Ten years ago, the people of Corte Sarasina did not have many Americans living among them, so I was kind of a novelty. They were friendly, warm, good-hearted people.They spoke Venetian dialect, not Italian. I didn't speak a word of Italian, let alone Venetian, but somehow we managed to communicate with our hearts.
Every afternoon the old women would put their chairs out in the corte, do their lace work, and chat -- their lace-making style was different than Burano because they were from Pellestrina. They took good care of me. Once I decided to wash my sheets. I asked my neighbor if I could use her laundry line. Since it was a ground floor apartment, you had to hang the laundry with clothes pins, then sort of hoist it like a sail. Well, I couldn't hoist it up, and blocked the entire corte. The old women came and took my laundry away from me, and told me to go away -- I had an appointment close to Piazza San Marco. You have to understand that even though it's only about 15 minutes by foot from Via Garibaldi to Piazza San Marco, some people in Castello haven't been to San Marco for thirty years. So, to them, I was going on this great adventure. While I was up there, I bought them a box of chocolate to thank them.
When I got back to Corte Sarasina, all my laundry was flying from their windows! It was a sight to behold. They had divided it up and shared their laundry lines. (That image you see is not Corte Sarasina, but it looked sort of like that.) After it was dried and neatly folded, they sent over a representative, Rosie, to deliver it. I offered the chocolates, but Rosie refused. Then five minutes later she was sent back to get the chocolates. You can just imagine that conversation: "What? You didn't take the chocolates? Get your butt back over there and get them."
Next, I saw Rosie sitting out with the others, making something new out of lace. I asked her what it was, and she went on and on in Venetian dialect. Of course, I had no idea what she said. I thought, "She's either making a gift for her granddaughter's First Holy Communion, or a fish." It turned out that she was making a gondolier rowing a gondola for ME!!! I am looking at it right now, and if I had a camera (which I promise I will buy), I'd take a photo of it and show you. It's one most precious gifts I've ever received.
The very first article I wrote for the International Herald Tribune's Italy Daily was about this Miracle Madonna of Corte Sarasina -- in fact, it's how I got the job. I did a quick search to see if there are any images of the Miracle Madonna available, and it turns out that there are! All the images you see here (except the clothesline) are from a blog by a woman named Anne called, "Churches in Venice," and can be found at: http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/annienc/2008/01/corte_de_casarasina_shrine.html
Apparently Anne wants to know what's up with this shrine, too. Since I own all my copyrights, I'll post what I wrote (with a little editing) back on Friday, January 12, 2001. (But I did NOT write that headline:) So, let's take a little trip into the past...
Cocktails and Prayers Answered in Venice
The Castello Neighborhood Holds a Mystical Madonna, a Mystifying Accent and a Proud, Venetian Apertif
Tucked away in a quiet section of Venice, there is a Byzantine Madonna who answers prayers, or so the story goes. She's been gazing down on Corte de Cà Sarasina for centuries, dating back to the beginning of the 1600s.
Corte Sarasina is off Via Garibaldi in the Castello district of Venice. It's one of the few remaining neighborhoods where Venetians outnumber the tourists. Every morning, locals scramble to buy fresh fruit and vegetables frrom a boat docked in the canal at Fondamenta Sant'Anna, and haggle over fish at the little market at the entrance to the Public Gardens.
Back in 1807, Via Garibaldi was transformed into a rio terra, a canal that was filled in and turned into a street, by Napoleon's invading forces. On the right-hand corner, at No. 1643, there is an inscription commemorating the home of the famous navigator, Giovanni Caboto, otherwise known as John Cabot. This where Via Garibaldi -- and a whole other Venice -- begins.
Castello is a working-class community, originally inhabited by fisherman, shipbuilders and lace-makers. Laundry flaps across the calli and the canals. Men gather around newsstands; mothers promenade with their babies, stopping to chat and coo.
A fun place to eat on this colorful boulevard is Trattoria Giorgione, on the right side of the street. Lucio Bisutto serenades his customers with Venetian folk songs while his wife, Ivana, cooks some of the best fish, risotto and vongole in town. A little further down on the left is Bar Mio where patrons sit outside and have a spritz, a drink rarely ordered outside Venice. It's usually sipped during lunch or after work at around 7 P.M., but is available anytime, especially for those on vacation.
There are at least three kinds: "spritz con Select," "sprintz con Aperol" or "spritz con bitter." The spritz con bitter consists of white wine, Campari and a "spritz" of soda water. Those who prefer a sweeter drink ask for Aperol. A spritz con Select (the accent lies on the first syllable) is sweeter still. Any self-respecting spritz arrives accompanied by a cube or two of ice, an olive, and a lemon or orange peel, together with a little bowl of chips or nuts.
Stumbling on the scene, Corte Sarasina would seem inhabited mostly by elderly women who spend warmer afternoons sitting outside on folding chairs, chatting and stitching lace. They speak Venetian with a thick Castello accent, the same undulating rhythm as the water lapping in the lagoon. "Rosie" is the ringleader, and she is in charge of the wish-granting Madonna, tending to the fresh and artificial flowers around it and straightening the altar.
A wood painting protected by a sheet of glass, the Madonna of Corte Sarasina greets the faithful from inside a grande sacello, a small brick and plaster structure with a typical Venetian red tile roof. On her head is a crown imbedded with imitation gemstones. A strand of white beads dangles around her face. She is surrounded by statues of Jesus and various saints, the plaster type found in a mortuary store.
Every morning, Rosie shuffles out of her apartment a few doors away and unlocks the shrine. The Madonna is open all day from 8 A.M. to 7P.M., seven days a week, although at lunch time the Madonna takes a nap like most of the folks in Garibaldi. If you arrive during lunch time, visitors need only unhook the little chain that latches the double green doors, swing them open, say a prayer, deposit their lire and close her back up. There is a small wooden box on the inside of the left-hand door to make contributions. A suggested donation is 1,000 lire (one euro by 2008 standards:), which goes to purchasing fresh flowers and maintaining the sanctuary.
No one knows who created this peculiar Madonna, but many believe it was the work of a madonnaro, or street artist from the early 1600s, and was a traditional way for the living to remember the dead. To this day, she is very much a part of the local community.
About a year ago, the locals took it upon themselves to restore the shrine. Lino Scarpa, a friendly, wise fellow, said the elderly women of Corte Sarasina begged him to do the restoration. "I repainted the doors, the statues, added some color to the lips, that sort of thing," he said.
Amazingly, many of the locals say they haven't made the trip from the Castello district to Piazza San Marco in years, even though it's only a 15 minute walk away. "Everything a person needs is down here on Garibaldi," Mr. Scarpa said. "Fish, vegetables, good places to eat, good bars, good people. The gardens are here, the lagoon is here. The sea is a quick boat trip away."
So, there you have it. It's the work of a street artist, maintained by the locals. Sometimes I've wondered whether one of the major restoration groups around town should restore her, but she might loose some of her magic.
Many times aspiring writers ask me for advice. I'll tell you my secret -- all you have to do become a published author is give the Miracle Madonna of Corte Sarasina one euro, and you're on your way.
Ciao from Venice,