
Unlike most of the existing miraculous prints, the cult of the print is not connected with a first memorable occasion: ‘Nostra Signora del Soccorso’ was just displayed on the high altar to remind the devotees of a mission. Nonetheless, it did not go unnoticed. Following the initiative of the parish priest Marco Domenico Toso, the print was even enshrined in a wooden urn decorated ‘with gilded carvings in a fine interweaving with putti in half relief’, already in the year 1741 (Podestà 1915, p. 29). Yet, only eight years later, a new marble tabernacle was built. Marble was deemed more appropriate to the prestige of the image. Carmine Coridivola, first historian of the sanctuary, reports that the print provoked feelings of tenderness in the beholders, everyone whispering at the moment of its unveiling. The image was indeed veiled as it was typical of miraculous imagery.
Far more relevant is what happened in 1836. In that year, Liguria was hit by a terrible outbreak of cholera, reaching even the small town of Saint Bartholomew. In response to this threat, the inhabitants of the town hopefully turned to the printed Madonna, dressing it up with their most precious jewels. This shows that devotees had great faith in this print, only large two palms and two ounces (54 cm), and long just as many palms and nine ounces (68 cm). The parish priest of that time, Giovanni Battista Ghio, made an even greater vow. The provost Ferdinando Podestà reports his exact words: ‘O Maria, se Voi ci soccorrerete in questo estremo io vi prometto di compiere assieme al mio popolo, monumento perenne in segno ai posteri della grazia ottenuta’ (Oh Mary, if You will assist us in such extreme, I promise to make, together with my community, an eternal monument, a sign for posterity of the received grace) (Podestà 1915, p. 29). In short, Ghio promised he would have built a new church in gratitude.
As hoped by devotees, cholera miraculously did not spread. As one can expect from its name, ‘Nostra Signora del Soccorso’, literally ‘Our Lady of the Rescue’, succoured almost the whole town. As a result, only two years after the danger had passed, Ghio fulfilled the vow, appointing the Ligurian architect Giovanni Battista Prato to build a new church in order to honour the prodigious print (Figure 2). The actual Church of Saint Bartholomew of the Groom, built exclusively thanks to the alms of the rescued parishioners, can thus be considered as a votive church. The inscription on the church façade initially read: ‘Sancto Bartholomaeo Apostolo ac Deiparae Mariae Virgini sub titulo de Succurso templum hoc dicatum eius protectione ab asiatico morbo Ecclesiaeque veteris augustia impellente superatis adversis a fundamentis reaedificabat Ginestrensis populous anno MDCCCLV’ (This temple dedicated to Saint Bartholomew Apostle and to Mary Virgin of God under the title of Rescue for her protection from cholera and for the pressing anguish of the old building after having overcome all sort of difficulties the community of the Groom rebuilt from the foundations in the year 1855) (San Bartolomeo di Ginestra 1988, pp. 160-62). The church is explicitly a votive offering of Ghio and the parishioners to the printed Madonna.By Margherita Clavarino
Cordiviola, Carmine. Compendio storico della prodigiosa immagine di N. Signora del Soccorso venerata nella chiesa prepositurale di S. Bartolomeo di Ginestra, Diocesi di Brugnato. Chiavari: Tip. Provino, 1831.
Podestà, Ferdinando. N.a S.ra del Soccorso in S. Bartolomeo di Ginestra Sestri Levante. Florence: Stabilimento Tipografico S. Giuseppe, 1915.
San Bartolomeo di Ginestra, Sestri Levante. Rapallo: Tipografia Emiliani, 1988.