By Andrea Romano
August 26, 2019
St. Peter's Church illuminated by candles for Madonna Bianca.
Chiara Goia

Every year in August, a village in northwestern Italy lights up the night sky with 2,000 Roman torches.

The Madonna Bianca festival in Portovenere, Italy happens every year on Aug. 17, and it’s an evening of beauty, light, and music in honor of the village’s patron saint. But what exactly is this ceremony, and why has it endured for hundreds of years? The answer lies deep in Italian culture and Roman Catholic faith.

Saint Peter's Church in Porto Venere, before candles are lit for Madonna Bianca,
Chiara Goia

The Origins of Madonna Bianca

The story of Madonna Bianca begins on Aug. 16, 1399, when the entire region of Portovenere was under French occupation and was suffering from the plague, according to Discover Portovenere. During this time, a local pious man known only as Lucciardo knelt in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary to pray for his village. During this time, Lucciardo is said to have looked up to see this painting suddenly light up in a bright, white light — which is why it is now called the "White Madonna," or Madonna Bianca. According to Do In Italy, some accounts say the image even started to move and its colors became more vibrant. After he witnessed this sacred event, the plague practically vanished from Portovenere, and Lucciardo considered this to be a miracle.

According to Discover Portovenere, the painting itself was a weathered, faded, hand-drawn piece of parchment depicting Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, holding an infant Jesus on her lap and clasping her hands in prayer. It is said that the painting washed ashore in Portovenere nearly 200 years prior, in 1204, in a cedar trunk that came from a ship from Lebanon, according to La Giara del Centro.

After Lucciardo’s miracle, the painting was moved to the Church of San Lorenzo where it is still on display today.

Madonna Bianca Festival

Sunset at the edge of the Old Town in Porto Venere, Italy.
Chiara Goia

Today, thousands of worshippers turn out to celebrate this miraculous happening almost to the day. Every year on Aug. 17, there are many religious ceremonies held during the day, according to La Giara del Centro. At night, however, the real celebration begins.

View of the Old Town of Porto Venere, lit with candles for Madonna Bianca.
Chiara Goia

Around sunset, the village is filled with devotees for a large procession that runs through the village’s narrow streets, mainly between Bryon’s Grotto and the rocks of Punta San Pietro, passing by the Church of San Lorenzo where the original painting is kept. During the procession, people sing devotional songs, carry candles and lights, decorate the streets with flowers, and a select few carry a statue tributary of the White Madonna herself.

Of course, the entire procession is kicked off with a Holy Mass. According to Italyscapes, this year, the mass began at 8:30 p.m. local time, and the procession immediately began afterward around 9:15 p.m. The 2,000 lights along the shore of this sleepy fishing village perfectly light up the ocean below, which is a truly stunning and one-of-a-kind sight to behold.

Getting to Portovenere

Summer is usually the peak season for ferries between Cinque Terre and Portovenere, but it’s by far the best way to get to the village since there are no direct ways there. Your best bet instead is to stay in one of the towns of Cinque Terre and travel over for the festival. Most ferries will be hop-on, hop-off and cost €30, with discounts for children. There are updated timetables available online, but you can generally assume boats will be departing between increments of 40 minutes to one hour. So, if you miss a boat, you can just wait a little while for the next one.

There are also several hotels in Portovenere if you’d rather wait for a boat in the morning. Trip Advisor has many recommendations for accommodations that work best for you and your budget.

Walking through the streets of Porto Venere, Italy during the Madonna Bianca celebrations.
Chiara Goia

Whether you’re religious or not, this fabulous festival of lights that happens every summer is surely an experience you’ll want on your bucket list.

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