In 1557 a peasant stopped atop Montallegro to rest as he made his way over the steep mountain from Rapallo to Canevale. He drifted off to sleep, but shortly was awakened by a sweet voice calling his name.
Imagine his surprise when he awoke and saw the Virgin Mary, surrounded by glory and cherubim, with her dainty feet resting on a nearby rock! She greeted him kindly, waited til he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, introduced herself as the Mother of God, and then pointed to a small ikon resting against the rock. She told the peasant that angels had transported the ikon from Greece and that it should be left there as a gift to the Rapallesi, whom she loved. She further instructed him to tell the people of Rapallo that she desired to be honored at this very spot.
The naughty fellow tried to remove the ikon from the rock himself. Being unable to, he returned to Rapallo and fetched the parish priest who went with him to the mountain top along with some other Rapallesi. There they found the first miracle ascribed to the ikon and the appearance of the Virgin: a spring of clear, fresh water was flowing from the rock upon which she had rested her feet. People who knew the area well attested that there had never before been a spring there.
The priest was able to remove the ikon from the rock and carried it carefully down to his church where he put it in a safe place. His plan was to place it on the altar the next morning so that all could come and marvel. Well. The next morning, the ikon was gone.
You can probably guess where it was: back up at the rock, next to the spring. The priest returned it to his church again, this time locking it up in a chest. Ha! Again, it mysteriously returned to the rock. At this point all agreed that the Blessed Mother wasn’t kidding when she said she wanted the picture to remain on the mountain top.
As time went by the spring provided one miraculous cure after another. Also, all rancor and quarrelsomeness disappeared from Rapallo and everyone was getting along famously; this previously unknown felicity was attributed to the love the Virgin had shown the Rapellesi when she brought them the ikon. The Rapallesi decided to build a church in honor of the Virgin and her miraculous appearance as well as to house the source of their good fortune, and in 1559 the church at Montallegro was consecrated. As word of the many miracles associated with the spring spread, Montallegro became a pilgrim church and a center of great devotion.
It would be a fine story if it ended there, but wait! There’s more! Seventeen years later a Greek ship from Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) foundered while crossing the Gulf of Tigullio. Her captain vowed that if his ship was saved he and his crew would go on a barefoot pilgrimmage to thank the Blessed Virgin.
They were able to make shore at Rapallo and immediately asked where they should go; they were, of course, directed to Montallegro and the church there dedicated to the Virgin. The captain and his crew were stunned when they walked into the church: there on the altar was the very ikon that had disappeared from their own church in Raguso some seventeen years prior. They wanted it back; the Rapellesi didn’t wish to lose it.
The dispute was taken to a judge in Genova who decided in favor of the Ragusans. I know! I would never have imagined that outcome either. In the meantime the damaged ship from Ragusa had been repaired, so, with heavy hearts and tearful eyes the Rapallesi in a long procession carried the ikon from Montallegro to the waiting vessel.
The captain had built a special cabinet to house the ikon, and he locked it safely away before they set sail. As his ship rounded the tip of Portofino he decided he’d better make sure his precious cargo was riding well. Guess what. It wasn’t there. Guess where it was. You’re right! It was back at the church at Montallegro.
The Captain realized that he was dealing with a higher authority than the judge at Genova, so he wisely made a gift of the ikon to the people of Rapallo.
Since then, the story goes, “innumberable miracles have occurred at Montallegro. In 1656-1657 Rapallo remained free from the plague which in Genoa (18 miles away) claimed the lives of 18,000 of its 20,000 inhabitants.” Likewise, Rapallo escaped the ravages of the cholera epidemic which struck in 1835.
The Church at Montallegro is full of ex voto, the silver hearts nestled in velvet lined frames, given in thanks for divine intervention and salvation from sure disaster. There is also a large collection of paintings, drawings and photographs which show various narrow escapes – lots of wrecks at sea, car and plane accidents, and a delightful tryptich that illustrates a terrible horse and carriage mishap.
And what of the ikon? It is still there, tiny above the elaborate altar. (There is a side chapel where water from the sacred spring flows.) Here is what the guide books says about the ikon:
Montallegro’s ikon is of Byzantine origin. After studying it one realizes that the artist‘s first aim was to compress a great teaching into a small space. The ikon is painted on a wooden panel of Setim wood. The artist has painted the “Transit” or the “Dormition” of Our lady, wrapped in a darkish cloth. Above in the center is the Blessed Trinity, three human forms merged in one. Attached to the side of the Blessed Trinity is a little feminine form which represents the soul of Our Lady…. The picture is filled with a group of Apostles and Saints, who according to tradition were present when the Blessed Virgin gave up her soul to God.”
It’s a great place to visit. There is a small gift shop which houses a 300-year-old stuffed alligator, which looks a bit like the first football ever sewn, but with teeth. You can take a funivea from downtown Rapallo, which gives a splendid view of the Gulf of Tigullio. Once there, after seeing the church, you can take a short woodsy walk along the Stations of the Cross to the old Inn (Casa del Pellegrino) which serves a pleasant lunch under the arbor outdoors. The view of the Gulf and Portofino is incomparable. You may also hike along the ridge from Montallegro to La Crocetta, the pass at the top of the mountain. The views on this walk are both of the sea on one side, and the beautiful valley of Val Fontanabuona on the other.
*”Santuario Basilica N.S. di Montallegro, Rapallo”, Arti Grafiche Marconi, Genova, Finto di stampare Luglio 1994.
Image of the ikon taken from the official Rapallo Web site.