The sanctuary is on a site that was formerly occupied by the medieval castle of Macereto, built below Mount Grotagna. Its strategic position controlled the intersection of the roads that crossed the inhospitable Sibilline chain of the Apennine Mountains. One road runs east through Cupi, down the valley to Fiastra and from there to the eastern coast. The other road follows the spine of the mountain range to Ussita and from there, to Ascoli Piceno. At the sanctuary, the roads converge and then plunge west to Visso.
In this small area, Visso and Camerino vied with each other for control of traffic and the local population. Camerino is the older town and its position was better in terms of controlling the huge number of traffic that came through the narrow pass at Muccia on the Flaminian road. The geography of this route would have been easier for beasts and vehicles. But the Camerinese were also keen to control the routes through to southern Italy and were locked in a seemingly endless and fruitless feud to that end. The castle at Grotagna that came to be called Macereto was often the focus of their fierce and often bloody rivalry and when the intervention of Pope Boniface IX placed Macereto under the jurisdiction of Visso in 1404 and then finally, in 1521, when “Duke Giovanni Maria Varano organised inspections and an in-depth study on the disagreements between the communities of Appennino, Ussita and Cupi” and a decree was issued that divided the contested land and put the hilltop of Macereto under control of Visso. Vissanis celebrated this event with the commission of the sanctuary.
At more or less the same time, however, in 1259, “the Count Magalotto dei Magolotti sold to Camerino the Fiastra Castle, the Poggia Serra one, half the Appennino Castle together with its annexed territories, people and villages and the rights on the Macereto Castle and its people wherever they should be.” (Ibid p14). A stalemate ensued and the rivalry between the boroughs merely heightened. Neither of these sales was entirely legal, the ownership of this desolate and barren land had never been formally recorded and the feud between the two families was merely passed on to the two rival boroughs. The uncertainties that followed on ownership and border issues were left to the two parties to sort out, which naturally exacerbated an already heated situation.
In 1277 Visso burned down the Camerinese Appennino Castle, which was subsequently rebuilt. Then Camerino destroyed the Castle of Macereto in 1313 with the help of the Ruler of the Dukedom of Spoleto “who was keen to see the rebel borough of Visso brought back under the influence of the Church.” (Venanzangeli p 14). The Castle was rebuilt too.
Bonifacio IX, in an attempt to soothe the disputes made “The Rocca di Macereto a county, naming Bante and Apollonio, the sons of the notary Cataldino Boncompagni, Counts of Macereto.” At the end of the trecento the Boncompagni household left the isolated Castle of Macereto and moved down to Visso, taking an active role in the battles that culminated for them in 1499 when the Camerinese killed Cataldino Boncompagni. After this family tragedy, the Boncompagni family emigrated and sold the title to Visso. This finally put the Castle of Macereto under the official control of the borough of Visso. They were to be linked again when in 1583 Pope Gregory XIII, from the same Boncompagni family, honoured his familial roots by making Visso a permanent base for the Government.
In 1521, the issued decree ended the disputes over the land, with “the verdict agreed and sworn upon by Sir Venanzio Cistofori, legal authority of Camerino and by Sir Gianpietro Dominici, legal authority of Visso” and a truce was finally reached. In 1522, having set up the new borders with Camerino and achieving domination over the area with a final decisive victory over another rival borough of Nursini in the battle of Pian Ferduto, “Visso was then able to make use of its freedom and new security to realize the long planned project and build, on the highlands of Macereto, a great and artistic sanctuary.” (Venanzangeli p 30)
The plateau of Macereto had long been an important place of cultural and social significance. Quite apart from the battles that Visso, Camerino, Nursini and others waged here, the highlands were home to the shepherds. The moving of the sheep between grazing lands in the territories of Mounts Sibillini, to the territories of Visso and Norcia, and above all, in the Roman plains, goes back to prehistory. This practice, taking place between the end of September and the beginning of May (when the winter snows have melted) is described by Varrone (in Rerum Rusticarum) and Columella (De re rustica). As this was an area that seemed to exist somehow sans frontiers, the delineation between Umbria and The Marche was rarely enforced, allowing these itinerant people to move with comparative freedom . People would come from the rural districts would only see one another at these occasions.
In the Macereto plain, flocks could come and graze without encroaching on each other. This led to the instigation of an annual summer sheep fair, which continues even to this day. These fairs (fiere) were connected to religious festivals and originated when people would traditionally travel great distances to a particular place to celebrate a saint’s day for instance. “The basis of fiere, which lasted several days, was the difficulty and danger of travelling. They originated from the festivals of various saints when the faithful met in some temple or sanctuary: sellers of every type of merchandise would go to these gatherings. The term fiera derives from ferie – giorno di festa (feast-day). Peaking in the 14th-16th centuries, commerce developed with the rise of the free communes. Usually a fiera was given a spacious field outside the town walls with roofing for animals, barracks for the merchants and their merchandise….The altopiano of Macereto was much travelled on account of the road running from the Marche to the Kingdom of Naples. From then on and with the increasing flow of pilgrims, the fiera assumed great religious importance through the numerous gatherings of people from Umbria and the Marche….The Macereto fairs were particularly useful for those involved with the sheep business.” The shepherds who travelled from Visso, Ussita and Cupi had originally marked out the roads in this wonderful natural resource, which became the major routes through the mountains. By the trecento the track that ran from Fiastra, through Cupi, past Macereto and then down to Visso had become so established that wheeled vehicles, and the traditional sleds in winter, were able to navigate it without too much trouble. But it was at Macereto that everyone would gather, the Castle that was built there had its origins in this traffic and would have offered a social and cultural hub for travelers from Ussita, as well as for shepherds and inhabitants of the little group of dwellings around the castle. It is without doubt that a small shrine would have already existed at the spot before the ‘miracle’, tended by the shepherds who would have not been able to get to a town to take part in a Mass. There are a hundred and sixty-three officially recognized sanctuaries in The Marche alone, most of which are positioned, not so much where an actual miracle occurred but normally in “areas of particular worship that strengthened with time”. In a part of the world where primitive beliefs were still very much a part of life, the Church had achieved considerable success by tying these ‘pagan’ attitudes with conventional religious practices.
The statue remained at Macereto and a little church was built for it and news of the miracle spread rapidly throughout the area. By 1414, recorded healings had taken place, one Angelo di Forsivo was noted to regain his sight in the presence of the statue . Although miracles, in particular healings, were said to have taken place in direct connection with the shrine, the Church was generally unwilling to accept these as ‘Holy Miracles.’ But the chiesetta became filled with ex-voto gifts and many tokens were also given to the church of Santa Maria in Visso.
As the century progressed the chiesetta was considered more important and by 1486, it was on the map as a genuine stop on the pilgrimage route to Loreto. (It should be noted that The Church did not approve of Loreto as a place of pilgrimage itself until 1507). “With a legal testament made on the 29 April 1486, a certain Clemente di Arbe sent in his place a person to complete a devout pilgrimage and he exhorted him, after to have been to Assisi, to continue for Saint Maria di Loreto, taking the route of the Valnerina, with pause at Macereto.” (Grimaldi p100).
The shrine had also become the recipient of donations and inheritances, and was the focus of local devotion. In 1480 the people of Ussita were exhorted to visit the church “at least once a month between the months of April and September. Failure to visit the church would incur a charge of 10 soldi. Also, everyone from the castle owner to the labourer has to sing during the mass and take part in prayers.” (Venanzangeli p28) Important visitors began to arrive on pilgrimages as recorded on the temple stone, “prodigiorum pompa culture populum illustres principes frequenter viros traxit ad se” and on 12th August 1464 it was recorded that “between the pilgrims there were cardinals Marco Rovere and Teodoro Leli”, also, in 1503 “when Pope Alessandro VI died, the tyrannical Duke Valentino took over the area near Visso. The bishops from Umbria, in return, pilgrim to Macereto and the bishops and priest from Camerino were asking our powerful Queen for a new Pope and peace for the Church.” On 12th August 1520, “within the crowd and the famous pilgrims was Marca Niccolo Bonafede, bishop of Chiusi”. (Venanzangeli p 29)
In 1510, the fame of the statue of the Madonna of Macereto motivated a party led by an associate of the Duke of Camerino, Giovanni Maria Varano, to remove the statue from Macereto down to Camerino. The Vissani however intercepted the party at the Varenesi crossing, but unfortunately the statue had been irreparably damaged during the ensuing conflict. The Bishop Bonafede of Chiusi intervened, and by 1517 he helped the presbytery of Visso to apply to have the Macereto chapel under the local government and persuaded Varano to define a borders between Camerino and Visso. Once the legal rights to the land were secure, the Vissani swiftly planned for a sanctuary to encompass the chiesetta. The Capitolo della Collegiata of Visso, who previously administered the chiesetta, was entrusted to raise funds from three sources: funds came from income earned from the land that was already owned by the sanctuary, the money from the four collection boxes placed in the church made up the second part and the third section comprised donations and gifts that were streaming in from outside the church itself. As soon as it was known that there was to be a marvellous sanctuary built, the local population began donating great sums of money to the project. Naturally most of the money came from the wealthiest members of society. This was philanthropy of the type that saw huge construction projects paid for by mill owners and the heads of industry in England during the Industrial Revolution. Connected with The Church, these donations assuaged the guilt perhaps felt by the very rich who were making a great deal of money from the sweat of the workers. In this case, the donations were carried along on the “fiume delle lane” (Don Sante Deuteri - interview) that had brought huge wealth to the landlords of the region in the way that the wool trade enriched the English landlords, too.
“Such an ambitious project took shape in the minds full of good will of the most influential people of Visso, considering the serious amounts of money that were left after pilgrimages and some special donations from devout rich people, like the one given in 1524 by Cristoforo Pierangel from Ussita, dead near the sanctuary where he had gone in ill health” (Venanzangeli p31). In his will he named the church at Macereto as universal heir to his fortunes “with powers to sell them in order to build”. (ibid p31) By the 1520’s there were so many donations coming in that it was said, “there were no wills done that would not leave something towards the construction of that church” (Pirri, p39) The Collegiata administered the funds until 1562 when irregularities were spotted in the accounts and it was noted, “apparently in good will, 47 scudi coming from Macereto were spent to buy a new floor in Santa Maria of Visso.” (Venanzangeli). The Priori of Visso were then given the administration responsibilities and they in turn would report to the Collegiata.
On the 26th September 1586 Pope Sixtus V issued a document that made the situation official through a “transaction that took place on 12th December 1583 between Church and Community leaders of Visso…Amongst other things, the way that the expenses towards the maintenance of the church people in service in Macereto were dealt with, their rights and duties, the responsibilities of the Priori for all expenses – which they could not authorize without orders and planning from the architects, failure to do so would have resulted in them being held responsible with their own belongings – all came under strict regulations.” (Venanzangeli p32)
In 1527 the Collegiata and the Commune of Visso reached an agreement to commission the sanctuary. Master Gian Battista da Bissone, who had recently designed and built the Palazzo Ottoni (1452) and the Palazzo Piersanti in nearby Matelica, was chosen. Also involved was Master Filippo Salvi from Meli (near Bissone) who had worked on the Santa Maria della Consolazione at Todi. Another theory is that the original design for the sanctuary was by Donato Bramante, who was particularly attached to circular symmetrically proportioned churches.
The odd thing is that these ideas were not embraced by the architects of the time (with respect to the concept of centrally planned churches) for another fifty years and two of the main protagonists of this had worked shoulder to shoulder in Lombardy, which is where the architects who were known to have worked at Macereto had come from. It is likely too, that Bramante, Salvi and Gian Battista da Lugano all left Lombardy at about the same time either fleeing from or banned by the army of Louis XII of France.
The facts are that when Bramante went to Milan in 1480, where he first applied his techniques he worked on the same plot as one of the greatest artist/theorists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. They were both employed by the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Bramante on the dome and Leonardo next door in the refectory of the monastery, painting his Last Supper. “We can only assume that their meetings were frequent and productive. One can only imagine how, over a few years, both Leonardo and Bramante – foreigners and equally attracted by the theme of the centralized church – had much to question and discuss.” (Rowe & Satkowski p14) Although Leonardo was never to design or construct a single building he drew numerous sketches in which the concept was explored (fig). His theory being a continuation of the Albertian model in which everything should work in harmony with everything else. “By 1490, structures not unlike those of Bramante’s St. Peter’s or Santa Maria della Consolazione at Todi had appeared amongst Leonardo’s sketches.” (Bruschi p44)
The pragmatics of actually building this perfectly symmetrical construction tends to come up against a simple problem of cost. Presuming that the architects and commissioners had come to an agreement about the placement of the altar and other problems that centrally planned churches bring up, the absolute perfection of a building could be compromised by the question of where to put the campanile. In Bramante’s Tempietto such a dilemma would not have been as issue as this building did not require one, in St Peter’s Basilica, cost was not an issue, so it could have a campanile at each ‘corner’ (which was Leonardo’s vision, see fig). The clearest illustration of an attempt to deal with the campanile question in a church outside Rome is the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Consolazione at Todi which in fact is not even clearly attributed to Bramante, although Bruschi does list references to Bramante in connection with it.
“Typically understood as a simplification of his plan for St Peter’s, there is evidence for Bramante’s participation in its design at some level. The design, after all, has much in common with the Leonardesque themes that Bramante brought with him from Milan. Above all, the Consolazione’s pristine combination of cube, drum, dome and apses shows its origins in the sketches by Leonardo that were central to his development as an artist (fig)…Though in most respects the ideas of Bramante are undeniably present, the flaccid orders on the exterior of this otherwise impressive church suggests that he may not have participated directly in its execution” (Ibid p44-45)
The connection between the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Consolazione and that at Macereto is evident in architectural details and motifs. As at Todi, the Macereto sanctuary is centrally planned, built on a Greek cross system within an octagonal drum. Todi was also built to house a relic that would have been placed in a small chapel beneath the central dome as at Macereto. The architect who had worked on both buildings was Master Filippo Salvi da Meli who worked with Gian Battista da Lugano and it was Gian Battista who remained in charge of the construction until his untimely death in 1539 when he fell from a scaffold whilst completing the arches of the temple. Bramante’s influence is everywhere and most people writing about the sanctuary mention him at some point, even if only to say that the building is Bramantesque. In his The temple of the Madonna of Macereto. Malpeli claims “the temple of Macereto was heavily influenced by Bramante, especially in the decorative vibrations which were very particular. This is why we were allowed to say that the monument is of a Bramantesque style. The paternity of the temple has to be given to the architect Battista Lugano, especially for the general idea and the more constructive part, which was getting away from the minimalism that is found in Bramante’s work.” (Malpeli p37). The exterior walls of the sanctuary are imposing and almost entirely undecorated. There are three great, classically inspired doors with pedimented arches decorated with columns with Doric capitols. Unadorned white stone walls rise to the cornice that is also simply decorated with Corinthian columns. The outside of the building remains unfinished as work had to be stopped in 1566 when the builders discovered that the ground would not support the external dome or a campanile . It is the interior however, that bears such a striking resemblance to the interiors of both Santa Maria della Consolazione and Santa Maria at Loreto.
All three buildings have as their main theme a great dome under which is positioned the sacred image. In the case of the Santa Maria della Consolazione, the image has ended up in one of the semicircular apses, but it is this church that has the architectonic connections with the sanctuary of Macereto. Four main pillars that are connected by great arches, which are decorated identically, support the central dome . The arches are decorated with coffers with rosettes. Both churches have the same decorations and it is this style that links the Todi and Macereto sanctuaries, pointed out by most commentators (fig). It would have been Master Filippo Salvi, working on both projects, who would have used this technique. These two great Marian sanctuaries of the cinquecento in central Italy correspond with each other because of the actual connection provided by Salvi but they were also representative of the spirit of the age. And even if it was not actually Donato Bramante who had submitted the original drawings for the buildings, it is undeniable that his presence is in both structures.
At the sanctuary in Loreto, the dome and shrine are at the eastern end of a conventional church built in the oblong model of the basilica. But once one comes to the focus of the church, the tiny capella that houses the Santa Casa, the relationship between this and the sanctuary at Macereto is very clear. The ‘original’ home of the Virgin Mary was transported first from Galilee to Dalmatia and then, in 1294 across to the bandit-infested laurel grove above Porto Recanati, hence the name ‘Loreto’. It would not be until about two hundred years later, in 1507 that the Church approved of Loreto as a place of pilgrimage and the work began, which was around the same time as the construction of the sanctuaries of both Todi and Macereto.
Whilst it is apparent that more money came to Loreto and so the Santa Casa is visibly more splendid, the decoration of the inner chapels are very similar and it is generally agreed that the chiesetta at Macereto echoes that of Loreto . A simple white stone and marble rectangular shell surrounds the original building that contains the image.
It was Bramante who had handed in the original designs for the shrine at Loreto but had had very little to do with it after that, the job having been taken on by the great medal designer Gian Cristoforo Romano, Andrea Sansovino and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. It is a good example of High Renaissance Architecture, combining the elegance and simplicity of the classical lines and motifs with rich encrustations of statues and other decoration. The basic design of the Santa Casa resonates in the chiesetta at Macereto. The cornice is decorated with a simple Greek key design, below which hang swags. The columns, in bas-relief at Macereto are lighter and more minimal than the pomp and splendour of those at Loreto. Where the statues of the prophets seated around the lower level of the shrine at Loreto (highly reminiscent of Michelangelo’s prophets in the Medici tomb in Florence) are, at Macereto there are empty niches. Whether there were plans to install any statues is not known. The outer walls of the Santa Casa are covered with relief work, statues and other decoration, there is very little empty space, as if the three artists commissioned to complete the building could not resist making yet another addition. As a result it comes across as being rather overloaded in contrast to the delicate simplicity of Macereto’s chiesetta.
If we work on the assumption that the sanctuary at Macereto was one of the officially recognised stop-overs on one of the major pilgrimage routes to Loreto it is tempting to view the construction of the chiesetta as being something that would not only connect the two sanctuaries by visible association but also serve to keep the pilgrims minded of their eventual destination. The architectural motifs and style of the two - churches-within-churches - are rare and bear such a striking resemblance to one another that with the suggestion that Donato Bramante may have had a hand in the design of both. At some stage, it would hint that there is more to connect them than the fact that they are both Marian shrines. Added to this is the fact that both the Todi and Macereto sanctuaries are centrally planned ‘temples’ that are very much in the style of Bramante and that quite apart from the murmurings of art historians about the connection between the two buildings, the stylistic signatures are plain to see. The three churches were built in the High Renaissance, a time when The Church was eager to convince a population shaken by the steady drip of the Reformation that there was only one true Church. They share the same language and all reflect elements of the mother of all churches, the great basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome, designed by Donato Bramante (too). The connection between the sanctuaries at Macereto and Todi is also clear in the documents and also the treatment of other architectural details , I have used this to indicate the link between the architects, with Filippo Salvi as the ‘go-between’ for Bramante. The importance of this sanctuary and perhaps the reason why it was valued so highly was that it contained the holy statue, a physical representation of a miracle that in turn stood for the victory of one powerful and rich merchant town over its more ancient and venerable neighbour.