Shrine of St. Mary in Impruneta
The Shrine of St. Mary in Impruneta, or The Shrine of the Madonna of Impruneta, is one of the most noted Marian shrines in Tuscany. Its beginnings are shrouded in legend and popular traditions that highlight the importance and appeal that this sanctuary has held in the religious Florentine tradition.
Legend holds that Saint Romulus, a disciple of Saint Peter, and his followers, brought the Virgin’s image, painted by Luke the Evangelist, to Tuscany. St. Romulus’ followers then buried the image to avoid prosecution. The explanation of how it was unearthed and came to light is found in the writings of Pievano Stefano Buondelmoni in his Capitoli della Compagnia della Madonna dell’Impruneta, or Chapters in The Life of the Followers of the Madonna of Impruneta. (Circa 1375). Buondelmonti wrote that “the painter of this is St. Luke the Evangelist.” St. Luke’s fame as a painter goes back to the sixth century where several depictions of the Virgin Mary are attributed to him, including The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, The Salus Populi Romani Madonna in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Beata Vergine di San Luca in Bologna.
After many years, and a failed attempt to establish a shrine on the Monte delle Sante Marie (it is said that the walls would be built during the day and would crumble at night), the townsfolk decided to let “Divine Intervention” select the site of the Shrine. They waited for a sign from the oxen that were hauling the Shrine’s masonry. The sign came in the form of the oxen “kneeling” on the site where the actual Shrine resides today. Townsfolk began to dig with shovels where the oxen had knelt, and soon heard a thud and a loud cry. The plaintive cry is said to have come from the Madonna whose painting came to light.
Amongst the Madonna’s devotees were the Medicis. The Madonna’s fame grew exponentially when the painting was transported to Florence, and is credited with stopping the plague epidemic in 1633. As a sign of gratitude, many believers granted the Madonna many precious gifts that are now exhibited in the Shrine’s Museo del Tesoro, or Treasure’s Museum. The Followers of Saint Francis’ Stigmata donated funds to add a portico to the Shrine. The architect Gherardo Silvani created the portico that was completed in 1634. In 1711 there was another procession, ordered by the Florence’s Grand Duke Ferdinand II, when the painting of the Madonna was brought there to stave off the imminent demise of the Medici dynasty, and to heal the dynasty’s heir, Grand Prince Ferdinand III.
This procession was rich in pageantry and lasted from May 3 to June 20. It resulted in a wealth of spectacular offerings, including the silver-gilded Paliotto (ornamental four-sided altar covering) by Giovan Battista Foggini, gifted by the Medici for the Shrine’s altar.
The political leanings of the House of Lorraine, intent on modernizing the State in an enlightened and secular manner, altered the cult of the Virgin Mary. The year 1740 marked the last time that the image of the Madonna was brought to Florence.
The Shrine was not immune to the senseless bombardments of the 27th -28th of July, 1944, during WWII. The shrine was heavily damaged and many of its artistic treasures were ruined, but the painting of the Madonna remained intact. Afterward, the painting was taken to Florence and brought back to Impruneta in 1947 by yoked oxen, and accompanied by a multitude of faithful followers.