Madonna of the Bridge

The first thing we (Nora, John, Amy and I) made in Lanciano was a visit to the Basilica of Madonna del Ponte. Fortunately, it is situated at the heart of the city (unlike the Penne cathedral) and we found it without too much adventure. The Basilica’s name is literally translated as “The Madonna of the Bridge” that clearly reflects its unusual location. The Basilica is a unique in its way facility because it was erected over an ancient Roman bridge. This bridge was built in the III century and was named after Emperor Diocletian.

An image of  the Madonna del Ponte was miraculously found in 1088 in the course of repairs of the bridge, damaged by an earthquake. Inside of one of the pylons there was found an image depicting the Madonna and Child. It was assumed that the image had been hidden there in the VIII century in order to save it from from the iconoclastic campaign, launched in 717-741 by Emperor Leone Isaurico.

There are different versions describing the miraculous discovery. A legend says that there was found a terra-cotta statue of the Madonna and Child, which is now kept in the Basilica. However, in 1762-1775 local historian Antinori assumed that in the bridge there was found  an old Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child, which in 1442 served as a model for the statue, as evidenced by the inscription on the sculpture itself.

Originally there was built a chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie, and in 1138 there was erected a small temple. In 1378 citizens of Lanciano appealed to local authorities to build a large church that would cover the whole bridge. The construction of a new church started in the next year (1379) and lasted off and on until the end of the XV century. In 1545 the bishop’s throne was transferred to the church and the latter was elevated to the rank of a cathedral.

The current building of basilica was built in 1619. At the beginning of the XVII century the bell tower was erected according to Tommaso di Milano’s design.  The belfry is located at some distance from the cathedral and also serves as the city clock tower.

In 1685 a fundamental reorganization of the internal space of the church was made in order to correct (or rather, disguise) its irregular proportions. The fact is that the height of the building did not meet its huge size. To this end the church was decorated with “spatial” paintings by Antonio Maria Porano.

In 1757 according to the initiative of Archbishop Giacomo Leto there was arranged the chapel of the Madonna del Ponte instead of the altar, decorated with stucco.
The next major stage of the Basilica’s internal decoration was undertaken in 1785-1787. The interior  was decorated in classical style with Baroque elements.

At the beginning of the XIX century the Basilica had undergone a complete renovation in accordance with Eugenio Mikkitelli’s design. In 1819 there was built a new neo-classical facade with a portico and columns.

I particularize the history of creation and reconstruction of the Basilica, because its modern building and interior produce a rather mixed impression. In order to fully appreciate its eclectic splendor, we must understand that it has been the result of centuries-old efforts of prominent architects, engineers, sculptors and artists.

Frankly, the interior of the Basilica with dark marble pillars makes a strong but somewhat gloomy impression. The vast space of a single nave is subject to a monotonous rhythm of 24 Corinthian columns. Columns support the vaults decorated with frescoes by Neapolitan artist Hyacinths Diano (1730-1803) depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The niches between columns host six side altars and chapels with statues of saints made in classical style.

In essence, the statue of the Madonna which is always brightly illuminated by the light flowing from the window in the dome is a powerful center of attraction, because when a person moves from the sunlight into shade, he is involuntarily attracted to a single source of light. In September 1833 the Bishop of Lanciano crowned the statue of the Madonna with a golden crown, which is a subject of particular proud of local people.

The Madonna of the Bridge is a saint patron of Lanciano. Since 1834, the city traditionally arranges September festivals, dedicated to the Madonna. The festivities begin on Sept. 8 on the Birthday of Saint Mary, and culminates on September 14-16 to commemorate the coronation day of the Madonna del Ponte. On Sept. 8 there takes place a colorful procession of “il dono”. People dressed in traditional folk costumes, stalk to the Basilica with thank-offerings for the Madonna. On September 16 in the main street of Lanciano takes place a solemn procession of citizens and many pilgrims, led by the Bishop of Lanciano.

When we left the cathedral, we saw an index: “Archaeological route : The Bridge of Diocletian”. We followed the arrow and descended the stairs leading into an underground vault. We found ourselves in a spacious, high gallery with well-preserved limestone arches. In essence, we were inside the structure of the ancient Roman bridge!

On the one side of the gallery there were located small side rooms, and on the other side we could observe panoramic views through the glazed archways.

The Diocletian bridge was built in the III century and originally consisted of three arched spans. It had connected the town center with a fairground, which were separated by a deep ravine.

During World War II, people of Lanciano were hiding under the bridge during the bombing. In early 1970th , the bridge was converted into a concert hall. Because of its excellent acoustics, it has become a prestigious venue for major cultural and especially musical events. Since 1972, the international festival «Estate Musicale Frentana» takes place in July 15 – August 31.

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