This is the story of the Madonna della Lacrime, the Madonna of Tears. A Siracusan family buys a little factory-made plaster plaque-relief of the Madonna back in 1953. They hang it on the wall.

The next morning the husband goes off to work, after which the gypsum Madonna image starts crying, at 8:30 a.m. on Aug 29, 1953. Wife calls husband. He comes home. They marvel at the thing, a bit scared, and try to figure out what to do.

Relatives they call start coming over to see it and confer.

Then neighbors start arriving to see the miraculous Madonna (that’ll teach them to reveal secrets to nosy Sicilian relatives).

Then strangers start showing up at the door.

You can see where this is heading.

Within days, hordes are descending on the residential block in Siracusa. The family lets them troop through their modest living room, pray, and tramp out the back door. The local top prelate, at a loss for how to call this one (genuine miracles in this century have been few and far between), starts making phone calls. The town doctor and local pharmacist show up as representatives of the world of detached authority figures.

The pharmacist performs perhaps the most common scientific test known and announces that the water leaking from the Madonna’s eyes tastes just like human tears. (Careful kids, don’t try this at home. It takes years of pharmacology training in order to know how to lick salt water off a chunk of plaster.) On the third day, a scientific team arrives in time to take samples of the last tears to flow down the plaster Madonna’s cheek. She stops weeping at 11:40 a.m. on September 1, 1953.

The samples turn out to have the exact chemical composition of human tears, and basic chemistry precludes that either gypsum or the paint on the relief could have produced such a liquid. No longer weeping, the Madonna proceeds to perform a whole passel of miracles of the curing-the-blind and healing-the-maimed variety.

The little mass-produced plaque is quickly proclaimed a holy, miraculous relic and Siracusa sets about building the requisite God-awful enormous church to house it, across the street from the archeological museum. Recently completed, the oversized shrine resembles nothing so much a giant alien badminton birdie that landed out of bounds smack on a site that turned out to be, as they dug the foundations, a temple to Demter and Kore/Persephone, Sicily’s oldest goddesses (lots of ancient devotional statuettes for the Archaeology museum).

I, until this morning ignorant of all this history but knowing vaguely that some Big Time miracle thingy from the 50s was cooling its holy heels in that skyline-defining ice cream cone structure, decided to stop by this morning on my way to the San Giovanni catacombs.

If you will kindly recall from a few paragraphs ago, the Madonna of the Tears started weeping at 8:30 a.m. on Aug 29, 1953. Today is Aug 29.

I showed up at the church around 9am, and ran headlong into the Mass celebrating the exact moment of the 45th anniversary of the miracle. The miraculous Madonna plaque itself was in attendance, looking kind of funny and out of place. Up at the altar was this itty bitty kitschy Christian cast-off, mass produced to be placed above the mantle of people who are just a little too religious.

And here it was, surrounded by legions of the faithful in a structure built for it alone and that clearly follows the architectural premise that if you pile cement high enough into the sky, God will notice. There were grown-ups dressed like ersatz cub scouts passing ’round the collection plates. Throngs filled the church. People wiped their hands down their faces repeatedly as they prayed and moaned. Weird weird weird.

Later, I got to voice my discontent at the archaeology museum. After going through what I could tell were normally some of the best collections in all of Italy of prehistoric and Greek-era artifacts, I approached the guest book, which invited me to leave comments. So I told it that a museum which has loaned almost every single major piece in its collections out to special exhibits elsewhere and has stuck in their places just photographs has no right to charge the full admission price. I could even cite you the (more conscientious) Italian precedent of the archaeology museum in Taranto, Apulia, which is currently charging half price since half the galleries are closed for rearrangement.

I spent the later afternoon tramping about the Siracusan farmland, bushwhacking through reeds and Dr. Seussian papyrus plants, fording streams, jogging down the middle of railroad tracks, and broad-jumping over irrigation ditches in what turned out to be a two-hour fruitless attempt to follow the Ciane River all the way to it’s source. The source is called the Fonte Ciane, where the nymph Cyane — who rooted for Persephone during her the abduction by Hades — was turned into this very stream by the angry underworld god. Either that, or (other myths say) it’s where Pluto plunged back into the ground to take his newly acquired bride back to hell after bursting out way up in Lake Pergusa near Enna and grabbing up Kore as she picked flowers.

(Siracusa is full of these things; down near the docks on Ortigia, the island core of the city, is a very pretty little natural fountain and pond planted with papyrus and swimming with ducks. It was formed, so they say, when, way back in the Peleponesse, the nymph Arethusa was bathing in the river governed by Alpheus, and the River God took a liking to her. As he grabbed her by the hair an began trying to rape her, she pleaded for mercy and Artemis heard her. In pity, Artemis turned Arethusa into a spring, and the nymph plunged underground, racing away from her captor.

Alpheus, not to be deterred, took on watery form himself and followed her under the earth. When Arethusa burst back above ground, she had made it all the way under the Mediterranean and popped out here in Siracusa, gushing from a grotto as she still does today. Alpseus was hot on her heels though, and he swiftly came flowing out of the grotto too, mingling his waters with her for eternity. This, to the Greeks, was romance. They used to think if you tossed a chalice into the river Alpehus in Greece it would eventually come bobbing up in this pond in Sicily.)

But anyway, back to other watery nymphs and the Ciane, all this tramping around activity only served to bring back my chronic heat rash with a vengeance, so I am hobbling around again, experiencing both intense pain and embarrassment simultaneously. Back at my hell-tel and after a welcome shower in a bathroom I survived only by shutting my eyes to the squalor, I returned to my room to regroup my energies and clamp a freezing bottle of Gatorade between my thighs in an attempt to find some rash relief (this was an extraordinarily delicate procedure, requiring me to ice certain parts of that general region while keeping other, neighboring bits of my anatomy from any contact whatsoever with the icy glass, for obvious reasons).

I got in free, thanks to the nice tourist office lady, to a show tonight in a medieval church with no roof but lots of hibiscus and flowering vines spilling off the wall tops and down the columns of the nave open to the stars. The entertainment consisted of an actor performing monologues from various Shakespeare plays, then a baritone (accompanied by piano) singing the operatic version of the same scene from operas by Verdi and other based on the plays. Interesting concept; it was weird to hear Shakespeare in Italian—odder still that Shakespeare, even in foreign lands and languages, is often considered perhaps the greatest playwright of all time.

Had a late dinner of pizzas named after biblical characters under dwarf palm trees, and a small beer at a pub while I compose this message. I think I am now sufficiently tired be able to return to my hotel room and fall asleep quickly so as not to spend much time conscious in that skanky place. Tomorrow morning I transfer to what can only be happier quarters.

Copyright © 1998 by Reid Bramblett