57 ways to die in Livorno

The residents of this Tuscan port town have been chronicling their near-death experiences in art for centuries.

Santuario di Montenero sits high on a mountain overlooking the Tuscan port town of Livorno and is one of the most important pilgrimage sights in Italy.

While most visitors head straight to the main chapel to seek penance from Our Lady of Grace, Mary of Montenero, the smart ones head to the tiny votive chapel, just to the left.

Here the walls of the dim, dark chapel are lined with paintings offered in thanks to Our Mary of Montenero by parishioners who believed she had interceded and saved their lives.

The paintings date from the 1800s to the present day – chronicling the bizarre, extreme and varied ways the Livornese have nearly died over the centuries.

As you’d expect from an important port town, there are plenty of paintings involving ships. There are ships being dashed against rocks, sailors tossed overboard and encounters with aggressive, vessel-eating whales. But there are also electrocutions, car accidents and, quite literally, a baby being thrown out with the bath water.

My favourites, however, are more niche. Like the woman being crushed by cart full of tuna. Or the guy being gored by a bull. Or the guy being kicked in the nuts by a horse. I wince involuntary every time I see that one.

The works are painted in a naive folk-art style and again, the changes in fashion and taste over centuries are reflected here too. In the old days it was primarily oil paintings. Around the turn of the century, it was watercolours. There was a brief flirtation with montages in the 70s. And the next time I visit I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hologram, or a video installation at the very least.

Votive painting of baby falling out of a window, Santuario Montenero, Livorno
Votive painting of a boat accident in Livorno Harbour, Santuario di Montenero

The one thing all the paintings have in common, usually in the top right-hand corner, is Mary of Montenero herself, gazing down with an enigmatic smile and a protective gaze – doubtlessly wondering why the Livornese are so goddamn accident prone.

Woman being crushed by tuna at Santuario di Montenero
Car accident montage, Santuario di Montenero

How to visit Santuario di Montenero

Where: Piazza di Montenero, 9 – 57128 Livorno, Italy

Official Website: santuariomontenero.org

Main image: One of the votive paintings at Santuario di Montenero (© Peter Moore)

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