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Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears

Alagonian Library
November 30, 2020
December 1, 2020
Ph. © Eliseo Lupo

The Sanctuary of the "miracle” that wasn't.

On the 29th September 1953, and for three days after, a small, painted plaster relief of the Madonna that hangs over the bed of the Iannuso newlyweds in Via degli Orti di San Giorgio, begins to cry. The house is in the “Borgata” area of Siracusa, a popular quarter on the mainland, built around the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, the original burial site of the patron saint of Siracusa, Saint Lucy, martyred in 304BCE.
The extraordinary event attracts crowds of the faithful and curious onlookers from all over the island. While the initially sceptical Curia initiates a range of scientific examinations, the first of a long series of inexplicable healings takes place. The news spreads like wildfire, the pressure is on.
Official recognition by the ecclesiastical authorities arrives on the 13th December, Saint Lucy’s feast day: in a period of Marian miracles that accompany the early years of the birth of republican Italy, Siracusa has its own.
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"A great event; a great sign; the monument."
Ing Arch V. Passarelli

The Curia decides to give a worthy, above all symbolic, home to the miraculous image, and buys a large piece of land between the Borgata, the area of modern expansion of the city, developing in the wake of the growth of the petrochemical industries and an area destined for the new archaeological museum. An international competition is held for a grand sanctuary and many projects are presented. Amongst these, the one by Enrico Castiglioni – an architect well-known for his important restoration projects - proposes an underground building in the shape of an ear, which would contain the archaeological remains of an older sanctuary dedicated to Demeter, filled with votive statuettes, today on display in the archaeological museum in the nearby Villa Landolina.
However, the Curia wants a sanctuary that is above all a symbol, showy, visible even in Malta which has always been a ‘borderland’ between Christianity and Islam.
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The winning design of the French architects Parrat and Andrault, really intended as a lighthouse and ‘parasol’ to protect the fragile Virgin Mary, corresponds perfectly to this vision, but perhaps, to paraphrase Castigilione, the necessity of preserving the archaeological remains is pushed into second place because of political favouritism of the Curia towards the French architects.
As work begins, the limits of the original project become clear and it is soon transformed both in terms of materials and shape. Above all, the anti seismic resistance of the building has to be revised: the whole area of Siracusa has just been declared at high seismic risk.
The task of mediating between symbolic and structural needs is assigned to the Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, who maintains the original cone-like shape and redesigns a spire 120 metres high, entirely in reinforced concrete, built over two superimposed spaces; one underground area, the “crypt”, and one above, with a cement ceiling that would have divided the space of the church from the ribbed interior of the spire, but was never built.
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Work proceeds despite the archaeological importance of the site, but new structural problems force the designers to reduce the height of the spire to 90 metres.
A gilded statue of the Madonna is placed on the top of the spire instead of the lighthouse of the original design - in any case, the tip will no longer be visible from Malta as once intended.
The Sicilian Region contributes to the completion of the sanctuary with funding of about 80 billion lire. Not long after the project is completed, serious problems caused by faulty execution emerge which force a new complex intervention on the concrete ribs. Regular maintenance on the 22 metal ball-bearings on which the entire building rests is fiendishly difficult.
When on a rainy November day in 1994, John Paul II comes to Siracusa to consecrate the sanctuary on his tour of Marian sanctuaries, he finds the crypt flooded and the upper church full of people mopping the rainwater that has filtered down through the spire.
Nor does the garden that is created around the Sanctuary help to reconcile it with the surrounding city; while it is in itself praiseworthy and attractive, it remains a mere green frame around a grey picture.
The complex, often contradictory, story of the Sanctuary reflects very different, often conflicting, attitudes towards the historic, natural and cultural heritage of the city.
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During construction, many begin to ask whether that high spire is not actually an eyesore, a blot on the skyline, considering that the surroundings are characterised by low houses, spread out on the natural limestone steps on which the Greek city had originally expanded, an area as yet unexplored by archaeologists.
Despite good intentions, the skyline of the city is already compromised by the block of flats known as the “Palazzo A-Z”, topped by a forest of local TV antennae, a true ‘lighthouse’ for transmitting messages, and the clearest sign of the unplanned and unlicensed building of those years, which had already led to the creation of a whole ‘wall’ along the Akradina rise, much higher than the spire of the Sanctuary, and perfectly visible to those who reach Siracusa by land or by sea.
The completion of the Sanctuary continues despite the important archaeological finds. The ancient sanctuary underneath is buried in a layer of concrete necessary for the foundations which support the incredibly heavy building above. The next pressing need is to create a large parvis in cement in front of the church to hold the crowds who are expected for John Paul II’s visit, over the sanctuary of Demeter in Piazza della Vittoria, but this is blocked by the regional authorities.
The Curia disapproves of this suspension of the project, so the Bishop responds by vetoing the archaeological excavations planned in Piazza Duomo. These will eventually be carried out thanks to an agreement between the city council and the cultural heritage office.
The area of Piazza della Vittoria can still not be visited and is closed off behind a high fence. The modern church separates the ancient sanctuaries from the Greek quarries of Villa Landolina, where the new archaeological museum now stands.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime - the Madonna of Tears - has become a ‘must’ for religious tourism (and not only) in Sicily, but it is something of a ‘missed miracle’. The adapted, reworked architecture is reduced to the symbolic value of a simple sign - the tall spire - which tends to hide rather than reveal what was for centuries an important religious and civic centre of the city, and has wasted an opportunity for a coherent architectural dialogue between the spirituality of the present and that of the past.
Novembre 2020

Architetto con la passione per la valorizzazione e promozione del patrimonio culturale e umano, a Siracusa ho vissuto un bel pezzo della mia vita professionale occupandomi del restauro di monumenti come Castello Maniace, di interventi come quello sulla piazza del Duomo, di vincoli per la tutela paesaggistica. Poi ho diretto la Villa del Casale a Piazza Armerina. Adesso scrivo e faccio parte della direzione editoriale di SiracusaCulture.