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A place of Spears and Miracles

Travel back from the Abruzzo coastline just a few kilometers and the country changes very quickly. In the not so far distance great, craggy snow-capped mountains soar up, for this is the highest part of the Appenines. Just before you, each cascading down its own hill, is a string of ancient towns and villages, their stones steeped in time and distant memories.

Lanciano is one of these, just in a short distance from the busy coastal autostrada, comfortably settled amongst cornfields, vineyards and olive groves. An easy place to visit and tramp around for a few hours, with an old story to pull you there and a miracle or two to see.

Legend has it that the Roman centurion who speared Jesus when he was being crucified was born in Lanciano. It’s a play on words of course, because “lancia” means spear (lance) in Italian and Lanciano (which would then mean “of the spear”) is really just a corruption of its ancient name. Still that’s always a good excuse to go and see somewhere. Who knows, Longinus the Centurion may have been born here..

Miracle has it that, one day back in the 700s, a monk celebrating Mass in the church of the sainted centurion Longinus suddenly had a moment of anguish as he lost his belief in transubstantion – that the bread and wine used in the Mass were truly the flesh and blood of Jesus. A miracle happened, for before his very eyes, in his very hands, the bread turned to flesh and the wine turned to blood. In a trice, Lanciano became the place of the Miraculous Eucharist, and has been a center of worship ever since, with the disc of dried flesh and five globules of dried blood now housed in the little church of St. Francis in the center or town. The disc and globules have been tested; apparently they are human.

What most impressed this visitor about Lanciano are the sunsoaked lanes, the way the local people are making much of their heritage by lovingly restoring their old houses, the kind of easy living style that pervades the air and the lovely views, framed by old towers and churches. Something timelessly Italian about a place like this, with an old story or two to give that essential touch of magic.

Lanciano is by the coast in Abruzzo, so the weather is mild in winter, with the summer heat moderated summer by the fact its on a hill.

In September there is a week of festival, “La rievocazione storica del Mastrogiurato” with people dressing up in medieval costume and wandering around as lords, ladies, merchants, musicians, warriors, flagthrowers etc. to recall Lanciano’s economic flourishing under the Norman Kings of Puglia.

On December 23rd the Lancianesi follow their Archbishop in a solemn procession that replicates Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. They ring a bell (so the ceremony is called “La Squilla” which means “ring a bell”), which is then picked up by the bells of the many churches, their message being peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Interesting places nearby:  Ortona, Parco Nazionale dell’Abruzzo

A little bit of history

Lanciano began its life as Anxanum, like many places along the Abruzzo coastline by the local Italic peoples many millenia ago, even if legend has it that refugees from the fall of Troy were the ones to establish the place. Anxanum played it clever by letting Rome take it over peacefully, so it prospered instead of being ravaged and rebuilt. Broken old Rome didn’t save it from the Lombards, Byzantines and Franks of course; eventually Normans brought it under their domain and it got back to business. The Normans gave way to the Aragonese, who gave way in turn to the Spanish, who were focused on their New World, so Lanciano slipped back into the still backwaters of Neapolitan rule, where it remained until the Italian economy began to pick up again in the 1950s.

Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen