We begin with an image, and a story. Explanation will emerge from what follows. Figure 1 depicts a huge wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, once the figurehead on the prow of a ship, but now on the high altar of the church of Saints Vittore and Carlo in Genoa, and venerated as Nostra Signora della Fortuna. On the night of 16-17 January 1636 a violent storm struck the port of Genoa. Many ships were wrecked. Among them was one called the Madonna della Pieta, which had the Virgin as its figurehead. A group of Genoese sailors bought this image as part of the salvage washed up from the sea. First setting it up under a votive painting of the Virgin in the harbour, they repaired it, had it repainted, and on the eve of Corpus Christi brought it to the church of San Vittore, close by the port. A famous blind song-writer was commissioned to write a song in honour of the image. Sailors and groups of young girls went through the streets of the city singing and collecting gifts. The statue became at once the focus of an extraordinary popular cult, thousands of people arriving day and night with candles, silver crowns, necklaces, and crosses in gratitude for the graces which had immediately begun to be granted. Volleys of mortars were let off in celebration. The affair was managed by the sailors who, in the face of mounting criticism and anxiety from local church leaders, directed devotions and even conducted exorcisms before the image. To stem the gathering tide of visitors and claims of miracles, and to try to establish control, the higher clergy first questioned the identity of the statue (some held it to represent, not the Virgin, but the Queen of England); then the statue was walled up; finally the church was closed altogether. Still, devotees climbed into the church, and large-scale demonstrations of protest were held. The archbishop instituted a process of investigation, in the course of which many eye-witnesses and people who claimed to have experienced miracles were interviewed (giving, in the surviving manuscript, rich detail of their responses to the image). Eventually the prohibition was lifted, and from 1637 until well into the twentieth century devotion to Nostra Signora della Fortuna remained strong, with frequent miracles or graces being recorded. So here we have a cult focused on an image of secular origin, transformed by the promotion of the sailors into a devotional object which roused the enthusiasm of thousands of lay people. It was a cult which, significantly, sprang up at a time of unrest in the city of Genoa, and which thus focused pressing issues of authority. The late 163os witnessed growing tension between factions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ nobility, the latter being marked by their hostility to the traditional Genoese Spanish alliance. Hostilities were played out both within the Senate and in clashes in the streets of the city. The cult of Nostra Signora della Fortuna grew up in this context, but survived and developed in subsequent centuries, attracting devotion from all over Italy.