Chiesa di Sant'Antonino ☆☆☆

Grazie talismans—all legs, Sant'Antonino, Sorrento, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
Grazie talismans—all legs

The Saint & the Sea Monster: The odd history of Sorrento's baroque church of S. Antonino and its quirky titular saint

We'll get to the church in a moment. First we need some context about its titular saint.

"Little Saint Anthony" could hold his own against sea monsters, so they say.

He could also exorcise the possessed like nobody's business.

His name was Saint Antonino, and he gave up life as a hermit to tend to the spiritual well being, demonic possessions, miracle granting, pirate attacks, and general carpentry needs of the people of Sorrento.

Little Saint Anthony

Antonino didn't even want the job. He would have been perfectly content to continue living his isolated life of prayer up in the mountains, building hillside oratories on the orders of St. Michael the Archangel, with whom he chatted regularly.

But when the Lombards came rampaging through the region—remember, before they settled down in Milan to become industrialists, the Lombards were one of those Barbarian hordes from the wild side of the Danube who helped bring down the Roman Empire—the saint hustled down from his hermitage at Montecassino for protection on the plains.

He took a cell in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Agrippinus, was soon named its Abbot, and set about performing miracles—though in his down time, the saint was far more fond of tending the abbey's vineyards, and puttering about town doing odd carpentry jobs.

Cue the miracles

Sorrento's adopted saint died on February 14, AD 626—must be rough, sharing your feast day with a Big Ticket saint like Valentine—but he didn't let a little thing like death get in the way of his ministry. Antonino has been watching over Sorrento ever since, saving the town from everything from Saracen attacks to the Black Plague, as well as answering the panicked prayers of many a Sorrentine sailor caught in a tempest.

His real specialty, though, is exorcisms. Whether you're possessed by demons spawned from the depths of Hell, or by a mild skin ailment, Antonino's your man. With such power residing in the venerable bones, it's little wonder that, when Turkish conquerors made off with the saint's arm in 1558, a Sorrentine merchant made the journey to Constantinople to buy back the relic.

The appreciative locals in return have given him, not one, but two statues in prominent squares (Piazza Tasso and, of course, Piazza S. Antonino). In both statues, the saint is shown treading victoriously upon the neck of a sea monster that looks a bit like a toothy porpoise. It's not. It's meant to be a whale.

Details on the legend of Antonino's most famous miracle differ, but the upshot is: A distraught mother came running up to the abbey, wailing that whale had swallowed her child whole.

Antonino wasted no time. He strode down to the sea, called the monster from the depths, and with the force of his oratory forced the cetacean to spit out the boy, alive and well (though presumably covered in whale slime).

Jonah really coulda used this guy in his corner.

Help me, Little Saint Anthony!

You can still see what are said to be the monster's actual bones—they are certainly whale ribs of some sort—mounted high on the wall to the right of the main doors in the vestibule of Church of S. Antonino.

The town built this grand—but unfortunately baroqued—church around the saint's tomb so as to have room to leave ex votos of thanks in return for their patron's intercession on matters ranging from saving foundering ships to helping survive breast cancer.

Floor-to-ceiling glass cases surround his tomb in the crypt under the church, and these cases are wallpapered inside with silver talismans.

One case is devoted entirely to legs; another to images of be-suited men and women in long dresses that look as if they were copied from the cover of some 1940s Madison Avenue Better Villas and Vineyards magazine.

Many are labeled simply "Per grazie ricevute"—in Italian, the word for 'thank you' (grazie) is the same as the word for 'grace', so this double-meaning message it thanking the saint "For grace received."

Other cases are a motley arrangement of body parts cured, the thin silver ex votos shaped and stamped with graphic anatomical detail—backs, chests, throats, lungs (one or both), breasts (one or both), heads, hands, eyes, mouths, hearts, and whole torsos opened up like a cadaver in Gross Anatomy 101 to show the GI tract in exacting detail.

Several cases behind the altar are stocked with silvery babies, some alongside blurry snapshots—many neonatal—of the miraculously cured infant in question, and a letter gushing thanks and grace—"Grazie! Grazie! Grazie!"

Still protecting Sorrento

As you turn to leave the crypt, you see that the entry wall is lined by more than 30 prints and paintings of 19th century shops tossing in stormy seas, with S. Antonino popping out of the dark clouds in an aura of light to raise on arm and save the devout mariners (as in foxholes, there are no atheist sailors during a tempest).

The paintings were donated by grateful captains and crews. The most recent one is a photograph, dating from the 1950s, and clearly that captain was taking no chances on the Sorrentine seas.

The name of his motorboat: The "S. Antonino."

Photo gallery
  • Grazie talismans—all legs, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • The facade, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo by Mentnafunangann)
  • The whale
  • The nave, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo by Berthold Werner)
  • Ships Sant
  • The statue of Sant
  • Grazie talismans—a torso, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • Grazie talismans—torsos, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • Grazie talismans, Sant'Antonino, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
  • Piazza Sant
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).