The primitive stone House of the Virgin Mary (Santa Casa) with only three walls, sits within a grand and very far from humble basilica, featuring works by such Renaissance luminaries as Bramante, Antonio da Sangallo, Sansovino, Lotto and Luca Signorelli, many of which depict scenes from the life of Mary. Inside the house, pride of place is given to a copy of the famous Black Madonna of Loreto; the medieval original, once crazily attributed to St Luke, was destroyed in a fire in 1921. For the non-believer the religious fervour can come as a surprise, with some pilgrims pressing their cheeks against the blackened, crumbling brick walls mumbling tearful prayers, others on their knees in a trance-like state in front of the Madonna. Talking in here is not a good idea as you will be unceremoniously shushed by the grim-faced nuns. Note that at peak times you may not be able to look around the Holy House as a service is usually being conducted for visiting pilgrims, and it is closed from 12.30pm to 2.30pm.
Over the centuries, Loreto built up a covetable collection of treasures donated by wealthy believers. One of the most costly and idiosyncratic was a golden baby bequeathed by Louis XIII of France, weighing exactly the same as his long-awaited heir, the future Louis XIV. The basilica was ransacked in 1798 by Napoleonic troops, most of the plunder ending up on the shelves of the Louvre in Paris. Following Napoleon’s demise, subsequent popes managed to retrieve many of the valuables, but the majority were stolen again in 1974 in what became known as the “holy theft of the century”.