The origins of the Sanctuary date to the Pentecost of 1345 when, according to tradition, a poor, crippled shepherd happened upon the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. Following his intuition he took it up to the hill of Montenero, at that time known as a refuge for bandits: a “devil’s mountain”.
Regardless of the various legends that surround the story of finding the icon of the Madonna – which art critics attribute to Iacopo di Michele detto Gera – it would seem that this icon appeared in Montenero following a revival of religious fervour, around 1341. That year, the residents of Livorno, back then little more than a fishing village, were organizing the independent worship of sacred images, painted recently. However, the event was blocked by the religious authorities, which ordered an end to that form of veneration and the removal of icons. It may have been the case that, due to this hostility, the image was hidden and later found again close to the Ardenzo river bed.
The fame of the miraculous image soon spread due to the numerous graces offered to the Holy Virgin. Pilgrimages began and, with them, the donations increased to the little oratory housing the Madonna. In 1380 work began to expand the chapel and the rooms used to accommodate the pilgrims. The first guardians of the sanctuary, almost certainly the Third Order, were followed by the safekeeping of the Jesuati (from 1442 to 1668) and the Theatines (from 1668 to 1792), at that time deemed the best placed to fulfil the service at the Sanctuary. In 1720, the Theatines began work to extend the building, which ended in 1774.
At that time, the Madonna of Montenero carried out a few miracles for the city. In 1742, when Livorno was struck by a violent earthquake and was once more saved by the image of its protector saint, which was taken into the city and place in front of the collegiate church. In Livorno that miracle has never been forgotten: every year local residents remain steadfast to the vote “to fast the entire day of January 27, not to dance nor to wear costumes, and to attend the yearly mass of thanksgiving at the church”. In 1792, the Sanctuary was entrusted to the Benedictine Vallombrosan monks, who are currently the custodians.
[For more information: www.santuariomontenero.org/]