The sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Letizie is the church that houses the statue of the Madonna delle Grazie. The current building was built between 1984 and 1986 after the old church, similar to the one now present, was destroyed in the bombing of January 31, 1944, during the clashes of the Second World War.
The church has two naves, one central and wider, in front of the main altar, and one, smaller and located to the left of the entrance, in front of the chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie. Above the main altar there is a large wooden crucifix, purchased in 2019, and positioned on site after the triptych of the artist from Valmontone Piero Casentini – depicting, in the center, the Madonna delle Grazie dressed up and, on the sides, the tradition of the discovery and an imaginary procession – it was moved, from the apse, to the chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie, also as a custody of the venerated statue. In fact, the central altarpiece of the triptych closes the niche in which the statue of the Madonna delle Grazie is placed, which is publicly exhibited for worship only during the may and september celebrations.
The history of the sanctuary
Santa Maria delle Letizie was the first church built in our territory. The first mention is from 1182, although the many historical artifacts found – columns, mosaics and plutei – testify that its construction date is certainly prior to the eleventh century. The latest research carried out places, in fact, the construction of a first building between the eighth and twelfth centuries. A bull of Pope John XXII, dated 1329, mentions, among other churches, an archipresbiter of Santa Maria prope Montefortinum, an evident sign that at that time the Church was a collegiate, that is, held by a regular college of canons.
Among the hypotheses, suggestive, but never definitively confirmed, one tells that the Church was built on the ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Juno, so much so that the title of Madonna delle Letizie derives precisely from the goddess Juno who, in classical iconography, it would resemble the image of the Vergine delle Letizie.
The Church is located on a plateau at 495 m. a.s.l., today occupies an isolated position with respect to the contemporary town, but at the time of construction the building was largely surrounded by houses that made up the first nucleus of the community then known as Montefortino.
Until the sixteenth century the Church remained an important point for the Community of Montefortino, but in that century Stefano Serangeli describes it as a place out of the way with respect to the development of the city, difficult to reach because it is connected by an impervious, steeply sloping road that passed in the forest, so much so that it was also very uncomfortable to officiate the Mass.
For these reasons the canons asked for it to be demolished but the population, which was particularly linked to the Church, pushed for the Church to be restored and more lived. Camilla Borghese, authorized by Pope Alexander VII, personally took care of the restoration.
The structure of the old church is very simple. The interior is divided into two naves, a larger one which is central to the structure and a lateral one, divided from the previous one by a wall with three arches that lead to as many chapels and the sacristy. Inside the old church there were five altars. The high altar contained the seated statue of the Madonna delle Letizie, with the child equally seated on her lap. The statue was made of wood, colored, and placed in a niche decorated with ancient marbles, in which four standing Angels were sculpted. The second Altar was dedicated to the Madonna del Carmine, while the third was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The chapel that contained this altar was also known as that of the Holy Spirit. The fourth Altar was dedicated to San Giacomo Maggiore. The fifth and last Altar was immediately after the entrance to the Church, and was dedicated to San Lorenzo martyr, then it became the Altar of the Madonna delle Grazie, which was placed in the Church after it had been contained for many years in the Churches of the Convent of St. Michael the Archangel and then it was lost. Inside the same church, immediately after the entrance on the right, there was a very small chapel that had been dedicated to the Crucifix, and was without an altar.
The old church did not have its own bell tower, but a small building insisted on the roof where the bell was fixed.
The structure of the Church has undergone significant changes over the years. It was certainly restored for the first time after 1663, then in 1713, when a new chapel was built for the Blessed Virgin, Madonna delle Grazie. It was also restored in 1806, when a strong earthquake caused the roof and vault of the Chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie to collapse.
In 1944, however, the Church was completely reduced to a pile of rubble by the bloodiest bombing suffered by the city of Artena, during the Second World War. It was January 31, 1944, at two in the afternoon the allied Liberators dropped a large amount of bombs on the city, hitting the Church of Santa Maria in full. Inside the building, priests, fratini and civilians had taken refuge: they all died!
In place of the church, after two years, a small chapel was built only to contain the Sacred Image of the Madonna delle Grazie which had remained unharmed after the bombing. The statue of the Virgin of Joy, however, was destroyed.
For the reconstruction of the Church it was necessary to wait 37 years, when a reconstruction committee was established whose leader was Don Amedeo Vitelli, parish priest of Santa Croce and regent of Santa Maria for over forty years. In 1984 the first stone was laid and, two years later, on February 2, 1986, the new Church of Santa Maria delle Letizie was consecrated, whose current structure largely follows that destroyed by the bombing.
Article by Vittorio Aimati