Shrine of Santa Maria di Zena
also known as "Monte delle Formiche"
The singularity of the name “Madonna del Monte delle Formiche, Our Lady of the Mount of the Ants” derives from an ancient and inexplicable phenomenon that occurs in the first ten days of September, when thousands of winged Mirmica Scabrinodis ants migrate to the top of this promontory between the Idice and Zena valleys.
The “Mount of the Ants” is a place where the mysteries of Nature fuse with those of Faith. Here, on this rocky spur between the two watercourses that give their names to the surrounding valleys, history, holiness and legend intertwine, making it a spiritual crossroads since ancient times.
At 638m, the mountain was produced millennia ago by a marine uplift, visible in the stratified rock of the ridge overhanging the valley, an area of ancient settlements and a sacred site since the pagan era.
On every 8 September in living memory, the inhabitants of many Apennine towns have gathered here for a week, giving rise to a ritual deeply rooted in popular culture. In the Middle Ages there was certainly a rural church that oversaw the district. The first certain documentation dates back to early in the year 1000, indicating it was part of the estate of Mathilde of Tuscany, who gifted it to the Bishop of Pisa precisely at that turn of millennium.
Today’s church with its ample surrounding portico was rebuilt after the devastation left by the Second World War and is flanked by the original bell tower dating back to 1727. Every year in early September devotees lay large sheets down in the churchyard to collect the flying ants that have come so far to mate and perish in a few hours. It is a very ancient custom that ends with the blessing and distribution to the faithful of small coloured envelopes holding the dead ants. The charm of Monte delle Formiche has other aspects and a visit will reveal more interesting stories, like that of the hermit Barberio, who lived in a cave right under the church so he could hear mass in complete solitude.