The unmistakable dome of Loreto stands out and can be seen on its hilltop for miles around. Resting inland from the port city of Ancona, Loreto is a pilgrimage site for millions every year, drawn to the Basilica of the Santa Casa (holy house). Its origins date to 1294 when the rustic stone cottage known as the "santa casa" arrived here in the midst of the laurel trees, which the town's name comes from - "laurus or lauretum" was the name of the woods.

The house is said to be the home of the Madonna brought here by angels to protect it from the Saracens who had taken over the Holy Land. The house comes from Nazareth and the faithful will say that it witnessed the annunciation and was where Jesus lived with Mary and Joseph at the beginning of his life. Evaluation of the bricks give it origins in Palestine. That Loreto is coincidentally close to Ancona, an important port for Crusaders coming and going to the Holy Land, with ships, knights and cargo bustling around, may also have had something to do with the home's appearance on this hill. Whatever its origins, the simple stone structure rests inside the cavernous basilica and draws visitors from around the world.

To protect the structure, a church was planned to be built around it. Work began in 1468 and was finished in 1587 when the facade was finally completed. The "santuario" is now a basilica, and its grandeur was gained by noted architects and artists, including Bramante, Sansovino and Sangallo the Younger. Artwork inside the church includes frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Pomarancio. The fountain in the piazza in front was designed by Carlo Maderno.

The cottage is now swathed in ornately carved marble, said to the design of Bramante but carried out a century later. Inside, however, the humble brick origins are seen, along with a revered statue called the Madonna di Loreto, or the Black Madonna, before which the faithful kneel and pray for healing or intercession.

The elaborate relief sculptures of the great bronze doors are not to be missed, and the fancy bell tower contains a musical carillon of nine bells. Go around the rear of the basilica to see the heavy brick apse that resembles a castle. Within the battlements on top is an encircling walkway tucked behind the arcades.

The Santuario della Santa Casa is open as follows:

April through September: 6:15 AM til 7:00 PM

October through March: 6:45 AM til 7:00 PM

Mass and confession are at various times throughout the day and in different languages.

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Address in Loreto:

Piazza della Madonna.

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