The Coal Porters’ Ex-Voto, Milan



In the seventeenth century, the populous area of Verziere was one of the most disreputable and sinister in Milan. Contemporary legends said that the house at 2 Via Laghetto was inhabited by a powerful witch, who was the head of all the fortune-tellers and sorceresses of the area. The reason for this belief in the concentration of witchcraft here was simple: the area had been spared in the last outbreak of the plague, hence it must be watched over by some witch or other.

In fact, the explanation for the area’s good fortune was much more prosaic: the presence of a port used by the boats bringing materials for the building work on the Duomo. Among the materials shipped through the port was coal, which meant that the whole area was covered in black coal dust, which being remarkably absorbent, probably prevented the propagation of the disease.

The coal porters were known as tencitt (literally, “dirty”) and many lived with their families at number 2, which thus became known as Cà di tencitt – a name that has stuck, even if the tencitt are long gone and the place is now rather elegant.

On one wall of the house is a painting almost 2 metres high that has been there for nearly four hundred years. This is the Madonna de’Tencitt, patron saint of the coal porters. The actual image was raised as an ex-voto by Bernardo Cottone, chaplain to the Guild of Coal Porters, in thanks for having spared them during the palgue. Together with the Virgin of the Assumption are St Roch (with dog), St Sebastian and St Carlo Borromeo; at their feet you can just make our the ground plan of the old lazaretto.

Until 1989, the canvas stood neglected behind two wooden doors that protected it from the elements, only being on display on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption. Then, having survived a serious car accident, a Milanese lawyer who lives nearby decided to pay for the full restoration of the painting as his own ex-voto to the Madonna. So, since 1993, the canvas – although badly damaged – is permanently on display behind a sheet of glass.

I highly recommend a visit next time you are in Milan.


(Adpated from Secret Milan by Massimo Polidoro, published by JonGlez)


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