Statue of the Madonna Maria della Sorresca, Sabaudia, Italy

By Leslina Fanelli

On sultry summer days, when the sky is silver blue, the profile of the enchantress Circe, her face in repose, appears discernable along the skyline. This ancient volcanic island now connected to the mainland rises from the Tyrrhenian Sea just 80 kilometres south of Rome. Its peaks evoke subconscious images of the mythical Atlantis materialising from vaporous depths.

Circe’s island rising from the mists of the nearby town of Sabaudia, in the province of Latina, Italy

In Homer’s Odyssey, the sexy sorceress bewitched the hero and turned his men into pigs in order to keep him for herself. A sea-cave − reachable only by boat was her abode. Most of Circe’s promontory is now a national park full of fragrant vegetation, nature trails and springs. The most well-known one is 2000 years old and still flowing: Lucullo− a rich Roman nobleman, built his villa beside a font famed for its curative powers. Circe’s summit offers sweeping 360 degree views of the surrounding lakes, deep ochre dunes on the seaside and the Pontine islands on the horizon. Large square boulders, remnants of a “Cyclopic” wall litter the top − megalithic remains of a lost city. “Circeo”, the local designation, is a place of spirituality and ambiance. I have ventured here in pursuit of connections to antiquity, the Templars and an enigmatic Madonna.

I drive up a winding narrow road studded on both sides by sumptuous villas whose owners appear rarely these days. Popular in the sixties and seventies with ritzy Romans, Circeo now breathes quietly. Glimpses of celebrities still excite − Francesco Totti, the famous striker from AS Roma club, reportedly bought gelato in one of the trendy cafes last summer.

The historic centre is compact and a small rectangular piazza reveals cafes with whitewashed walls tethered with cerise bougainvillea. Business owners languidly set up tables and serve aromatic espresso to early-risers. At 10 am the square remains drowsy, maintaining its reputation as a former late night haunt.

Square in the historic centre of San Felice, Italy

A well-equipped information centre welcomes visitors and a tiny museum showcases archeological finds and cultural items discovered in the area.

I locate the Knights Templar exhibition hiding in a cloister adjoining San Felice’s church – its namesake a medieval martyr from the Middle East and patron saint of the town. This display details the history and movements of the brotherhood in the area.

In 1211, on their return from the Crusades, a group settled in Circeo. The strategic position was chosen as a stronghold not only against Muslim invaders but as a defense against Saracen pirates and enemies of the papacy.

They fortified the summit of the promontory and expanded their territory in the surroundings. A solid medieval tower with a scalloped battlement salutes the square, bearing witness to the presence of the Knights.

Daniela Cortiglia and Luca Bellincioni, local researchers of arcane sites in Lazio, confirm the presence of puzzling Templar glyphs inside the monastery attached to this fortification. Their 2006 publication, Lazio: I luoghi del mistero e dell’ insolito (Unusual and Mysterious places in Lazio), devotes a section to clandestine secrets of the Circeo precinct.

Templar Tower (clock-side), San Felice, Italy

The Knights Templar perpetuated a particular devotion to Mother Mary. For this reason they acquired the Sorresca Shrine in Sabaudia from the Basilian friars and occupied it for 40 years until their demise in 1314. Only 10 kilometres from San Felice, Sabaudia sprung from the swampland bordering Lake Paola in 1929.

Large boulevards, spiky fan palms and outdoor cafes characterise the town today. It attracts an up-market crowd due to golden sand dunes fringing wide beaches just past the lake.

The sizeable Church of the Annunziata was built under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. It faces the main piazza and displays a large exterior mosaic with an image of Il Duce holding an armful of wheat. This sheaf symbolises the fascist party. His campaign to drain coastal swamps and reclaim acres of farmland aimed to produce a nation self-sufficient in wheat − eliminating the malaria prowling Rome’s doorstep.

Church of Santa Maria della Sorresca, Sabaudia, Italy
Side view of the Church of Santa Maria della Sorresca, Sabaudia, Italy

I stop at Caffe Centrale for a caffeine hit of Illy espresso and a hazelnut gelato and then drive two kilometres north from downtown following the lake. I park my car under shady eucalyptus trees and stroll past blackberry patches to the Madonna of the Sorresca− a site of devotion to Mother Mary since the 5th to 6th centuries.

Dusky pink oleanders border a courtyard paved with crunchy gravel. Sleek poplars sway and water ripples quietly in the lagoon. The church here is a small, humble stone structure, washed in terracotta tones. I open the wooden door and cross the threshold thoughtfully.

The interior is imbued with a singular energy. Mostly unadorned, a wooden effigy of the Madonna beckons visitors on the altar’s left. This figurine emanates a sweet serenity, which saturates my being and sustains my gaze. Crudely carved but vividly coloured, her gown is cobalt blue, her shawl orange, and her right hand is outstretched. She cradles a long-haired baby Jesus and both wear golden crowns.

Wooden effigy of the Madonna of Sorresca holding baby Jesus

Legend tells of a local fisherman who salvaged a Madonna -and -child image from the swamps in the 13th century. They bequeathed it to the neighbourhood church for display. A few days later, thieves stole the image but it was rematerialised in the net of its original saviours in the very same bog. Believers took this as an auspicious sign that the Madonna desired to remain at this location. A church and a pilgrims’ lodging house therefore emerged on the site of an old Roman temple. Sorresca translates as “resurfaced”− a kind of “resurrected Madonna”.

Mr Vincenzo Tassini, the current custodian of Sorresca, mentions that the statue had been in disrepair since the first part of the 20th century. In 1993 it travelled to Rome for expert restoration. Tassini describes the Madonna’s feast day, 15 days after Easter. A four-hour procession venerates her. Devotees bear the carving from the Church of San Felice up in the old town amid prayers, hymns and festivities. The celebration culminates in an outdoor mass which attracts several thousand people.

Madonna chapel in San Felice’s historic centre

Tassini unlocks the old foresteria, set slightly back from the church. Myriads of pink and white blooms frame the modest edifice. The faithful would overnight here in the Middle Ages securing their horses and sharing refreshments without fear of reprise. The Madonna would safeguard their return journey.

Foresteria (guesthouse) of Sorresca chapel

Inside I peruse silver hearts surrendered by grateful pilgrims some 60 years prior. One is from a woman whose daughter recovered from cancer. I question Tassini about Madonna’s miracles. “People believe what their hearts desire and yes, I believe our Madonna is a special presence in many lives. She manifests in diverse ways and miracles do happen.” When questioned further Tassini replies, “Locals are proud of their Madonna −she is our own. We all know the story of her discovery in the lake. She dates from Templar times −the Knights were once the custodians of this place”. The Sorresca sanctuary − rooted in antiquity, resonates with ghostly devotions and enigmatic prayers. From Circeo to Sabaudia the footsteps of the brotherhood are still subtly traceable.

Having lived under Circe’s spell on and off for the past 20 years, I look forward to her welcoming silhouette in the distance whenever I return. She has become my beacon, my protectress and my inspiration.

Rose Blessings Leslina and Vivienne xoxo

May 2022


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