The Collegiate of Siena, popularly known amongst the Sienese as the “basilica” of Santa Maria in Provenzano, preserves a humble image of a terracotta Madonna, broken up into little pieces, which has come to be venerated as “our Advocate”. The traditional story states that during the occupation of the Spanish army, in the mid-16th century, a Spanish soldier fired a bullet at the sacred image, at the time positioned on an external wall of a house in Provenzano, a notoriously disreputable area filled with brothels and gambling houses. The versions of the story differ towards the end: in some versions the Spanish soldier, drunk, dies because of the explosion of weapon that fired the blasphemous bullet, in other versions he converts and repents of the despicable act. From an attempted analysis of the remaining parts of the terracotta image, today almost completely covered by a 19th century silver case, we can assume that it was an original representation of the Madonna in Pity, with grieving Christ on her knees.The Sienese took care of the image, repositioning it on the wall and making it a site of special pilgrimages, to make amends for the despicable act. 1594 came to be known as the ‘year of miracles’ and work began, with the projects entrusted to the Carthusian monk of Sienese origin, Damiano Schifardini, who was to build a great sanctuary which could contain the ever-increasing number of pilgrims who came to pray before the Madonna. The management of the Collegiate, in all its material necessities, was trusted to the Opera di Provenzano, established in 1614 by grand-ducal decree. In 1656 they decided to hold a Palio every year on July 2, the Feast of the Visitation and patronage day of the sanctuary. Since then Provenzano has remained a sign of the intimate union between Marian devotion and everyday life, which is inherent to the history of Siena and is renewed every year in the exultant gestures of the many local citizens who fill the old walls of the Collegiate of Santa Maria on the evening of July 2.
In honour of the Madonna in Provenzano the Palio is held on July 2.