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Santuario delle Grazie – Shrine of Our Lady of Grace
The sanctuary is placed in a small village called Grazie di Curtatone, on the right bank of the Mincio river; this place is the point where the river widens and turns into Lago Superiore (one of Mantua lakes).
Francesco I Gonzaga, the forth captain of Mantua, ordered the construction of this holy building, placed in a high position in order to overtop the grove of reeds and the river waters. This event happened in 1399 as a vow between people and the Holy Mary, during the plague that raged in Mantua during that time. The project was ordered to Bartolino da Novara (the author of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua and Castello Estense in Ferrara) and the new church was consecrated in 1406. The exterior part of the building is a typical gothic style of Lombardy, whereas the inner part of the church (one single nave with a polygonal shape apse) is a clear example of people’s faith; the lateral walls are covered by statues made with many materials lined up by the friars between the 16th and the 17th century. The peculiarity of the sanctuary is a stuffed crocodile hanging down the ceiling that has several symbolic meanings. Everywhere, anatomical and pictorial ex-voto. The first chapel on the right side of the church is the funeral chapel that was created by Giulio Romano and dedicated to Baldassarre Castiglione, a famous literary man (two of the epigraphs were created by Pietro Bembo). The board with the effigy of Madonna delle Grazie dated back to 15th century and painted according to the Byzantine tradition, is placed in the monumental major altar, into a 17th century rich tabernacle. The paintings are all noteworthy; as a matter of fact the works of art belong to Giuseppe Bazzani, Lorenzo Costa il Giovane, Anton Maria and Giovan Battista Viani, Francesco Bonsignori, Francesco Borgani and Lattanzio Gambara. The sanctuary kept the most important Italian armours dated back to the 15th and 16th centuriey. Some of these armours belonged to the Missaglias and were found in the 1920s; they are in the Diocesan Museum in Mantua now. The fair in Grazie di Curtatone and the national competition of the “madonnari” (street painters) take place on the church square every 15 August. The street artists paint holy images on the pavement of the square with chalks.
The Crocodile of Sanctuary in Saint Mary of Grazie
A real star of the sanctuary is a crocodile (Crocodilus niloticus) embalmed and hung from the ceiling in the center of the nave. It is a real crocodile, not a model, in its entirety, which was added to the church in the fifteenth or sixteenth century and has recently been the subject of restoration. This is not the only Italian church where you can find such a strange thing; the church of Santa Maria delle Virgin Macerata also has a crocodile hanging, probable gift from Macerata returned from the Crusades.In ancient times they were seen with promiscuity figures of dragons, crocodiles or snakes and often, in the Christian era, were associated with evil, considered personifications of earthly hell, animals that lead to sin.Related to the crocodile “of Grace” and its derivation were born many legends and theories; there are those who believe he was an escapee from the zoo of an exotic private house of Gonzaga; others believe his acquisition was of a more miraculous nature: two boatmen brothers were resting on the bank of the river when all of a sudden one of them was attacked by a crocodile. The other, asking for God’s guidance, armed himself with a knife and was able to kill the predator.
You can find out more about the by the Santuario delle Grazie (Shrine of Our Lady of Grace) by clicking HERE