When you’re in Trieste, it’s hard to miss the strange, quasi-pyramid looking structure overlooking the sea from high above Barcola.
Locals refer to it as el formaggin “the little cheese”, as it recalls the triangular shape of the cheese wedges beloved by children (think Laughing Cow), with the tip bitten off.
When you learn its real name, Santuario di Monte Grisa, actually — Tempio Nazionale a Maria Madre e Regina di Monte Grisa — and, that it is a Shrine to the Virgin Mary built in the early 60’s, that’s when you want to get a close-up look because, frankly, function and structure seem completely disconnected.
So how did this conspicuous landmark come to be?
The official version reads, “It was built on the initiative of Antonio Santin, Bishop of Trieste and Koper. Seeing the riots between the Nazi-German occupiers and the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale on 30 April 1945, he made a vow to erect a church if Trieste was saved from total destruction. The city was saved and in 1959 Santin obtained permission from Pope John XXIII to build a pilgrims church dedicated to the Holy Mary as a symbol of the peace and unity of all people.”
When I first visited the Temple, I had the good fortune of meeting one of the very nice caretakerswho gladly took the time to tell me a little bit of the history of how this place came to be. According to his version, in 1945, Antonio Santin, the Bishop of Trieste was summoned by the Nazi general in Trieste and informed that they were retreating but not before having laid the city and gulf with explosives and mines in anticipation of the arrival of the Allies. It is unclear if Santin informed the city officials or took any efforts to evacuate the city, but what is known is that he went home to pray to the Virgin Mary that the city be saved….sigh…
When the Allies arrived the next morning, the city and the port miraculously did not blow up (because in fact the explosives had not been dispatched) and Santin took this as a sign that his prayers had been heard. It then became his mission to build a monument in tribute to the Virgin Mary and as a symbol of the peace and unity for all people. The temple was designed by Professor Antonio Guacci, based on sketches and stories by Santin.
At the dawn of the project, Msgr. Santin had a dream: he saw above a rocky spur a ship with the bow facing the sea with the sails unfurled in the wind; the ship being a symbol of the Church…”always ready to guide you to the safest port”. Guacci, eager to incorporate Santin’s visions made the upper church resemble the deck of a ship, “where the high altar indicates the “bridge of command” with Christ as the “helmsman” who, with his spirit, pushes it towards the glory of the Father”. Guacci continued the ship theme in the lower church, which, in fact, resembles the “hold” of a ship. Even from the outside, the repeating large triangles evoke ship’s sails.
The first stone was laid on September 19, 1959. Santin inaugurated the church on May 22, 1966 and on May 1, 1992 Pope John Paul II visited the temple.
The Temple is located at an altitude of 300 meters on the edge of the Karst plateau.
The first thing I thought when I saw the temple up close was that it would be a great location to shoot a Star Wars fan fiction short. Nestled in a wooded area lining the coast, you climb a short way to the base of the temple. It is enormous and very triangular, in fact it is a giant triangle made up of many other triangles of concrete, glass and red painted steel. The triangle motif is a tribute to the holy trinity, and the large triangles are there to evoke the “MM” of Mother Mary and “AM” of Ave Maria. Besides the Upper and Lower churches, there are many different chapels so that services are seemingly continuous through the day.
When you walk through to the other side, you come upon a large beautiful open balcony overlooking the gulf of Trieste (I secretly dream of bringing a lounge chair up here to sunbathe, but I’m pretty sure that would be frowned upon). The location is indeed a celebration of the natural beauty of the Karst, the sea and the sky which is visible through the many windows that make up the structure.
According to the Temple’s website, the design is said to have been inspired by the diamond solitaire, “often seen and admired on the fingers of “Triestine beauties”. As such, it was intended to draw everyone’s gaze upwards, to the example of the Virgin Mary to whom it is dedicated”. Guacci, “followed the canons of classical beauty: the golden ratio, the Euler triangle, and the beautiful proportions of mathematics and the square root of 5 to create a harmonious and proportionate balance in his design”. When you visit Monte Grisa, notice how Guacci incorporated further religious symbols into the structure based on the allegories told to him by Santin; the upper church is designed to recall a bee-hive, where the Virgin Mother is the Queen Bee providing goodness (honey) to those worker bees (parishoners) who do good works. A good read through their site gives a much deeper dive into all of the interplay between architecture and religion.
The temple is a 10 minute drive from the city center and easy to reach by car or via public transportation — there is a bus, #42, leaving from Piazza Oberdan which brings you to Monte Grisa – the schedule can be consulted here triestetrasporti.it.
It is certainly unique and the views from there are gorgeous so it should definitely be on your list of things to see.
Tempio Nazionale a Maria Madre e Regina di Monte Grisa