This Sunday, May 5th, will see the annual blessing and evening procession through the town of its ‘Santo Chiodo’ or sacred nail – no less than one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus. You may well ask how come this small lakeside town with a present day population of about 1250 should boast within its church of St. John the Baptist, one of the four nails from the cross. You may well not believe the story I am about to tell – we are after all dealing with folklore here – but many ‘Tornaschi’ do and they, joined undoubtedly by other more sceptical folk, will nevertheless take part in this annual celebration starting off in the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, the second of Torno’s churches lying to the north of the port.
The maths around the number of known crucifixion nails does not exactly add up – but some of the nails may well have been subdivided. The original nails were appropriated in 327 to 328 from the Holy Land by Elena, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine. Apparently there were four and not three as was established in Christian iconography by Giotto. However, once Elena had returned to Rome, she only made direct use of two of them by incorporating one within the diadem surrounding her son Constantine’s helmet and the other for the bit in the bridle of his war horse. Both nails were intended as a charm to protect her son in battle.
The four Santi Chiodi are nowadays most commonly believed to be in Rome, Milan. Monza and in the Cathedral of Colle di Val d’Elsa in the Province of Siena. The one in Rome is said to be part or all of the nail used as a bit in the bridle of Constantine’s horse. It is housed in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem which was built on Empress Elena’s original residence. The one in Milan is said to have come from Rome at the time of Saint Ambrose. It is now kept in a tabernacle high above the altar in Milan’s Duomo. It used to be brought out for possession every 3rd May but the procession now takes place annually on the Saturday before September 14th.
The Monza nail is incorporated into the Corona Ferrea, an early medieval crown used from the time of the Lombard Queen Teodolinda to crown the Kings of Italy. It is now housed in the Museum of Monza Cathedral. There are two conflicting stories of how it came to Monza in the first place. The one version states that the Corona Ferrea is none other than the diadem mounted on Constantine’s helmet. When the western empire collapsed the diadem was carried over to Constantinople but was then claimed by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric who went on to become the second ‘barbarian’ King of Rome from 493 to 526. His summer residence was in Monza which is to where the byzantines duly sent it. The less colourful version is that Pope Gregory I gave it to the Lombard Queen Teodolinda whose palace was in Monza as thanks for establishing Monza Cathedral and for converting the local population to Christianity.
The fourth nail in Colle di Val d’Elsa, near to San Gimignano, is twenty two centimetres long and is described with confident precision to have been used to pin down Jesus’s left foot. It was in the ninth century and in the hands of a French priest who, having made his pilgrimage to Rome and been given the nail by the Pope, died on his return journey at Viterbo. On his deathbed he entrusted the nail to his secretary or travelling companion, a priest from the Colle area.
However, up until the end of the nineteenth century, pilgrims from across Europe would travel to Torno to venerate the Santo Chiodo. Torno gained its nail from a German bishop named within Italy at least as Alemanno. In 1099 Alemanno was travelling back from a crusade in the Holy Land and seeking to pause his journey at Como. That was not possible since Como was embroiled at the time in a civil micro-conflict reflecting the macro-conflict between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.
Lake Como formed part of the medieval super highway back to Germany known as the Romweg and Alemanno needed to set sail. He therefore took the shortest diversion possible by making his way to Torno. He was travelling with one of the nails from the cross and also with a limb from one of the victims of Herod’s slaughter of the first born.
Alemanno’s onward journey the next day had to be postponed due to a heavy storm. Similar storms hampered his progress over the following days such that he took this to be a divine sign that the nail had found its natural home. He thus entrusted it to Torno and then, with storms abating, travelled on to Germany. No further mention is made as to what happened to the baby’s limb.
The story or fable of Torno’s Santo Chiodo was not verified in writing until 1677 when Domenico Rusca, a Cistercian monk and member of Como’s powerful Rusca dynasty, cited how his ancestor Lamberto Rusca passed by Torno in 1126 before proceeding on to give battle against Isola Comacina. This was again part of a larger conflict but this time between the Holy Roman Empire and the Lombardy League led by Milan. Como supported the Emperor; Isola Comacina supported the Lombardy League. Lamberto went to Torno to gain protection in battle from the nail – just as Elena had hoped for her son Constantine. The nail worked to Lamberto’s advantage on this occasion even though Torno was actually allied with Isola Comacina during this conflict.
The nail crops up again in the difficult history between Torno and Como. Back in the fifteenth century, these two towns were intense rivals. Torno had a population of 5000 (down to 1250 nowadays) and Como was slightly larger with 7000 (more like 70,000 nowadays). Both owed their prosperity to the wool trade. Torno was also strategically placed at the neck of the entrance to the ‘primo bacino’ on the lake. They used this location to demand duty and tolls from those wanting access to Como. So once again in a micro version of a macro European conflict, Como went to war against Torno and sacked it in 1515. They returned in 1522 to totally destroy the town. The townspeople were dispersed up the lake. During this destruction, a soldier stole the nail and carried it off to his home town of Bergamo. However he soon sought to return it when his family began to suffer a whole series of serious mishaps.
In time the citizens of Torno returned, restored their church and then ensured that no-one could ever again steal their nail. It was encased in a chest secured by seven locks whose keys were separately held by six local families and the town’s priest. It was only thirty years ago when the priest decided to take custody of all seven keys. The chest with its seven locks sits today behind the altar. The priest will open all locks this Sunday and the nail will be presented to the local worshippers. The nail makes another appearance on the last Sunday in June, close to Saint John the Baptist’s Saint Day. On this occasion it is immersed in water held in a copper shell. The water is then blessed and distributed to the ill and infirm of the town. Some have said that the water has curative properties.
Right from the start, the verification of the story behind the Santi Chiodi cannot be proven so this is primarily a story of folklore which still however has relevance to some locals to this day. Torno’s claim to possess one of the four nails from the cross does not have the following it used to have. Large numbers of pilgrims no longer visit Torno for the nail. Most modern day tourists are also probably unaware of the nail and of its importance to this small lakeside town. Its legacy is however to have given Torno a delightful small church with beautifully rich baroque decoration on the inside. With its splendid Romanesque bell tower, renovated in 1962 and the facade carved by the Rodari brothers restored in 1999 (on the nine hundredth centenary of the nail), the church has now been designated a national monument. It is well worth a visit.