The Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Merino is isolated at 7 km north of Vieste in the plain of the same name.
The small white church, with enormous symbolic value for the Viestani faithful, is a fine example of a rural Apulian church, a typical artefact of the Mediterranean countryside, similar to the farms of the past.
Tradition connects the construction of the chapel to the discovery, on the nearby beach, of the wooden statue depicting the Virgin Mary. The central part of the sanctuary is the oldest (1831th-1861th century) and is inserted into the residual walls of an ancient Roman villa or sanctuary and is surrounded by archaeological remains, the other chapels were built later (1909-XNUMX- XNUMX).
According to tradition, the place of the sanctuary would coincide with the site of the "ancient city of Merinum". The excavations begun in 1938 were never completed and what had been discovered was reburied by the farmers of the time. The supposition of the existence of a real "city of Merinum" can be attributed to a controversial quotation from the work “Historia Naturalis” of Pliny the Elder, in which reference is made to the Merinate people of the Gargano “Merinates ex Gargano”, (suggesting the existence of the city of Merinum), even if some versions report the inscription "Metinates“, therefore referring to the town of Mattinata.
The existence of the ancient city of Merinum was later denied or confirmed by other ancient historians ¹ (Olstenio, Cellario, Cimaglia) who, taking a cue from Pliny the Elder, placed the mysterious city where the city of Vieste now stands or in the plain where The ancient Sanctuary is still present. From other documents it would emerge that the Bishopric² of the city of Merinum lasted until 1099, when it was unified with that of Vieste by Pope Pasquale II who assigned both to the archbishopric of Siponto (Manfredonia). The hypotheses on the disappearance of the mysterious city followed one another, perhaps it was submerged by a flood, or destroyed by an earthquake, or set on fire by the usual Saracens, or abandoned due to the unhealthy air of the nearby Pantano swamp or more simply, never existed.
The mystery of the city was partially shed light in 1954, when they sprang up after an earthquake the remains of the Roman Villa and those of one agricultural farm (Fioravanti) of the Augustan Roman age, certainly made with the Roman laws "Sempronia" and "Julia" belonging to the mid-XNUMXst century. BC and that of the third century. AD. Pots and capacious vases emerged, a sign of the already then abundant production of the good olive oil of Puglia; A well thought-out hydraulic system made up of tunnels, tanks, lunettes, outflow channels and wells was offered to the admiration of the experts. In the villa appeared, well preserved, a beautiful mosaic with a rural scene: a little horse being born, figures of women, one with a swan. However inexperience, vandals and thieves have destroyed much of what time had returned.
More recent sources, such as Francesco Innangi³ and Volpe tell us that the origin of the name "merinum" comes simply from "Marina". The area would be nothing but "the marina" of old Vieste, which would coincide with the ancient Uria.
The sanctuary may have been grafted onto that agricultural area on an old man temple dedicated to Demeter, the Roman goddess of grain celebrated as Maria in May, before the harvest. In any case, the archaeological remains near the church, the Piano Grande farms and the nearby Necropolis, are important evidence of settlements in the area in Roman and early Christian times.
Photo by http://www.comitatosantamariadimerino.it
Today only a few walls and the white church remain of the ancient Villa, reached every 9 May by the statue of the Madonna, carried by the faithful in a solemn and heartfelt procession.
Legend has it that the statue was found by of the peasants originating from Vieste and Peschici near the Scialmarino beach, each of the two groups demanded it for themselves and a wise old man advised them to place the statue on an ox-drawn cart, depending on the direction taken by the cart, where the statue would go. So they did and the oxen set off towards Vieste. From that day Santa Maria di Merino is considered the protector of the people of Vieste.
Innnagi tells us, however, that in reality the "current" statue was created during the extensive restructuring of the Church Cathedral of Vieste after the fire of 31 August 1480 started by Acmed Pascià, probably by Pietro Alemanno.
Another, smaller wooden statue was already present near the Cathedral. The “original” statue was part of a representation of the annunciation placed at the entrance to the old cemetery. This statue managed to survive the fire of which it still bears the signs of being then taken, in the 800th century, to a new cemetery far from the city walls.
The characteristic pose recalls the most ancient representations of the Madonna Annunziata spinning, a very common representation in the Adriatic area under the influence of the Byzantine Empire.
note 1: Ancient historical topography of the kingdom of Naples, by Abbot Domenico Romanelli
note 2: Political and ecclesiastical historical memoirs of the city of Vieste, by Vincenzo Giuliani
note 3: Francesco Innangi, Merino: from myth to reality and MERINO THE SANCTUARY THE FEAST (by Don Giorgio Trotta)