2.8 The skies above Siena: saints, beatified beings, mystics


The Baptist of Siena

The sky above Siena is similar to a gold background panel of Sienese painting: full of saints, beatified beings and mystics. There is no rank of the heavenly court where Siena does not have a worthy representative. Because the history of this city has always encompassed a double creed (at times, one superimposed over the other): that of a secular religion, with a strong civic spirit; the supernatural one, which—still recalling certain iconography—places the city in the hands of the saints or under the protective mantle of the Virgin (Sena vetus civitas Virginis, in the words of the motto stamped onto the coins of the ancient republic of Siena). So, the “soul” of the city has in turn spawned elected souls.

Sienese hagiography boasts many pages, and these brief notes will certainly give a complete account of it. But during our walk through the city we encounter places, signs, reminders of those who—in the words of Catherine of Siena—lived “in the holy and sweet love of God”. And they deserve to have their stories told. So, let’s begin this tale which, as we know, may sometimes border on legend, or the over-enthusiasm of edifying prose. But such is its charm.

It is right to begin with Saint Ansanus, who is considered to be the city’s first evangeliser when, in the second half of the third century, Siena was a Roman colony (Saena Julia). Let’s then move on to Via di San Quirico, where the church of the Prisons of Saint Ansanus is located. Its name stems from the fact that it is adjacent to the stone tower (actually built in a later period) where Ansanus would have been imprisoned. Above the church portal we see the fragments of a Madonna and Child between Saints Ansanus and Catherine of Siena by Francesco Rustici, known as the “Rustichino“(1592-1625), while the fifteenth-century oculus above depicts the titular saint and the heraldic insignia of Cardinal Antonio Casini, bishop of Siena from 1409 to 1427, who commissioned the work. Inside there are other works of art from the fifteenth century (the church is exceptionally opened on December 1 of each year, the feast of St. Ansanus, patron saint of the city).

Ansanus’s biography is rather sparse. We know that he was born in Rome in 284 into a wealthy family called Anicia (his father was Senator Tranquillino) and that, when he was very young, he was captivated by the Christian message, into which he had been initiated by matron Maxima. But these were not easy times for those who professed to believe in a crucified God, rather than worshipping the emperor. So much so that, in 302, Maxima was martyred. Meanwhile Ansanus, having been denounced by his father, managed to escape. He fled first to Bagnoregio, then to Allerona, until, at the invitation of an angel, he reached Siena to join the relatives of Pope Lucius I, a martyr in 254. He did not find life easy even in Siena, where he had begun to preach and to baptise. By order of the proconsul Lysias he was imprisoned in the tower we see and—again according to tradition—from the window below he would continue to baptise the Sienese who requested it.

Precisely in order to follow the events of the Sienese Baptist, let’s go down to Pian dei Mantellini. We turn right, and come to the Fosso di Sant’Ansano. It is said that this is the place where Ansanus had to undergo the “test of fire and boiling oil”. Although he came through it unscathed, his incarceration was decreed. He was released from the prison tower on December 1, 304 (or perhaps 303), but only to be executed. He was taken to the Sienese countryside, to Dofana, and there he was martyred by beheading (a chapel dedicated to the martyr was later built there). His body was buried in Dofana (at the time the diocese of Arezzo) and, for many years, the Sienese claimed the body of ‘their’ saint (it seems that they were also tempted to steal his remains). Finally, in 1107, the bishop of Siena was able to move the Ansanus’s remains to the Cathedral. The arrival of the remains in the city was an important event. Many people gathered around the gate (today Porta Pispini) by which the Saint entered. The people shouted excitedly: “il Santo viene, il Santo viene” [’the Saint is coming, the Saint is coming”], so that, since then, the portal has been known as San Viene. In 1359, a fire destroyed the poor remains. The relics of the right and left arms were saved: with them, Ansanus had embraced and baptised the Sienese.

Savina, sister of the poor

The Fosso di Sant’Ansano leads to piazzetta della Selva, and from here, on the left, we go into via di Vallepiatta. About halfway along begins the steep via del Costone. Number 2 is the birthplace of Savina Petrilli, one of the ‘modern’ saints (to be precise, a Blessed one) of Siena. She was born in 1851, the second daughter of Celso and Matilde Venturini. From adolescence she manifested a strong spirituality and the will to share it with others. In 1869 she was received by pope Pius IX who urged her to follow in the footsteps of St. Catherine of Siena. And so she did. On August 15, 1873, in the family chapel, together with five other sisters, she professed the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the presence of the Archbishop of Siena, Enrico Bindi. From this small community were born the Sisters of the Poor of Saint Catherine of Siena who, starting from the early twentieth century, have spread not only in Italy, but also in various countries around the world (Brazil, Argentina, India, the United States, Philippines, and Paraguay). Faithful to the divine grace of their founder, they devote themselves mainly to works of charity and to educating young people. Savina was proclaimed Blessed by John Paul II on April 24, 1988.

The child has a vision

Continuing downhill, where the road curves round and the view opens up onto the basilica of St. Dominic, we find a fresco that introduces us to the life of St. Catherine of Siena. It was here that, at the age of seven, little Catherine had her first vision. She was going back home with her brother Stefano when she saw Jesus, in pontifical robes, sitting on a throne above the Dominican basilica, surrounded by Saints Peter and Paul and John the Evangelist. This vision would mark her life forever, and would later inspire two fundamental choices for her: to become a Dominican tertiary and to ensure that the Pontiff’s action was that of one who is called to be a “sweet Christ on earth”. Such was her distress concerning the evils of the Church that she did not hesitate to urge popes and ecclesiastics to behave in a manner consistent with their mission, as when, in a letter addressed to Urban VI (the Church was torn between popes and anti-popes) she wrote the following determined and heartfelt words: “I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious blood, with a desire to see you founded in true light … Now is your time to draw this knife; to hate vice in yourself and your subjects, and in the ministers of the Holy Church”.

The mystical experience that little Catherine experienced as she walked along the shore of the Costone is referred to in the Legenda maior (a biography) written by Raimondo da Capua, the saint’s confessor. There is no doubt that the story of the episode, handed down over the centuries, has added further charm to this road that heads, alone, towards the district of Fontebranda. In the eighteenth century a painting featuring the scene narrated by Father Raimondo was placed on the road. The fresco was created by the painter Giuseppe Nicola Nasini (1657-1736), but exposure to the elements meant that two renovations had to be carried out in the twentieth century.






Catherine’s places

As though we were following Caterina’s footsteps, we go down along via del Costone until we find ourselves in front of Fontebranda, and then up via Santa Caterina. After the first part, on the left we find the Costa di Sant’Antonio and, just a few metres away, the Sanctuary of Saint Catherine. It is known as Sanctuary House, because Catherine was born here on March 25th 1347 and lived here with her family: her father, Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer and fabric merchant; her mother, Lapa di Puccio de’ Piacenti; and her numerous brothers and sisters (she was a twin, the 24th child of 25). The building, which at the time belonged to the Woolmerchants’ Guild, was rented out to her father Jacopo in the first half of the fourteenth century. In one part, the highest part, resided the family, while the dyeing workshop had been set up in the storehouses. With the decline of the Benincasa family, another dyer took over, who then purchased the house. Catherine died in 1380, and was canonised in 1461, but for the inhabitants of the Fontebranda district she was already venerated as a saint, and they asked that her house become a place open to devotion. In 1466 the Municipality of Siena decided to buy the building. Since then, over time, the complex has seen several transformations, embellishments, and artistic interventions, so as to become a charming place of worship, history, and art.

It was in these environments that Catherine’s short but intense life (33 years) took place. It was an existence that developed in a crescendo of mystical fervour, penance, and action, despite the initial opposition of her family. She took a vow of virginity, wore the habit of the Dominican Third Order, joined in mystical union with Jesus, formed a group of disciples, dictated letters (she only learned to write at the age of twenty) to governors, popes, bishops, sisters and brothers in the faith. Among the recipients was also Gregory XI, the last of the Avignonese popes, whom Catherine herself urged to return to Rome. She devoted herself to caring for the poor, the sick, and prisoners. Not an easy undertaking for a young woman of the time, often pilloried, an object of malice and slander. Prejudices arose against her, even in ecclesiastical circles, so that in 1374 she was interrogated before the General Chapter of the Dominicans. Friar Raimondo da Capua, who would later become her confessor and biographer, was present.

She was raised to the honours in 1461, by the Sienese Pope Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini). In 1939, Pius XII proclaimed her patron saint of Italy. In 1970, under the pontificate of Paul VI, she became Doctor of the Universal Church. In 1999, Pope John Paul II made her co-patron saint of Europe together with Bridget of Sweden and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).

So, we now enter Sanctuary House through the Portico dei Comuni d’Italia, so called because each Italian Municipality, or ‘comune’, contributed to its construction with the amount corresponding to the purchase of a brick. This happened after Catherine was proclaimed Patron Saint of Italy (June 19, 1939). Because of the war, the work was completed in 1947.

Several steps lead to the small loggia, remodelled in 1553 and attributed to Baldassarre Peruzzi. On the right is the entrance to the Oratory of the Crucifix which houses the Crucifix on panel of the Pisan school of the early thirteenth century, from the church of Santa Cristina in Pisa, before which Catherine would have received the stigmata. The frescoes are mainly the work of Giuseppe Nicola Nasini (1657-1736). On the left altar we see the Apotheosis of Saint Catherine by Rutilio Manetti (1571-1639), on the one on the right, Saint Catherine and Gregory XI by Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764). Other paintings retrace significant episodes in the life of the saint.

Passing on through the loggia we find the Kitchen Oratory. This was, in fact, the room occupied by the great kitchen of the Benincasa family (the remains of the old fireplace can be seen underneath the altar). The coffered ceiling with gilded rosettes was restored in 1594, while Girolamo di Marco was responsible for renovating the majolica floor in 1600, with ‘ambrogetta’ terracotta tiles in various designs. On the altar is a panel with Saint Catherine stigmatised by Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516), while the paintings in the upper part are later works by Riccio (1567-71). The canvases on the walls represent episodes in Catherine’s life taken mainly from the Legenda maior by Raimondo da Capua. Starting on the left, the following are worthy of mention: 1, Jesus shows the saint the cross that she had given to a poor man (Riccio, 1567-71); 4, Communion of the saint (Pomarancio, 1552-1626); 5, The saint frees a demonised man (Pietro Sorri, 1556-1622); 8, The saint enlightened by the Holy Spirit (Rutilio Manetti, 1571-1639); 9, Canonisation of the saint (Francesco Vanni, 1563-1610); 11, The saint has the vision of Jesus at the column (Manetti); 14, Gregory XI takes the papal seat back to Rome (Pomarancio).

Once back in the atrium, on the right is the staircase that leads down into the Oratory of the Chamber, the small room where Catherine rested and prayed (behind a grate we see the stone used as a headrest). There are also several objects here that belonged to her: the knob of her stick, the lantern she used during her nocturnal visits to the sick at the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, the jar containing the ointments to soothe their pains, a strip of her veil, and the silk bag in which the saint’s head was transported from Rome to Siena.

Above the small altar is the table painted in the early sixteenth century by Girolamo di Benvenuto, depicting Saint Catherine receiving the stigmata. On the walls is a cycle of frescoes painted in 1896 by Alessandro Franchi, again suggested by the Legenda maior.


The Mantellata

Let’s move on from the sanctuary. The stairs that, on the left, continue along the Costa di Sant’Antonio, lead to the arch of the Campaccio alley and then to via Camporegio, along which we will walk to reach the basilica of San Domenico, with its entrance on the square of the same name. This is a remarkably beautiful itinerary, because while the panorama of the city gradually comes into view on the left, in front of us the basilica grows more and more imposing, with the red of its bricks and the strong Gothic structure (typical of the mendicant orders between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) that almost resembles a fortress (a fortress of faith and doctrine). It’s another place full of evocative reminders of St. Catherine. The construction of the church began in 1226 and, with subsequent extensions, finished in 1465. In 1531, due to damage caused by a fire, it underwent significant restorations. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the fourteenth-century bell tower was lowered, and on this occasion the battlements were also constructed. Inside, the majestic bareness of the temple is immediately striking, with a single nave that opens onto the great transept.

Just to the right is the Chapel of Vaults. It was here that Saint Catherine received the habit of the Dominican Third Order, and under these vaults she retreated in prayer; and—as the hagiographic stories recount—as she was often overcome by mystical raptures, she had to support herself at the pillar in the middle of the two arches.

At the altar on the left we see what is believed to be the ‘true portrait’ of the saint, since it was painted by one of her disciples, Andrea Vanni (1353-1413). Vanni, who was a painter as well as being a politician and diplomat, belonged to the circle of young people who shared Catherine’s doctrine and ideals. The fresco was originally on another wall of the church; it was taken down and moved to the new location in 1667. It shows Catherine in third-order habit (or ‘mantellata’, meaning cape), holding a lily, a metaphor of purity; the back of her hands show signs of a wound, which suggests that the painting was created after April 1, 1375, the date on which the saint received the stigmata. The young woman on her knees is a disciple.

On the opposite wall are two paintings by Crescenzio Gambarelli (1602) which, again on the basis of the Legenda maior, represent miraculous events that took place in this chapel: the saint gives her clothes to a pilgrim in the likeness of Jesus; Jesus returns to Catherine the rosary cross she had given him. At the centre is the Canonisation of the saint by Mattia Preti (1672): in the scene we see Pius II blessing his nephew Francesco Piccolomini, archbishop of Siena, at the time of the delivery of the seal of canonisation of Saint Catherine.

The iconographic account of other episodes linked to the life of the saint continues in the two canvases placed on either side of the wall opposite the entrance, both by Gambarelli. In one, Catherine recites the breviary together with Jesus; in the other the Death of the saint is depicted. In the central one is the Apparition of Saint Catherine to Saint Rose of Lima, the work of the Sienese painter Deifebo Burbarini (1619-1680).

Going down the steps of the Chapel of the Vaults, in a reliquary placed on the right side of the nave there are several relics: the saint’s thumb, kept in a crystal and silver case, the chalice with which she received the Eucharist from Jesus, the ropes used to flagellate her body, the stone of her portable altar, the bronze bust in which the head of the saint was kept prior to its current location.

The chapel on the right side of the nave, built specifically in 1466 and enriched with paintings of great value, is dedicated to the relic of the ‘sacred head’. There are also the two masterpieces of Il Sodoma (1526) on either side of the altar, the Mystical fainting and theEcstasy of the saint. The fresco on the left wall, Beheading of Niccolò di Tuldo,is also the work of Il Sodoma. It’s an episode that we find recounted in one of the Letters addressed to Raimondo da Capua, which is striking due to its drama and narrative force. Niccolò di Tuldo was a gentleman from Perugia who, in 1377, was falsely of espionage by the Sienese judiciary, who condemned him to death. In the days preceding the execution of the sentence, Catherine went to visit him in prison, to try to relieve him of his anger and despair: “Be comforted, my sweet brother, for soon we shall reach the wedding. And thou shalt go forth bathed in the sweet blood of the Son of God, with the sweet name of Jesus, whom you must not forget; I will wait for thee at the place of righteousness.” As promised, she accompanied him to the gallows, and it was she who gently bent his head and saw him pacified in God “like a tame lamb”,

On the right wall, an oil painting by Francesco Vanni depicts Saint Catherine freeing an obsessed woman from the devil, arousing curiosity and wonder in those present. 

The marble tabernacle containing the saint’s head is the work of Giovanni di Stefano (1466). The ‘sacred head’ is undoubtedly the relic most venerated by the Sienese and by the pilgrims, but there were various and turbulent events before it found this rich ostentation. These are worth remembering. Catherine died in Rome on 29 April 1380, and was buried in the cemetery of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, in a tomb exposed to the weather and humidity. Fra’ Raimondo da Capua did not deem it a worthy burial, so much so that, after less than a year, he was able to transfer the mortal remains to a tomb inside the same church as Minerva. On that occasion he asked Pope Urban VI to be able to detach Catherine’s head in order to have it sent to Siena, the birthplace of the woman for whom the pontiff already intended to begin the process of canonisation. With this papal assent, the pious intervention was carried out. The head, placed in a silk bag (the one kept today at the Santuario Casa) was given to two Dominican friars, Tommaso della Fonte and Ambrogio Sansedoni, who left for Siena. Full of worry about their delicate task, they arrived at the convent of St. Dominic, and the relic was hidden in a closet in the sacristy, as it was decided that it was not be exhibited to the public until after Catherine’s canonisation. 

A few years later, it so happened that Raimondo da Capua passed through Siena to Bagno Vignoni and the Dominican brothers informed him that the saint’s head “had not yet been exhibited to the public, nor had it been greeted with solemnity; however, when the mortal remains of the men of this world are brought from one place to another, they are received by the people and the clergy with solemn honours”. Raymond and his fellow brothers therefore felt that the time had come “to make sure that one day the Head would be received by the brothers with solemnity, as if it had arrived at that time”.

The Dominicans therefore decided to come out into the open, to tell the Supreme Magistrate of the Republic of Siena with what vicissitudes the beloved mortal remains had arrived in Siena (Fra’ Raimondo would take all responsibility) and then, involving the whole city, to finally be able to solemnise and exhibit the relic.

The Republican authorities dictated their place and there was a great feast. On the night of 4th May 1384 a gilded copper case containing the head was taken to the church of San Lazzaro, outside Porta Romana, and from there, the following day, a crowded procession of people, city authorities, gentlemen, clergymen, children bearing lilies and roses proceeded towards the basilica of San Domenico. The ceremony was followed by fifteen days of preaching focused on the life and heroic works of the girl from Fontebranda. Then the shrine was placed again in a valuable cabinet of the Dominican church. It remained there until 1461, when, at the time of Catherine’s canonisation, a chapel was built to house the ‘sacred head’. 

Over time, the relic has survived earthquakes and other disasters, such as the fire inside the basilica on the night between 3 and 4 December 1531. It was saved from the flames by the resourcefulness of Fra’ Anselmo da Firenze who, with a wet sheet, prevented the worst. Today, in a reliquary made from silver and enamel, it makes for a solemn display, and is the object of prayers and requests for grace.

At the conclusion of this digression relating to St. Catherine, mainly biographical, a separate discourse should be made regarding the spirituality and theology expressed by the saint, all hinged on the figure of Christ. To the illiterate girl of Fontebranda (thanks to the group of young intellectuals who were not only her disciples, but also secretaries/writers) we owe a corpus of writings of great stature, collected in the Letters (383, addressed to the most diverse people) and in the Dialogue of Divine Providence, which she herself called the Book. Above all, the Dialogue (the saint asks questions, God answers) is the synthesis of the theology and asceticism of Saint Catherine. It’s no coincidence that some say it is her dissertation, that earned her the title of Doctor of the Church. Because of all this, even in the history of literature from the twelfth century to the early sixteenth century, that of Catherine of Siena is almost the only woman’s name to represent a female intellectuality.

Gallerani and the Domus Misericordiae

From Piazza San Domenico we proceed along Via della Sapienza. At the end, on the corner with Via delle Terme, we find the church of San Pellegrino alla Sapienza, created with 18th century lines. Above the door is the inscription “Domus Misericordiae”, in memory of the pre-existing house of Santa Maria della Misericordia founded around 1250 by the Blessed Andrea Gallerani. It is a confraternity dedicated to charitable and caring activities, which in this place had erected a chapel and other rooms used as a hospital. The institution was active until the last decades of the 14th century, when, due to an incorrect administration, the bishop and the municipality decreed that it be abolished. In 1408, with papal seals issued by Gregory XII, the building was assigned to the Casa della Sapienza, the first seat of the Sienese Studio.

As for Andrea Gallerani (1201?-1251), son of the Sienese nobleman Ghezzolino Gallerani, we know that he embarked on his military career and was a fervent man of faith. But this was perhaps with an excess of zeal, such as the time when he killed a man, a poor devil with the vice of blasphemy. Because of the murder, he was exiled from the city. Once he returned to Siena and repented of his guilt, he used his Christianity for more meek and charitable activities, founding, as we have said, the Company of the Oblates of Mercy at the service of the poor and sick. Attracted by his example, many young people joined him, so much so that the Congregation became a very important city institution. He died with a reputation for holiness in 1251 and was buried in the Dominican church. His tomb became a frequent destination for the faithful, so much so that in 1274 Bishop Bernardo Bandini granted leniency to those who had visited it, a concession later confirmed by Pius V. In 1799, Pius VI granted the Archdiocese of Siena that every June 20 the feast of the Blessed Andrea Gallerani (this is the title traditionally recognised by the Church) could be celebrated, with mass and proper offices.





The prophetess

The ascent of the Costa dell’Incrociata takes us to Banchi di Sopra, where we turn right to find, on the left, the medieval Arco dei Rossi which leads to the road of the same name. At number 60 is the house where Anna Maria Giannetti was born, on May 29, 1769. Her father Luigi was a pharmacist, an intemperate person and a squanderer, who soon found himself in extreme poverty. And so he moved to Rome, with his wife and daughter, in search of employment. Anna Maria first studied at the Maestre Pie and then at a school that prepared her for women’s work. She began working as a maid with the Serra family, where she met her future husband Domenico Taigi, also a servant at the house of the Chigi princes. They married in 1789 and had seven children.

She shared with her mother a strong religious sense of life, and it was precisely by listening to a reading on the Last Judgement from her mother that she decided to devote herself to an existence of fasting and penance. In 1790, in the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, she became a tertiary of the barefoot Trinitarians. From this date until her death, she claimed to have, not far from her eyes, a luminous globe (a small sun) within which past and future events, the state of living or dead souls, and thus their eternal destiny, were manifested to her. By virtue of this divine grace, she predicted the return to Rome of Pius VII after his exile in Fontainebleau; and she became a providential counsellor of the pontiff himself, as when she revealed to him the plans that were being made to assassinate him. These prophetic talents were also used to aid Pius VIII, Leo XII, Gregory XVI, high prelates and political figures of Rome at the time. Anna Maria was also famous for healing, and her talents were used by Maria Luisa Borbone Spagna, Queen Consort of Etruria, who was cured of epilepsy.

The origin of the prophecy called the “Three Days of Darkness” was attributed to Taigi. A prediction in line with her mysticism continually linked to divine judgment. In those three days God’s punishment would come down on earth in the form of wars and other evils. There would be darkness and pestilence everywhere. Only the blessed candles in the homes of the faithful in prayer would shed any light. The enemies of the church would all perish in darkness, except for the few converts. Then, on the third day, Saint Peter and Saint Paul would appoint a new pope, and Christianity would spread throughout the world.

Anna Maria Taigi died in Rome on June 9, 1837. The cause for her canonisation was initiated by Pius IX in 1863, on 4 March 1906 Pius X decreed her heroic virtues declaring her venerable, and she was proclaimed Beatified by Pope Benedict XV on 30 May 1920. Her body is preserved in the Roman basilica of San Crisogono in Trastevere.


The founder of the Olivetans 

Let’s go back to Banchi di Sopra. Turning to the left, we find the square on which the elegant Palazzo Tolomei stands. Giovanni Tolomei, son of Mino and Fulvia Tancredi, also belonged to this noble lineage. He was born in Siena on May 10, 1272. A brilliant law student, he later became a lecturer at the Sienese university. He also held public offices (among them, Capitano del Popolo). His career and lively social life were interrupted when he contracted a disease in his eyes that led him to become almost blind. He asked for the grace of regaining his sight by promising God that he would dedicate his life to prayer and penance. The miraculous healing came to pass, and, in 1313, in accordance with his vow, Giovanni retired to the “desert of Accona”.

This was the name of the family property in the municipality of Asciano, in the area of the ‘Crete’ [Sienese clay], characterised by a barren and desert-like landscape. He was accompanied in this hermitage by two other Sienese nobles, Patrizio Patrizi and Ambrogio Piccolomini. In short, the community grew, and on March 26, 1319, the bishop of Arezzo, Guido Tarlati dei Pietramala approved the foundation of a new monastery that would be called Monte Oliveto (because of the various olive trees in the area). The monks followed the rule of Saint Benedict, and from that moment on Giovanni took the name Benedict [Benedetto in its Italian form]. In 1320 the construction of the monastery was begun and, in 1344, the Olivetan congregation was confirmed by Clement VI. Tolomei himself was abbot there until his death on August 20, 1348 after contracting the plague by assisting, together with other brethren, the plague victims of Siena. The Olivetan order also spread elsewhere, so much so that the Sienese monastery, to distinguish it from the others, took the name of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. On August 31, 1768, Clement XIII declared Bernardo Tolomei beatified. The monastery, less than 40 kilometres from Siena, is certainly worth a visit due to the charm of the place and the masterpieces of art that are housed there.


Theologian, preacher, diplomat

From Piazza Tolomei we take via di Calzoleria which, with the nearby alleys, bears traces of the original urban structure of the medieval quarter. We end up in Banchi di Sotto, and at number 34 is Palazzo Sansedoni, whose main facade overlooks Piazza del Campo like a castle set in the hemicycle of the square. From an aggregation of palaces dating back to the first half of the 13th century, the palace was later transformed into a single stately home. And it was here that the Sansedoni came to live, with Ambrogio being on of their most famous exponents.

Ambrogio Sansedoni was born on April 16, 1220. Not exactly a pretty baby, he had severe deformities in his limbs, so much so that he was entrusted to a nurse outside the family rooms. The woman took loving care of him and—according to legend—he was able to return to his family when he was cured, after his nurse had placed him in front of the altar of the chapel of the hospital of La Maddalena (the first Dominican convent in Siena). At seventeen years old, he decided to become a Dominican friar. He attended his first studies and, in 1245 the novitiate went on to further pursue his studies in Paris, then in Cologne, in 1248. He was taught by the future Saint Albert the Great. His fellow students were Pietro di Tarantasia (later to become Pope Innocent V) and Thomas Aquinas. 

Because of his theological culture he was called upon to teach in Paris. No less appreciated was his preaching expertise which the iconography often represented with a dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit speaking to his ear. He also demonstrated considerable diplomatic skills, thanks to which, in 1245, the schism that was feared to occur in Germany due to the dispute between the Council of Lyon and Emperor Frederick II was probably avoided.

The political-religious events of the time very much involved the Sansedonis. After Frederick II died, his son Manfredi intended to recover the imperial territories in southern Italy. The Church thus became involved in a struggle against Germany,calling Charles of Anjou’s French army to Italy. Since Ghibelline Siena was on Manfredi’s side, Clement IV decreed that sacred rites could no longer be celebrated in the city. Ambrogio then left for Orvieto to be received by the Pope, and to argue how the measure mortified the Sienese. So passionate and rational was Ambrogio’s exposition that the Pope had to admit: “Never has a man spoken in such a way.” This opinion was also widespread among all those who had had the opportunity to listen to Sansedoni in Paris, in Germany, and wherever else he had intervened as mediator and peacemaker. Unfortunately he missed the mark when, from Naples—and despite the involvement of the pope—he tried to save Corradino of Swabia, whom the traitors had handed over to Charles of Anjou, from being beheaded.

Returning to Siena, he became prior to the convent of San Domenico and embarked on an intense preaching activity. He died on March 20, 1286, while preaching during Lent. It is said that he was making a speech against usury and that the vehemence of his words was so strong that it caused him to rupture an artery. The city mourned him and honoured him immediately as a patron saint. The people gathered in prayer before his relics in San Domenico, one of his bust was placed on the facade of the Duomo, and until the middle of the 16th century a Palio was dedicated to him. In 1597 Pope Clement VIII included him in the Roman Martyrology.


Faith and works

We continue along Banchi di Sotto. At number 81, the fourteenth-century Palazzo Piccolomini Clementini, where the Compagnia delle Figlie di Sant’Angela Merici has its headquarters, recalls the memory of Countess Bianca, a member of this great Sienese family that included Pope Pius II among its ancestors.

Bianca was born in 1877. She grew up in a family of rigorous Catholic tradition, but one that was also open to the social issues that the Church would bring to the attention of its faithful with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891). Pietro Piccolomini, Bianca’s brother, was a very committed person and opened the family palace to various social initiatives: The Society of Patronage and Mutual Aid between Workers, literacy courses, cultural and educational meetings that brought together nobles, aristocrats, and commoners. Pietro died suddenly in 1907, and Bianca, who had always supported him in these activities, continued his charitable work, and implemented projects that her brother had not completed in time, such as the creation of a tailoring and embroidery workshop.

With the passage of time, for Bianca the dimension of Christianity that unites faith and works became increasingly clearer. And she began to think about her vocation to constitute – as she would write in one of her diaries – «an entirely internal, intimate and spiritual congregation, which would keep us girls all united with each other and united with God», in order to live a faith not of form but of substance, aimed at imitating Christ, and freedom of spirit and thought.

In Brescia she had had the opportunity to meet the Company of the Daughters of St. Angela Merici, a religious order that was undoubtedly innovative, since the women who consecrated themselves there did not retire to the convent, did not wear special clothes, and continued to live ‘in the world’. It seemed to Bianca that this was the rule that best suited her own vocation. Thus, in 1917, she formed the first nucleus of the community in Siena, together with two women involved in coordinating the tailoring workshop that had been set up in the meantime. In 1920 she opened an agricultural Colony (this was another of the ideas her brother Pietro had), for training people in agricultural trades. Never losing sight of the spiritual dimension, she established the Opera Ritiri in order to organise spiritual retreats for women whom she guided with meditations and moments of prayer. In the same way, she established the Association of “night reparation”, a group of Adorers «one with Christ the Priest, victims with Him and for Him» elected to pray in reparation for the sins of consecrated souls and the clergy. Clergy with whom Bianca never had easy relations, because of the autonomy from any clerical interference that she always demanded for her activities. However, she had fruitful contact with particularly enlightened priests such as Don Orione, Primo Mazzolari, and Divo Barsotti. Her thoughts regarding the clergy are clearly expressed in a diary page dated 12 December 1937: «While I protest my unconditional submission to the Church, my beloved mother, I must confess that within my institution I will never allow priestly interference, except in the part concerning worship, because I have unfortunately seen how rare it is to find, in priests, holiness combined with freedom of spirit» From this, the disputes with the ecclesiastical hierarchies seem understandable.

When she became infirm and blind, she left the leadership of the Company in 1957. She died in Siena on 14 August 1959, a few months after Pope John XIII had announced the project of a Council for the universal Church. Bianca Piccolomini, in her own way, had already grasped the need and the spirit of the renewal of the Church that would later emerge from the Second Vatican Council. On March 3, 2016, she was declared venerable by decree of the Holy Congregation of Saints.


The Madman of Christ 

Going along the Pope’s Loggias, we come to Via del Porrione. At number 49 is the Archconfraternity of Mercy, whose foundation is derived from the Domus Misericordiae which we have already mentioned, established by Andrea Gallerani.

In the small museum of the Archconfraternity, we find several references to a singular figure of Sienese mysticism: Bartolomeo Carosi (or Garosi), known as Brandano, a grumpy hermit, impetuous preacher, and apocalyptic prophet.

Brandano was a farmer from Petroio (Trequanda), where he was born in 1483. His life also has a ‘before’ (of dissolution, unbridledness, sin) and an ‘after’ (of repentance, virtue, holiness). It all began when, due to a badly set hoe, a stone hit his left eye and blinded him forever on that side. The misfortune made Carosi as blasphemous and angry as ever towards the Creator. Until, one day, he happened to listen to the sermon of a friar, Serafino da Pistoia, who convinced him so much of the importance of heavenly things that he himself became a preacher. 

The farmer from Petroio then began to visit towns and cities brandishing the cross (perhaps from this gesture came the nickname Brandano) and announcing: «God’s punishment is near… do good, because death is coming». With good reason, not everyone liked Brandano’s warnings, aimed at «taking back and calling to penitence the wretched and obstinate sinner, proclaiming upon them great pestilence and hunger». More than once he risked his own safety. After all, his predictions (which regularly occurred) were not at all reassuring. Such as when, in Santa Vittoria, to the group of people who asked him how deep they had to dig for water, he replied «dig deep, because soon you will fill it with the bones of the dead», and a few days later, that very place was the scene of a battle, with a thousand dead.

Things became complicated, especially when Brandano decided to go to preach in Rome, «not to dispute or teach doctrine», he said, «but to teach how one should return to penitence». In particular to teach priests, corrupt and greedy bishops who forget their mission; as rigid in doctrine as they are bland in their lives. Perhaps he went too far on Holy Thursday in 1527, when, at the end of the solemn rites, while Pope Clement VII blessed the crowd, he shouted at him, calling him a “sodomite bastard” and warning the many present that, precisely because of a sinful pope, Rome would soon be destroyed. A few months later, by chance, the Sack of Rome took place; this was at the hands of the Lansquenets, hired by Charles V of Hasburg.

The Sienese prophet was immediately arrested by the Swiss guards, chained up, wrapped in a sack and thrown into the Tiber. But, miraculously, Carosi resurfaced from the water. This episode made him very popular and feared among the Romans, who had not escaped other disturbing prodigies: a lightning bolt had struck the papal palaces, another had removed the crown from the head of the statue of Our Lady of Santa Maria in Traspontina, in the Sistine Chapel a pyx had inexplicably fallen to the ground, and a cow had given birth inside the rooms of the Chancellery. All in all, there was enough material to believe the prophecies of the “madman of Christ”.

Brandano’s tirades against Clement VII received wide acclaim in Siena. This was also because, with the clear support of the Pope, it was possible to carry out the Medici attack on the city. And, therefore, down went the antichrist pope and enemy of Siena, and hurrah for Brandano, who in the meantime had regulated his religious position by joining the Company of Saint Anthony Abbot, linked to the Augustinians of Lecceto. There was, thus, an unusual case of welcoming for the “prophet at home”. Brandano was allowed to preach in the Duomo, the notable people of the city wanted him to be the godfather of their children, the institutions gave him money “pro elemosina ed amore Dei” to use for his works at the service of the poor, for the care of the sick of Santa Maria della Scala, and for the religious education of young people.

Brandano’s patriotism found its most moving testimony in the exhortation he addressed to Julius III: «I warn you, Holy Father, or rather Pastor, that you must not take any action against the old city of Siena, which is a city of the high Reina that has looked after at it and will continue to do so, and whoever is against us shall leave» .

Brandano died in Siena on 24 May 1554. The then Archbishop Camillo Borghese issued an edict urging the Sienese to venerate Bartolomeo Carosi as beatified. His body was displayed for three days in the church of San Martino, which was always crowded with people. The beatified Carosi returned the affection of his fellow citizens with miracles and further wonders. Subsequently, his body was removed and buried in a secret place.

In the Museo della Misericordia the robe with cilice, the cross and the skull that Brandano showed in his sermons are now exhibited. The cross with the two Marys is preserved in the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria in Provenzano.

A great communicator

Let’s go back along via del Porrione and, straight ahead, we come to Piazza del Campo. Looking at the Palazzo Pubblico, the large copper disk in the shape of a radiant sun, which stands out on the facade, certainly stands out. It reproduces the trigram conceived by Saint Bernardino da Siena and painted by Battista di Niccolò in 1425. 

Piazza del Campo, as we know, was the site (together with Piazza San Francesco) of famous sermons by Bernardini. Early in the morning, the friar would climb up to a pulpit in the lower part of the square and begin to explain doctrine and sacred scriptures to the people. He did so with such effective and clever language that his sermons are considered in Italian literature as precious examples of living language. If we wish to see what the scene was like, we can go into the Civic Museum where a tempera on wood by Neroccio di Bartolomeo depicts a Sermon by San Bernardino in Piazza del Campo. The scene is very entertaining: men and women, suitably separated by a long room divider, glancing and winking at each other, and not really showing any great interest in the words of the holy man. And, in fact, Bernardino was forced to issue continuous and harsh reprimands: «… look at me, do you understand? Look at me…; oh, you people near the fountain, conducting business? Go and do it somewhere else!; oh, children selling candles, I’m talking to you!» terre di siena

Bernardino degli Albizzeschi, of noble origins, was born in Massa Marittima in 1380. Orphaned, he moved to Siena to study, kindly assisted by his wealthy aunts. At the age of 22 he became a friar of the Franciscan Minors and began to preach in Northern Italy. He was distinguished by direct speech and an interpretation of the Gospel that was very closely linked to the tangible aspects of life. Some of his concepts of ethics and entrepreneurship have entered into the history of economic thinking. Such as, for example, the idea that the wealth of some should create wealth for all. And, therefore, woe to those rich people who, instead of investing for the common good, used their money in the deplorable activity of usury. Such preaching obviously made him many enemies. In 1425, when he preached in Siena for seven weeks in a row, usurers and casino managers demanded a trial against him for heresy. The case ended up in Rome, but also thanks to the defence of Giovanni da Capestrano, Bernardino was completely acquitted of the accusation. In fact, Pope Martin V asked him to stay in Rome where for 80 days he preached intensely.

Albizzeschi was a man of vast culture: a scholar of Guarino Veronese, and friend to famous humanists including Traversi and Leonardo Bruni. The first story of his life is due to two men of letters, Barnaba Sanese and Maffeo Vegio. His sermons have reached us thanks to someone who zealously attended these sermons: Benedetto by master Bartholomew, a cloth trimmer, who ‘stenographed’ and transcribed the words and even the onomatopoeic games of the whimsical Franciscan friar. Among the most famous sermons are those of the Sienese Lent of 1427. It’s undoubtedly an impressive essay. Having to explain the Apocalypse, Bernardino hurls himself from the pulpit and begins to say: «… et datus est ei gladius magnus… and says, he was given a very long sword. – Doh! Magiore che Durindana. – Oh how big was it? – I say it was greater than this whole field. – Oh, was it as great as from here to the gate in Camollia? – More than that. I tell you, it was greater than all of Tuscany. – Oh, was it greater than Italy? – Even greater. She was greater than all Christianity: I say that she was as great as all the earth and the sea». And listeners were also privy to the sound of the resounding Last Judgement: «when the second Angel set the trumpet to boca, tpu, tpu, tpu, a mountain of burning fire, bigger than the Montamiata, fell into the sea».

A great communicator, Bernardino also designed the logo that would best summarise his message based on the figure of Jesus the Saviour of mankind. This, in fact, refers to the disc with the three letters (IHS, Iesus Hominum Salvator) which, like a sun, radiates Grace and Charity through 12 serpentine rays (12, like the apostles); then there are another eight rays (as many as there are beatitudes); the band surrounding the sun is eternal bliss; the celestial background is faith, while gold is the gleam of Love. It is the brand of a saint rightly chosen by advertisers as their patron saint.

Throughout his life, Bernardino never ceased his evangelising work. In 1444, already very ill, he went to L’Aquila. Bishop Agnifili had invited him to preach and to try to reconcile two opposing factions. He died in this city, on May 20th and was buried there in the basilica of L’Aquila, which was dedicated to him.

In Siena, a very evocative place relating to Bernardino is the Osservanza convent, on Colle della Capriola (about five kilometres from the city; it can also be reached by city buses N. 3 and 8). San Bernardino lived here during his time in Siena. Unfortunately his cell was lost in the 17th century renovation of the convent. However, it has been rebuilt with some original materials, such as the small entrance door. Here are preserved the travel cassock, other clothing and clothes that the saint wore at the time of his death; the tablet with the trigram, dated 1425 and probably used in ostension by Bernardino in the celebrations of the Name of Jesus dating back to that year. Also of documentary importance are the signatures on display, such as the letter of St. James of the Brand. On a wall was placed the terracotta depicting San Bernardino in dolente contemplazione, first attributed to Urbano da Cortona, then later a probable copy of the original terracotta by Cozzarelli. On the altar of the cell is the bust of the saint, which comes from the façade of the same church of the Osservanza, attributed to Vecchietta.

On leaving the convent we go down to the square at the back of the church. The city reveals itself to us, suspended between earth and sky. As were its saints.


Produced by: toscanalibri.it
Texts edited by: Luigi Oliveto
Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello e Laura Modafferi
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena
Graphic design: Michela Bracciali


I Comuni di Terre di Siena