A pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Canneto, whether by foot past Grotta Campanaro or by car past Settefrati is an essential part of a visit to this ancient land.
The Valley of Canneto lies within the Parco Nationale d’Abruzzo. It is an offshoot of Val Comino This location as a transit route has meant that the valley since pre-Roman times has held an important role in the exchange of populations on both sides of the Apennines: a role accentuated by the presence of iron mines whose exploitation began in antiquity and continued until the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1958, while investigating the source of the River Melfa (Capodacqua) the remains of a temple were found with coins and votive clay pots dating back to IV-III century BC The discovery confirmed the theory that the area occupied by the Christian shrine was in pagan times a place of worship dedicated to the goddess Mefite. This is a divinity related to water, the fertility of fields and female fertility.
According to legend, documented by Papal Bull (of Pasquale I) of 819 and again in writing in 1894 by the English Fr. Bede (who had visited the shrine during the feast) a shepherdess named Silvana, while grazing her sheep saw a splendid lady who ordered her to go to the priest at Settefrati to ask him to build a church dedicated to Our Lady. The girl refused to go at first, showing concern for her flock, which needed water, but the lady assured her and, putting her hand to the base of the rock, made a spring gush forth. Silvana, amazed by the miracle, ran to the village to tell the story and ask the villagers to go and see the miracle. The few that followed found the spring and, instead of the Lady, a statue, before which they began to pray. Not seeing them return, other villagers, worried, went to look for them, and found them still in prayer. Since the statue was beautiful, they decided not to abandon it to the weather but to take her to town. As they started the journey the statue became heavier and as they continued weighed more and more, until the carriers, exhausted by fatigue, leaned against a rock, where the statue left the imprint of its head. The rock with its imprint is still visible today, a few hundred yards from the shrine and the place is called “Head of the Madonna”.
The oldest documented church in Canneto dates from 1288: In 1475 the Cardinals Bartholomew Roverella and Giuliano della Rovere, by a bull, Deum placate, which is preserved in the ‘archives of Monte Cassino, granted an indulgence of one hundred days to the pilgrims who visited the Shrine on certain holidays, including the eighth of ‘Assumption, ie on 21-22 August. History testifes in 1574 that the festival lasted five days and in 1639 there is evidence that August 22 was its culmination.
The present church retains very little evidence of earlier times. The facade dates from the 1820’s, and the rest of the sanctuary was completely rebuilt in the 1970’s, with an architectural line that gave rise to much controversy about the devastating effect on the surroundings. Much of the architecture of the last century are preserved in the basement of the Sanctuary, including the old entrance portal with an inscription recording the rebuilding done in 1857 with the financial support of King Ferdinand II of Naples and a good collection of votive offerings.
Much older (12th or 13th Centuries) is the wooden statue of the Madonna covered more recently by a blanket of silk embroidered in gold and crowned with a golden crown. The Child Jesus is held on her left.
The pilgrimage to the shrine of Canneto takes place throughout the summer months, and reaches its climax in August. On 18 August a reproduction of the statue is carried in procession from the shrine at Settefrati, returning on 22. Apart from individual visits, the faithful, by ancient tradition, come to Canneto organized into “companies”, preceded by their banners. Recently the pilgrimage on foot has experienced a revival, especially among the young. On the afternoon of August 21 all the companies present in a grand parade procession of the Eucharist which goes to the source of Melfa. Many used to do the last few yards on their knees (and many more the whole journey on bare foot), and when they left the church, walk backwards to not turn their backs to the Virgin. Other customs included the search for “Stelluccia” or stars of the Madonna at the source of Capodacqua, which were said to be particles of the Lady’s ring left from contact with the rock when the spring was created, and, of course, by standing in the water and reciting the Pater Noster, Ave Maria and Gloria while holding hands.