In the past, ex-votos - votive offerings and symbols of faith dedicated to the Madonna (Mary, mother of Jesus) or the Saints - were commonplace in the Romagna region and were mainly located in places of worship.
Now, an itinerary in the Faenza area of Romagna includes the churches where some of these ex-votos are preserved, allowing us to rediscover this fascinating tradition.
The various locations can be reached by car and the transfers from one place to another take about an hour and a half in all. In Faenza you can park near the town centre and then reach the various churches on foot. Alternatively, you can park on the outskirts of Faenza, in Piazzale Pancrazi, and take the free Green-Gobus shuttle.
We begin our journey at the Church of San Francesco, located in Castel Bolognese.
Built in 1702, it rests on the site of a pre-existing church dating back to 1422; it houses the reliquary and simulacrum of the Madonna dell'Immacolata, worshipped every year during the three-day Pentecost feast.
The importance of this simulacrum is obvious from the many votive panels, displayed in the chapel and left by the faithful as thanks to the Madonna. The church can be visited every day until 3.00 pm.
The second stop takes us to Tebano, a hamlet outside Faenza that is home to the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Erected to worship Mary, the church is dedicated to the Sacred Image of the Virgin with child, a bas-relief terracotta work probably taken from a votive pillar.
It can only be visited at weekends.
We then come to the village of Brisighella, the location of the Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli, annexed to the monastery of the Order of Friars Minor.
Constructed in the 16th century and fully renovated in the 17th century, it houses a wooden statue of Mary of the Seven Sorrows, with a nearby cabinet containing the ex votos.
Once in Faenza head to Piazza del Popolo for a visit to the Duomo (the Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle), an impressive example of Renaissance architecture in Romagna.
Hanging from the dome is a 17th century banner. Donated by the city of Warsaw, it carries an epigraph of thanks to the Blessed Virgin of Grace of Faenza for the cessation of the plague: this is the Votum Varsaviae, a public ex voto.
On leaving the Duomo take Via Garibaldi, which leads to the Church of San Francesco, constructed by Franciscan friars in 1271 and rebuilt between 1740 and 1751. Among its paintings is a panel with the sacred image of the Immaculate Conception, an object of worship.
Not far from the church is the Museo di San Francesco which houses a rich collection of sacred and liturgical furnishings and a series of ex-votos.
Moving west, we now cross the Via Emilia and head towards Via Canal Grande, where you’ll find the Chiesa del Santissimo Crocifisso dei Frati Minori Cappuccini. The veneration of the Santissimo Crocifisso - the Most Holy Crucifix - dates back to ancient times. Its origins lie in a miraculous event of the 16th century. The story has it that one day Fra Battista da Faenza, a Franciscan friar, was being reprimanded by a superior: as an act of humility and in order to respect his vow of obedience, he remained silent… and a blood vessel ruptured in his chest. Barely able to hold back the flow of blood that rose to his mouth, he knelt and prostrated himself before an image of the Crucifix; the image moved, spoke to him of its sufferings and miraculously healed him.
Over the centuries, the cult of the Crucifix spread, both locally and beyond: famines, plagues and natural disasters coincided with waves of devotion, as highlighted by the gifts adorning the chapel.
Note that some ex-votos are also kept in the Diocesan Museum of Faenza but can only be seen by making a reservation.
The last part of the itinerary leads us to Solarolo and the Santuario della Madonna della Salute, about 1 km from the town. Built between 1731 and 1736, it now houses an image of Mary, made of ceramic; the importance of this sanctuary as a place of worship is demonstrated by the numerous Ex votos preserved in the Museo del Santuario (visitable by appointment).
Most of the images date back to the 18th and 19th centuries; their authors and the people who offered the ex-voto are all known.