During a stay in the Italian city of Firenze some years ago, it was on an April day we visited the medieval city of Siena.
Of the many Tuscan cities we covered during this visit – unlike Pisa with its historic churches, medieval castles and the Leaning Bell Tower of Pisa Cathedral; – or the gorgeous Lucca, the “city of 100 churches”, which does not occupy a hilltop position but takes pride for being the birthplace of the opera composer Giacomo Puccini; – or the port city of Livorno with its great seafood dishes and “Quartiere La Venezia”, – it was in Siena we dedicated more days on our itinerary to explore the marvels that awaited us.
It was whilst in Roma years ago, when the idea first entered our minds to include Siena in our bucket-list of places to visit.
At Roma, we had chanced upon the statue of the she-wolf who supposedly suckled the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Roma. This saga of Romulus and Remus holds the myth that Siena is founded by Senius, the son of Remus, and that Remus was, in the course of founding Roma, slain by Romulus. Yet another tradition has it that Siena’s name is related to the Gallic tribe of the Senones.
Located in the heart of Tuscany and enclosed within medieval walls, the city of Siena which rises up on the ridge of three hills has its ancient aspect still intact. Rich in medieval histories significantly from the Middle Ages, Siena is renowned for its time-honoured traditions, works of art and architecture, churches, museums, old patrician villas, brick-red buildings, narrow winding streets and alleys, fine cuisine, etc.
Unfortunately, our visit didn’t coincide with the traditional bareback horserace il Palio de Siena held two times every summer around Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square where the old Roman forum once stood.
One of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, UNESCO has declared this historic city center as a World Heritage Site. Siena is featured in many movies including in one of Daniel Craig’s James Bond outing “Quantum of Solace” which shows snippets from the Palio race.
It is said that the herring-bone pattern of brick paving of the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo also symbolizes the cloak of the Madonna which shelters Siena.
At one of the restaurants in Siena where we dined twice, one could hardly miss a marble placard hanging behind the drinks counter. Its contents read:
Salve, Regina, mater misericordia,
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra salve
Ad te clamamus, exules filii hevae. (1)
This placard initiated a friendly conversation with the “happily unmarried” owner of the restaurant who went on to explain that, ever since the battle of Monteaperti (September 1260) between Siena and Firenze, the Blessed Virgin had been the patron saint of Siena and the town had assumed the designation of Civitas Virginis. He was steadfast in his conviction that Siena is not only blessed by the Virgin Mary’s cloak, but also by two other saints of this city who were exalted by signs from God – i.e., St Catherine (1347-1380), a tertiary of the Dominican Order at Siena, and St Bernardino of Siena (Bernardino degli Albizzeschi, 1380-1444), the mighty preacher.
A Franciscan preacher and prominent proponent of devotion to the Holy Name, Bernardino is also credited as the creator of the YHS (or IHS) trigram from which the rays shine forth.
Siena is simply the town of Caterina Benincasa, better known as Saint Catherine of Siena. She was the twenty-third of twenty-five children of Lapa di Puccio dé Piacenti and Giacomo di Benincasa, a dyer by trade from the district of Fontebranda in Siena, a place permeated by the odour of tanning and dyeing.
A bundle of love and joy, Catherine embodied all the feminine virtues expected in a little girl. Living within close proximity to the convent church of Dominicans, she felt drawn to the morals and values of Christianity, and from the early age of six, experienced mystical visions. In 1363 at the age of sixteen, she received the habit of the Sisters of Penance of St Dominic, called the Mantellate. During the course of her life she practiced severe austerity and combined with prayer, self-denial and works of charity became an outstanding figure of medieval Catholicism.
It is written that Christ’s stigmata were imprinted on her body on April 1, 1375 during a visit to Pisa where for the first time she saw the sea. Fond of definitions, she would later record her mystical experiences in writing in addition to nearly four hundred letters she brought forth to people of Italy and Europe as a whole.
Other than St Bridget (Swedish princess Birgitta Birgersdotter, 1303-1373, the patron saint of Sweden) the mystic and foundress of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour; it was Catherine who predominantly prevailed on the deeply religious Pope Gregory XI (Pierre Roger de Beaufort – Pope from 1370-1378) to end the Avignon Papacy and return the papal court from Avignon to the Tomb of Peter, Roma, which the Pope did during mid-January, 1377 –the main and courageous event of his reign.
Both Catherine and Bernardino have encountered the flywheel of the great Pestilence that devastated Europe during their respective life times. They indulged in taking care of the sick and the poor, nursing the unfortunate multitudes of plague victims around them. We could relate to that situation owing to its similarity to what our world is experiencing now as the spread of Covid-19 achieves exponential acceleration.
Today, 29th marks the 641st year since St Catherine of Siena, the greatest of Christian mystics, died in Roma on April 29, 1380. She is enshrined in Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Roma while, among other relics, Her Sacred Head brought to Siena from Rome in 1383 is housed in a reliquary inside St Catherine’s Chapel at Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico in Siena. In June 1461, Catherine was canonized by Pope Pius II when with great solemnity the body of the saint, exhumed for the purpose, lay before the Pope holding a spotless lily (an attribute scarcely ever omitted in her paintings), that was placed in her hand.
It was in 1939 when, along with San Francesco d’Assisi, Catherine was declared as the patron saint of Italy by the newly elected Pope Pius XII. Another pious occasion was at a solemn ceremony, fragrant with Catherine’s spirit, in St Peter’s Basilica on October 4, 1970 when Pope Paul VI placed her in the list of the Doctors of the Church.
In 1999, vide an Apostolic Letter, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Teresa Benedicta of The Cross and St. Catherine of Siena, co-patronesses of Europe. That was the victory lap of the Godliness in those great women – and a reminder that there is a God who lives on in all of us – a divinity – a power for good.
I now take leave with Catherine’s own words: “Speak the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.”
Until next time, Jo
- Hail, Holy Queen, mother of mercy; Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope; To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
- This is dedicated to all the Covid-19 warriors, alive and dead, around the World.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)