The church of Saint Peter in Portovenere, in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, juts out from a rock spur onto the Gulf of Poets, an area that was dear to great artists such as George Sand, David Herbert Lawrence, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
After his visit here, Lord Byron wrote a poem that begins,
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep sea, and music in its roar.
Built in 1198 over what was left of an ancient pagan temple, Saint Peter’s was probably completed between 1256 and 1277, when its distinctive black-and-white striped body was erected. Then, from the 15th century on, fires and ransacking caused great damage to the structure, until it was fully renovated in the 1930s.
Every year, on August 17, people here celebrate the White Madonna – lighting up the slope of the church’s promontory with hundreds of burning torches. From afar, at night, the flames seem to emerge from the sea. To quote Eugenio Montale – another great poet who loved this area – they seem to rise
from the waves that lap / the threshold of a Christian / temple, and every near hour / is ancient.