In the heart of the historical centre, behind the town hall, is the Oratory known as the Oratory of the Whites, because it was founded by the ‘Confraternity of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, of the protomartyr St. Stephen and of the Holy Trinity’ (formerly the Disciplinants), also called ‘the Whites’ from the colour of their hoods. The confraternity had already been present in Rapallo since the mid-13th century in the adjacent parish church of Santo Stefano, and built the new oratory at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Near the minor portal, there is a white marble bas-relief (14th-15th century) depicting two members of the Confraternity of the Disciplinants. On one side of the façade is a slate by Italo Primi, depicting the martyrdom of St Sebastian.
Bas-relief at the Oratory of the Whites
On display inside are processional objects such as heavy lanterns, a 15th-century wooden statue of the Pisan school depicting the Madonna and Child, and a case depicting the martyrdom of St Sebastian (1700) by the Genoese sculptor Anton Maria Maragliano, restored in 1995. The 16th-century stalls were moved to the Oratorio dei Bianchi in the 19th century and came from the Monastery of the Cervara, from which they were removed after its suppression.
The oratory also houses the ‘Cristi’, the huge, heavy and richly ornamented processional crucifixes that are carried in procession during patronal feasts; the oldest is from the 18th century.
The religious fervour that also spread in our areas in the 13th century, mainly through the Franciscan and Dominican orders, led to the gathering of crowds of penitents who alternated prayer with ‘discipline’ and the use of scourges, and laid the foundations for the establishment of confraternities, the so-called ‘casacce’, which in the following century became more precise in character, joining the ‘White’ movement that had penetrated from Provence.
In Rapallo, as in Chiavari and other localities, it is therefore to be assumed that the Confraternity known as the ‘Disciplinants’, founded after 1250, under the title of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, followed this evolution. It had its initial seat in the church dedicated to the Protomartyr, then in the chapel of the new Hospital of St. Anthony (now the Town Hall), until, in the second half of the 15th century, it moved to the Oratory built next to the hospital, in the heart of the town centre, called ‘dei Bianchi’ (of the Whites) because of the colour of the hoods of the brothers who, hooded and holding the scourge, we see portrayed in the 15th-century marble plaque walled outside the building in vico della Rosa.
The Disciplinants, however, retained a tomb reserved for them in St. Stephen’s for a long time, as confirmed by the requests made by Antonio de Nauledo on 11th August 1485 and Giacomo Molfino on 17th February 1489.
The one-nave oratory was equipped with a small bell tower, and was initially dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and only much later, to the Holy Trinity because it was also intended for the teaching of Christian doctrine to the youth.
For a time, the oratory had a direct connection to the adjacent hospital and the brothers had access via a staircase to a dormitory.
The activity of the Confraternity is very much alive in the slow passage of time and there is no era in which one cannot find donations and testamentary deeds allocating goods and offerings to the Oratory in which, among other things, a very sweet Madonna and Child, a 15th-century wooden sculpture, probably of the Pisan school, was venerated, perhaps previously kept in S. Stefano.
On 2nd August 1655, Cardinal Stefano Durazzo, Archbishop of Genoa, approved the new statutes of the Confraternity, which had been aggregated to the Archconfraternity of the Great Banner of St. Lucy in Rome on 2nd September 1647.
On the other hand, on 31st May 1700, the notary Fortunio Benedetto Molfino, in the oratory itself, recorded the agreement between the deputies of the Confraternity Ambrogio Pareto and Gio Agostino Canessa and the sculptor Antonio Maria Maragliano so that the latter, in return for the payment of 400 lire from Genoa, would undertake “to make a statue of St. Sebastian, six palms high”. Sebastiano d’altezza palmi sei’ (six palms high), as per the model, a wooden statue that, placed on a special case, will be solemnly carried in procession. Currently exhibited in the Oratory, it is of great interest, although the anatomical emphasis seems to prevail over the dramatic nature of the theme.
A niche in front of the high altar, which is adorned with precious inlaid marble, houses the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, a work made in 1908 by the artist Antonio Canepa, a talented sculptor, born in S. Maria del Campo, whose production can be found in many churches in Genoa and Liguria.
The organ enclosed in a beautiful Baroque case, which is housed in the choir loft on the back wall of the building, most likely dates from 1779. It is a true gem of its kind and is attributed to Tomaso II Roccatagliata, a member of a famous family of organ builders from Santa Margherita Ligure.
Not to be overlooked for their artistic and historical value are the 16th-century choir stalls, which come from the ancient Monastery of the Cervara, near Portofino, where Francis I, King of France, was held prisoner in June 1525 after being defeated by Emperor Charles V at Pavia. Also worthy of mention are the ancient ‘lanterns’ on long poles for processions and, above all, the Confraternity’s silver crucifixes, which are carried by the bearers on their arms through the streets of the city: evocative evidence of a popular folklore that has deep religious roots.