It was, of course, slightly ironic that we visited the sanctuary of the Madonna della Corona in the middle of the Coronavirus disease pandemic. However, the word ‘corona’ has no relation whatsoever with the disease, nor with the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ was forced to wear (for which one should visit a famous church in Vicenza). In this case ‘corona’ simply means ‘peak’ and refers to the fact that the sanctuary was built at an altitude of 774 metres above sea level against a side of the Monte Baldo. The sanctuary can only be reached by foot. Visitors can choose between two possible routes. The first is the old pilgrim’s trail from Brentino Belluno in the valley. The trail is just 2.5 kilometres long, but it is very challenging nonetheless (as pilgrim’s trails should be). Alternatively, one can drive to Spiazzi, situated above the Madonna della Corona, and then descend from there by foot. This is a walk of 10-15 minutes, but keep in mind that afterwards you have to go up again. As we were on holiday, and holidays are supposed to be fun, we opted for the second route.
The history of the sanctuary goes back about a thousand years. As early as the eleventh century there were hermits living on the slopes of Monte Baldo that had ties to the abbey of San Zeno in Verona. In the thirteenth century a chapel dedicated to Santa Maria di Monte Baldo was built against the mountain. In 1437 this chapel was acquired by the Knights of the Order of Saint John, at the time also known as the Knights of Rhodes, after the island where they had established their headquarters. After Rhodes was captured by the Turks in 1522, the knights moved to Malta. Between 1490 and 1521 they converted the chapel into a proper church that measured 18 by 7 metres. Inside the church a statuette was set up that had been made in 1432 by order of a certain Lodovico Castelbarco from Rovereto. It was this statuette that was later venerated as the Madonna della Corona. There are other traditions with regard to the statuette as well, but these are a lot less credible. According to one tradition, an angel brought back the Madonna from Rhodes to Monte Baldo when the Greek island was taken by the Turks.
The Knights of – by now – Malta built a new and much larger church on top of the old one between 1625 and 1685. As a consequence, the new church rises 4-5 metres higher than the old one. Since the seventeenth century it is officially known as the sanctuary of the Madonna della Corona. It became an ever more popular destination for pilgrims, and so the decision was taken to add a hospice to allow pilgrims to stay overnight. The emblem of the knights, a Maltese cross, can still be seen above the main entrance, although they lost control of the sanctuary in 1806. The church façade, built in the Neogothic style, dates from 1899, and between 1921 and 1922 the bell-tower, which reaches a height of 33 metres, was rebuilt. Also in 1922, a tunnel was drilled through the Monte Baldo, which gave pilgrims and other visitors easier access to the sanctuary. The last great restorations took place between 1975 and 1978. The cherry on the cake was the fact that the sanctuary was granted the status of a minor basilica in 1982.
We had just visited the town of Torri del Benaco on the shore of Lake Garda and decided to drive to Spiazzi from there. The descent to the sanctuary was quite easy and was made all the more pleasant by the truly splendid views. The road has furthermore been embellished with fourteen stations of the cross that depict Christ’s suffering. The bronze statues are the work of the modern sculptor Raffaele Bonente, while the façade of the church has been decorated with statues by Ugo Zannoni (1836-1919). On either side of the rose window we see Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Mary Magdalene. The Madonna della Corona is a very popular sanctuary, so expect a mass to be going on when you visit. Photography inside the church is not appreciated, so we abstained from that. The images on Wikimedia Commons give a good impression of the interior of the church.
What makes the interior of the church so impressive is the fact that both the left wall and the apse wall are in fact solid rock. In the apse we find the famous Madonna della Corona, Lodovico Castelbarco’s 1432 statuette. Outside, the terrace in front of the church offers another panoramic view across the Veneto. Down below, in the middle of green fields and densely forested ridges, lies the A22 motorway. Also known as the Autostrada del Brennero, it stretches for over 300 kilometres, from the Austrian border to the city of Modena in the Emilia-Romagna. The view truly invigorated us, and gave us enough energy to climb up again to Spiazzi, where we had left our car.
Further reading: Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda. Een meer vol verhalen, p. 150-151 (in Dutch) and website of the Madonna della Corona (in English).