The Crying Game

When villagers at Civitavecchia witnessed tears of blood falling down the face of a souvenir Madonna, they proclaimed it a miracle. But soon, experts were branding it a cunning hoax and a row ensued. It's a familiar pattern in Italy, and beyond. What is the truth of such apparitions? Alix Kirsta investigates.

Crying MadonnaWhat strikes people most when they first see the Weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia is her size. The white glazed plaster statue is only 16 inches high, her face, with its downcast eyes, no bigger than a man's thumb. Originally bought from a souvenir stall at the shrine of Our Lady at Medjugorje in Bosnia, she cost less than a fiver, but, as mass-produced religious statuettes go, is surprisingly untrashy. For the past five years, La Madonnina, the little madonna, as she is known locally, has stood behind bulletproof glass in the little church of St Agostino in Pantano, a poor agricultural suburb of the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome. Every year, she attracts thousands of pilgrims. Of the scores of "miracles" reported in Italy during the lead-up to the millennium, only this "weeping Madonna", who even has her own website, continues to bring in the charabancs, transforming a once unknown chapel off a dirt-track into an international religious shrine.


Souvenir La Madonnina is one of the mass-produced souvenirs sold at a shrine in Bosnia. A village priest brought back the statuette for Fabio Gregori, a parishioner of his at Pantano, near Rome. Five months later, Gregori and his young daughter saw tears of blood falling from the Madonna's eyes. The event has led to a series of disputes within the Church and with the secular authorities.

However, anyone hoping to see her weep, or detect traces of blood on her cheeks, will be disappointed. Since allegedly weeping tears of blood in front of thousands of witnesses in February 1995, La Madonnina has remained dry-eyed and all traces of blood have long since faded. Which is more than can be said for the controversy that surrounds her. La Madonnina's worldwide renown is due as much to her supposed mystical powers as to the fact that, for the past five years, she has been the subject of an unprecedented and bizarre criminal investigation in which the Italian authorities have become embroiled in a so-called "pious fraud", a charge normally ignored, or dealt with by the church. In this case, the Procura, or district attorney, is determined to expose La Madonnina's tears as a hoax and identify the culprits as the statue s owner, Fabio Gregori, and his family.

The enquiry appears set to run indefinitely and has all the makings of an absurdist melodrama, involving the diverging interests of anti-cult campaigners, judicial authorities, the Catholic church, and the mayor of Civitavecchia, Pietro Tidei, a communist nonbeliever who is determined that the shrine at Pantano should become as commercially viable as Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugorje. Meanwhile, like many thousands of believers, Gregori, a 37-year-old electrician from Pantano, believes that what he witnessed five years ago was a miracle. What he also knows is that it has changed his life, largely for the worse.

It began, like most mystical experiences, in the most humdrum circumstances. As a devout Catholic, Gregori was overjoyed when his local priest, Father Don Pablo Martin, returned from a visit to Medjugorje in September 1994 and gave him a plaster statuette of the Virgin to protect his home and family. With nothing to distinguish it from the serried ranks of Madonnas around the Bosnian pilgrimage site, Father Pablo nevertheless believed that this one had special powers, claiming he was guided by one of Italy's most celebrated religious figures, the late Capuchin friar Padre Pio, to bring the statue back to Civitavecchia, where "the most beautiful event of this life" would occur.


Five months on, an event did indeed occur that propelled the tiny hamlet into the spotlight. On the afternoon of Thursday, February 2,1995, Gregori was hurrying to mass when his six-year-old daughter Jessica's shrieks pierced the air. "Papa, Papa, come and look. The Madonnina is crying. There's blood everywhere!" Rushing to join her at the little stone shrine he had built in the garden, he saw, he says, red liquid well up in the statuette's eyes and trickle down her cheeks and gown. Deeply shaken, he drove to mass, where he recounted the incident to Father Pablo. Within hours, news of the "weeping" had spread throughout the district and crowds of acquaintances and strangers began gathering outside his gate. The circus had begun.

Throughout the weekend, as the story hit the headlines, the faithful and the merely curious, including reporters and TV crews, thronged in their thousands down the small country lane to Gregori's house, pushing into his small garden, praying, weeping, gawping, chattering and crossing themselves as they filed past the tiny statue before shuffling out again to gossip and speak to the press.

"It was a mass invasion, they were swinging from the trees," recalls Scottish-born Carmela Dinardo, who runs Civitavecchia's foreign language school. "You couldn't move for cars, buses and people blocking the way to his home. I wanted to see the Madonna, too, and drove down there, but was forced to park far away and walk. It took hours to reach the shrine. They were battering down his gate, hundreds of people at a time trampling around his garden. People had come from all over Italy. The Gregoris simply locked themselves inside the house." After several people had tried to handle the statue and touch the blood, police were called to maintain order at the site.

By late Sunday, February 5, the statuette had, according to many witnesses, wept blood 13 times. By the following day, Gregori could take the strain no longer and, pursued by paparazzi, delivered the statuette to Father Pablo at St Agostino for safekeeping. Then he locked the gates to his garden and put up a notice: "Please don't stop here. The Madonna is no longer here."

And there the drama should have ended. It was, after all, just the latest in a long line of incidents involving holy effigies, animated statues and sightings of the Virgin Mary during the 90s throughout the world. In India and England, reports that animal statues at various Hindu temples had begun "drinking" milk also drew crowds for several months.

Web of Intrigue

Statue in Lazise Eternal sorrows: The phenomenon of statues of the Madonna apparently weeping is nothing new. There were nine reported cases in the first two months of 1995, including La Madonnina at Civitavecchia. The authenticity of some of the more venerable examples has been accepted over centuries. Some look more convincing than others: these two Madonnas are both in Italy, in Lazise (above) and Murano Statue in Murano

Even in Italy, with nine separate lacrimazioni (weepings) reported in the first two months of 1995 alone, belief had begun to give way to scepticism as each incident was either dismissed due to unreliable eyewitness reports or found to be a practical joke or some natural phenomenon, such as dewdrops forming on a statue.

Why should La Madonnina of Civitavecchia be any different? And what makes locals, such as Dinardo, an ardent believer in miracles, and her friend, Christiana Vallarino, a local reporter from II Messaggero, who saw the tears but insists it's a clever trick, still argue over the incident in the cafes on Civitavecchia's seafront?

The answer lies in the web of intrigue that still surrounds the case, and speculation over one of the most colourful characters involved in it, Monsignor Girolamo Grille, the bishop of Civitavecchia.

As he welcomes me to his house to tell me about the story, Monsignor Grille, a jocular 70-year-old known locally as "il grille parlante" (the talking cricket) because of his outspokenness, still chuckles over his initial reaction. After taking the statuette from Gregori, Father Pablo delivered a report to Grille, describing what had occurred in the family's garden that weekend.

Phoning him several hours later to ask him what to do with the statue, Father Pablo was shocked at the bishop's response: "I tore up the report and threw it in the bin and told Don Pablo to destroy the statue immediately, so as to end all this trouble! I had no doubt it was a hoax. Naturally, I started hearing from angry parishioners condemning me for not believing in all this rubbish."

There were well-founded reasons for Monsignor Grillo's wish to distance himself from "this rubbish". According to rumour, the area around Civitavecchia is heaving with Jehovah's Witnesses, occult groups and Satanists, any of whom could have planned a hoax. More significantly, the Vatican, sensitive to charges of superstition, favours a cautious attitude towards reported "miracles", especially those involving inanimate objects, rather than mystic "seers" as in Fatima. His next step, which was to phone the police and ask them to investigate the Gregori family, therefore, seems logical, as does his request to his own doctor to carry out tests on the "blood" now congealed on the statue. What he wasn't prepared for was the result: the substance was haemoglobin.

Amateur Sleuth

That report, says Monsignor Grillo, only strengthened his resolve to expose the trick. "The Gregoris, I found out, were simple, poor, hard-working, local people, honest and devoutly religious, with no criminal record. I even did an exorcism on them, believing it was a satanic set up." But, being something of an amateur sleuth, Bishop Grillo wouldn't let the matter rest. Father Pablo, disobeying instructions, had given the statue to one of Gregori's brothers, so Monsignor Grillo persuaded the family to let him take it to Rome for analysis of the bloodstains and x-rays of the structure.

The tests were repeated several times by separate teams, one headed by Professor Angelo Fiori at the Vatican's Gemelli hospital, the other by Rome's leading forensic medical examiner and DNA expert, Giancarlo Umani-Ronchi, director of the Institute for Forensic Medicine at the University of Rome. "When I handed the statue in at the lab, they assured me it would turn out to be animal blood," laughs Monsignor Grillo, drawing out the story for effect. "Then they found it was human blood."

But greater revelations were to come: repeated analysis and DNA tests established that it was male blood, while a series of x-rays and CAT scans of the statue itself confirmed that it was solid, with no sign of having been rigged. "That actually increased my doubts. Obviously it was a hoax. The blood of Our Lady ought to have been female, no?"

After reporting these developments to the Vatican,Monsignor Grillo was authorised to set up a theological commission to study the case. It was the start of many sleepless nights, he says. On March 1, soon after the statue had been returned to him, CODACONS, Italy's largest consumer protection group, alarmed at extensive media coverage of the case, issued a formal complaint against "unknown persons". The charge was "abuso della credulita popolare" (abuse of the people's belief), under a law introduced in 1930 to deter magicians and hoaxers from duping the public. This was followed by an allegation of fraud from a prominent Italian helpline, Telefono Antiplagio, run by Professor Giovanni Panunzio, a children's religion teacher in Sardinia and director of the Italian Committee to Help Victims of Charlatans and Gurus.

Again, Monsignor Grillo admits giving police the go-ahead to investigate. "I called in the law, hoping they would finally help me prove the weeping was a joke, because I was so sure it was." But when police raided the homes of all four Gregori brothers and their mother at dawn on March 8, turning everything upside down in the search for evidence of trickery, they drew a blank. Fabio Gregori's ordeal, however, was far from over. Under Italian law, once an accusation is made, the public prosecutor is obliged to open a full-scale criminal investigation, which can drag on for years, even if there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.

Tears of Blood

What happened a week later added a whole new dimension to an already farcical situation. While saying mass at home with his sister, brother-in-law, nephew and two Romanian nuns, the bishop claims that La Madonnina cried tears of blood as he held her in his hands. Although he announced what he had witnessed in a TV interview a week later, in effect endorsing the miracle, he refuses to use the word miracle: "It's a mystery — there is no rational explanation," he tells me, with the first sign of gravitas that afternoon.

The bishop's announcement — carried out against the advice of the Vatican — merely cranked up Antonio Abano, the public prosecutor, who enlisted Criminal-pol, the Italian equivalent of the FBI, to dig further into the case. Abano ordered the bishop to hand over La Madonnina and requested all male members of the Gregori family to submit blood samples for DNA testing against that on the statute. Neither request was met. "Since I had witnessed the weeping myself, the Vatican gave me authority to tell the police to stay away from the case and not permit the statue to be confiscated," says Monsignor Grillo. "That didn't go down so well. Now the prosecutor was convinced that Gregori and I were in this together. They accused me of being in cahoots with the Vatican and both of us of fraud. At this stage, they would have liked to put me in jail for being the hoaxer, but a bishop is still a bishop, so they tried to seize the Madonnina. The law always puts its foot in it when getting involved in religious matters. In Lourdes, Fatima, now here, they've made a hash of things."

The upshot, Fabio Gregori's lawyer, Bruno Forestieri, says drily, was "a very Italian-style compromise". The courts agreed to let the bishop keep the statue in a sealed cupboard in his residence while the enquiry continued. "It was a diplomatic solution: the state prosecutor intervened, but without violating the church's autonomy," explains Forestieri, who, at Gregori's request, appealed to the Court of Cassation in Rome for the statue's release in time for Easter. Hundreds of irate local parishioners had been publicly protesting at the state's interference with their plans to carry the statue "home" to St Agostino church in the town's traditional Good Friday procession, which more than 10,000 worshippers were expected to attend. Two weeks later, an order was issued for its release. "Which makes me the only lawyer in history to set the Virgin Mary free," says Forestieri.

However, the order came too late for the Easter procession — which may have been a blessing of sorts. For instead, in a gesture that spoke volumes, the Pope's close friend and fellow countryman, Cardinal Andrej Maria Deskur, after giving an address at the cathedral of Civitavecchia on Easter Monday, presented a blessed copy of La Madonnina to the Gregori family. Implying that the Pope shared his views, Cardinal Deskur went on to compare the tribulations of Gregori's original statuette to that of the revered Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland, sequestered by the communist authorities in 1967 and now standing in the Pope's diocese of Krakow.

Although, thus far, the Vatican had remained silent, the subtext of Cardinal Deskur's speech hardly needed spelling out. La Madonnina was finally returned to the parish church in June, after undergoing further x-rays and scans together with DNA analysis of the new bloodstains, which were reportedly identical to the first. This finally led Monsignor Grille to state publicly that because they were of male blood, the tears could only be those of Christ.

DIY Tourism

Souvenir Blessed relief: Miraculous happenings — such as the weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia — are a magnet for the curious, the faithful and people in search of their own miracle. La Madonnina is credited with curing 800 people suffering from various afflictions.

Since then, the shrine of La Madonninahas become a magnet for tourists. To cope with the influx, Mayor Tidei has allocated billions of lire for the construction of roads, street lighting, drainage and toilets, parking facilities, a pilgrim's hostel and a large consecrated marquee to meet the demand for extra services, vigils and communions. Despite this, Tidei grumbles that St Agostino has not yet made the big time. The planned construction of a large new sanctuary is awaiting the church's go-ahead. "The bishop won't give me the opportunity to promote it as a commercial venture. He 'created' the miracle, but he is doing DIY tourism when we should tie in with the big pilgrim tour operators, for instance to go from Rome to Lourdes via Pantano."

The mayor is not the only one to exploit the commercial potential of the statue. Recently, Forestieri took out an injunction against Hypo, an Austrian bank that used a picture of La Madonnina in an advertisement, and was planning proceedings against Benetton until the Italian manufacturer dropped its own ad featuring the statue. In additional insult to Gregori, the replacement statue was stolen from his garden by a visiting priest who, when stopped by police on the motorway, argued that he thought it was a gift.

The entire saga, says Forestieri, has had a "tragic impact on Gregori's life, making him mistrustful and withdrawn". His refusal to submit to a DNA test is still regarded by many as suspicious, but Forestieri remains dubious about standards of the original forensic analysis, in which only five strands of DNA were identified from blood on the statue, instead of the dozen or more required for accurate matching.

Pop Science

What especially grieves Gregori — who declined Forestieri's request to speak to me — is that a profoundly mystical event has become not only a money-grabbing enterprise, but is also fodder for pop science TV shows. One can see his point. In February this year, after a service celebrating the fifth anniversary of the original "weeping", Alfredo Barrago, a popular magician, shone a red laser beam on to the statue from a gallery in the church as part of a TV demonstration on how to conjure tears of blood. Evidently, the effect was so realistic that a woman praying in front of the shrine fainted. In recent years, such exposes of the paranormal have become increasingly popular. Among the more bizarre explanations for La Madonnina's tears is the suggestion that someone fitted the statue with special contact lenses, which expand and release liquid when exposed to heat, or that a blood-filled syringe fitted inside the figurine was attached to a hidden battery, allowing the device to be electronically activated by remote control. The suggestion that Gregori may have resorted to such tricks has, says Forestieri, reduced his client to an emotional wreck.

However, many, including devout Catholics, favour any debate, no matter how dressed up as showbusiness, believing that a sinister conspiracy to undermine the church lies behind events in Civitavecchia. Panunzio of the anti-charlatan hotline, who has conducted his own research into phoney miracles, is convinced that Gregori was set up. "Almost certainly he and Bishop Grillo were cheated by unscrupulous people who want to increase superstition and decrease faith. Exploitation of holy icons is widespread among occultists." Recently, Panunzio's organisation has examined about 10 "weeping" icons and similar phenomena throughout Italy, and dismissed them all as "illusions or jokes".

In the case of Civitavecchia, he claims to have received several tip-offs: "In December 1994, a man, who introduced himself as an expert in 'esotericism', called me and warned me about a 'weeping' that was being planned in Civitavecchia. Don't you think that's a very strange coincidence?" After the incident, he received an anonymous fax from someone claiming repentance for being behind events at Pantano, and admitted that it had begun as a carnival prank, but that "fanatical colleagues" had taken it further.

Although Panunzio counts himself among a growing category of special investigators of pious frauds, being a non-scientist who often relies on the magician Barrage's expertise in identifying possible trickery, he comes across more as an enthusiastic dabbler. What really disqualifies him from being a rigorous, impartial investigator is that he has his own agenda: to strengthen true religious faith and stamp out rampant occultism and New Age beliefs, which he likens to pornography. With Satan apparently lurking around every corner, these forces of darkness, he says, are especially widespread in Italy (in fact, the highest number of religious "miracles" are reported in Ireland, the United States and Italy).

Pious Fraud

Statue in Lazise

Even if the truth behind La Madonnina is never revealed, the case, by setting a precedent for police involvement in church affairs, raises important questions over the whole issue of "pious fraud" and the rigour with which such apparent misdemeanours are investigated. In their persistent hounding of Fabio Gregori when so many other people might have played a part in the incident, the authorities in Civitavecchia have displayed an astonishing lack of common sense. Why else enlist the help of illusionists whose prime instinct is to entertain?

Theories, such as those propounded by Barrage, seem to have convinced prosecutors that the "weeping" was the result of some absurdly elaborate mechanism, when in fact there is likely to be a far simpler, if mundane explanation. One problem is the dubious presumption that religious hoaxes aren't "real" crimes, since only the gullible believe in miracles and thus "have it coming", which prevents most prosecutors and detectives from taking these incidents seriously in the first place. And among those who do, how many are sufficiently familiar with the "backstage" workings of the church to know what to look for in such investigations?

Obviously very few. Which is why, as happened initially in Civitavecchia — until Monsignor Grillo's astonishing volte-face — priests are often the first, and best qualified, to debunk reported "miracles", if only to reassure those who might reject a church that embraces superstition. Their lack of scientific expertise has even led some priests to call on help from the unlikeliest sources, such as the Italian Committee for Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CICAP). Founded by a group of scientists in 1989, CICAP has close links with similar organisations in the US, where investigations into pious frauds have recently uncovered numbers of serious crimes committed within the church. Although best known for investigations into psychic healing and extra-sensory perception, one of CICAP's founder members, Luigi Gar-laschelli, is increasingly focusing his attention on pious frauds, sometimes at the request of the clergy. Although he has not been asked to investigate the weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia, he has followed events closely and taken part in TV debates on the case.


When not at his day job as head of the department of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, near Milan, Garlaschelli, a small, bearded man with a mischievous grin, is Italy's foremost investigator of "miracles" involving tears and blood. He invites me to his laboratory on a scorching Saturday afternoon, to demonstrate how statues can be made to weep and bleed. He brings out a selection of male and female plaster busts, their faces streaked and eyes rimmed bright red. One is a kitsch replica of the head of Michelangelo's David, the top neatly sawn off. Garlaschelli takes the detached section, and pops it on and off like the lid of a teapot, the join hidden by the curls of hair: inside are two thin plastic tubes connected to a hollow central chamber and glued at the other end behind each of the eyes. Other busts have one or more tiny holes drilled into their scalps, and are hollow inside or contain a small cavity behind the eyes.

The mechanisms all work on a similar principle. "The statue must be of thin, porous plaster or ceramic, and glazed all over outside, allowing the material to absorb fluid without anything seeping out," says Garlaschelli. "You fill the statue or inner reservoir with water, plain or dyed red. Make tiny, almost invisible pinpricks or scratches in the glaze on the corners of the lower eyelid; the fluid eventually trickles or flows through, and there you have your tears." Another method involves applying a minuscule trace of red dye beneath the eye, like eyeliner, then spraying the face with water or leaving it outdoors to gather dew. Eventually, the dye will begin to run. Using a colourless compound that turns red when it comes into contact with the vapour of ammonia gives an even more dramatic effect, like the trick of writing with invisible ink.

The notion that an unsophisticated man such as Gregori would go to such lengths strikes me as unlikely. Garlaschelli agrees, maintaining that most icons are "magicked up" far more crudely. "I am not suggesting that the Civitavecchia Madonna involved any of these methods, even if the statue was replaced before testing, which, of course, it could have been. The most likely explanation is that someone pricked or cut their finger and smeared the blood on to the eyes of the statue and let it trickle down. The imagination and self-delusion of the onlookers, including that of Monsignor Grille, does the rest. Trivial, but this is the way it goes very often!"

It can only be a miracle

But what about the forensic examiners' report that ruled out any tricks? "If you recall, what they said was, 'The statue does not contain any trick, and the blood is real blood.' Which translates to: 'Science rules out tricks — it can only be a miracle.' You can lie, or mislead, even by saying the truth. And when the bishop declared that it had wept in his hands, the forensic examiner reported that he could not doubt it, since it came from extremely reliable sources." Garlaschelli shrugs. He has studied a series of photographs taken at various times during the five-day lacrimazioni in Civitavecchia which, he says, prove that the bloodstains did not change shape throughout the period. Although more than 60 witnesses testified to the theological commission that they saw blood trickle from the statue's eyes on different dates, he believes that, given the emotionally charged occasion, they saw what they wanted to, imagined or were told they would see.

"Blood smeared on by someone's cut finger would certainly continue trickling for a while. Even when drying, it may give an impression of newness. The right thing to do would have been immediately to lock the statue in a transparent case, in front of a video camera and a couple of guards, and see if the weeping took place."

Science, he claims, invariably holds the clues to most mysteries involving blood. In 1263, Pope Urban IV established the Feast of Corpus Christi to commemorate the miracle of the Mass of Bolsena — depicted in a celebrated fresco by Raphael — when bloodstains appeared on the communion host, staining the sacramental linen. The Cathedral of Orvieto was especially constructed to celebrate the event and house the holy relics, where they remain to this day. Despite many subsequent reports of holy "blood" on food such as bread, potato, polenta and beans, which have proved negative when tested for haemoglobin, scientists believe they have the answer. The fungus Serratia marcescens is a micro-organism that flourishes in warm, moist and unhygienic conditions, producing crimson, blood-like stains on starchy food. In 1993, an American researcher, Johanna Cullen, reproduced the miracle of Bolsena in a laboratory, using sacramental bread and S. marcescens cultures, achieving effects realistic enough to be easily be mistaken for blood.

Tradition of Fakery

By replicating techniques that would have been commonplace among medieval artists, Garlaschelli has found a probable explanation for another age-old miracle: the liquefaction of the dried "blood" of the early saints at holy festivals, the most famous being the Feast of St Gennaro in Naples. Reports that this, and many other blood relics in churches in and around the city, have been liquefying regularly since the 14th century, suggests a long tradition of fakery. "Because reports of these miracles go back to the middle ages, modern experiments must incorporate materials that were easily available then," he says, bringing out a rack of glass phials half-full of congealed matter in varying shades of tan and deep, rusty red.

Handing me a container of solid brownish gel, he tells me to shake or swing it from side to side, as priests do when flourishing blood relics in front of a congregation. After a few seconds of being jiggled around, the gel begins flowing freely and turns a brighter red, a star-tlingly realistic effect. This is due to the so-called "thixotropic" properties of certain chemical compounds that remain solid until shaken or briskly turned upside down — mayonnaise and some types of household paints being modern examples. By concocting such gels using naturally occurring reddish chemicals such as molysite or iron chloride, which is found only near active volcanoes such as Mount Vesuvius near Naples and has been commonly used by painters and artisans throughout the centuries, Garlaschelli may have cracked another ancient mystery.

Whether this proves that, since its earliest days, the church has knowingly deceived worshippers with such tricks is another matter. What if an outsider introduced the relic to the church, rather than the other way around? Instead ofbeing purposely cooked up by some fanatical abbot to dupe and convert the masses, Garlaschelli believes that these compounds were more likely to have been created by accident, probably by medieval artists who stumbled across the method by chance when experimenting with pigments. In 1389, the first recorded date of the liquefaction of the blood of St Gennaro, the Cathedral of Naples was under construction and artists from all over Italy were employed in its decoration. "At that time, the King of Naples was Robert of Anjou, a pious man, who would certainly have been pleased by a 'holy blood relic'," says Garlaschelli. "In those days, the desire for relics was widespread, as were the attempts to counterfeit them. The shroud of Turin has been carbon-dated back to that time."

Devil's Blood

An even simpler explanation for blood relics that liquefy only in summer is that some mixtures of waxes, fats and oils remain solid and melt only when the temperature reaches a certain level, usually 30C. When asked in 1996 by Italy's national TV company, RAI, to carry out a test on the congealed blood of St Lorenzo, which liquefies every August 10 at a church in Amaseno near Naples, Garlaschelli found that the normally solid, tan-coloured substance in the phial had already liquefied and was glowing bright red. It was a searingly hot day, and the temperature inside the church was more than 30C. To test the substance, he placed the phial in iced water, waited for the contents to resolidify, heated the water to 30C, at which point the contents melted again. "This suggests that the relic, and many like it, consists of natural fats, waxes, or a mixture of the two, and is coloured with a dash of devil's blood', a fat-soluble red vegetable resin that was widely used as a dye during the middle ages. For proof, you'd need to analyse the contents by extracting a tiny sample with a syringe, but the church hasn't given permission to do so."

Nor is it likely to: although Garlaschelli and his colleagues have published their findings in a number of scientific journals, exposing new bogus miracles is one thing, shattering myths that have attracted pilgrims and tourists for centuries is quite another. Which might explain why, when Garlaschelli appeared on the TV programme that hired him to analyse the blood of St Lorenzo, his explanation for the phenomenon was edited out of the broadcast: "It would be very easy to demonstrate the truth behind all these miracles," he says, "but very few priests are true sceptics, which is why we cannot carry out controlled studies on relics and statues. Even when a commission investigates a miracle, there is never a chemist, a physician or any scientist among them, only theologians."

That certainly goes for the commission that was appointed to study the Madonna of Civitavecchia. Although its report was recently completed, since the Vatican is traditionally reticent about issuing declarations on miracles, the final verdict could be a long way off yet. Since 1830, the Vatican has "approved" 15 apparitions of the Virgin, but authenticated only one "weeping" Madonna, when a statue wept tears in Siracuse, Sicily, in 1954 — a highly dubious event, says Garlaschelli, who has investigated the incident.

Big League

In some ways, the Vatican's response seems irrelevant, especially since Monsignor Grillo's statements have put La Madonnina in the big league. From the rows of souvenir stalls and ranks of parked tour buses to the booming lunchtime trade at Signora Amina's trattoria next to the church, all the signs are that La Madonnina remains a crowd-puller, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being shrouded in mystery. Equally a mystery in this drama is surely the bishop and his handling of the affair. Mayor Tidei's comment that "he has taken over the miracle and is running things his way" underlines the animosity between the two men, and raises many questions. What really prompted Monsignor Grillo's public U-turn? Was it a warning to the authorities to keep their nose out of church affairs, or a shrewd move to find favour among the powerful conservative faction of the Vatican? He retains possession of the statue and control over its future. Only two people have keys to the bulletproof cabinet in which the statue is locked: one is Gregori's lawyer, the other is the bishop.

Statue in Lazise Fabio Gregori built his own little shrine, but had to return his statuette when he couldn't cope with the crush of visitors.

Or is he motivated, above all, by a genuine mystical belief? Monsignor Grillo, who has just returned from lecturing in the US, is unconcerned about allegations of irrationality or that the faithful may turn away from the church. "An impressive spiritual reawakening has taken place," he claims, "a true and proper recovery of religious conscientiousness. People are no longer coming out of curiosity, but to pray. We have had more than 800 reported miracle cures, and so many people have converted that there aren't enough priests at the church to hear confessions."

However, one person you won't see mingling with the crowds at St Agostino's is Fabio Gregori. Although a less hawkish public prosecutor was recently appointed, the case against Gregori has yet to be wound up. Forestieri, his lawyer, now wishes that it would just come to court, "so I could finally show the world what really went on". Anyone passing Gregori s house today will find it shuttered and silent, the gates locked and the sides of his fence bricked up to prevent people peering into his garden. Recent photographs of Fabio and his daughter Jessica, now 11, show both looking sullen and withdrawn. I wonder, do the Gregoris still believe in miracles?

This article in its entirety is copyright © 2000 Alix Kirsta.
First published in the Guardian Weekend, 9 December 2000.

Web site content © Alix Kirsta. Web site design by alano design.