8.7 Locations of Augustinian Activity

Sancta Inquietudo

Discovering the places marked by the presence of the Augustinians offers an opportunity to retrace the history of men and women devoted to the Lord, admiring the splendid examples of faith, charity, and holiness that were both models and points of reference for Sienese civilization in the Middle Ages.

 At the beginning of the 12th century, a profound change began to take place in what had until then been a predominantly rural society, bound to working the land. Thanks to trade and the growth of artisanry, the cities experienced unprecedented development and the bourgeoisie was born, a different social class that needed new evangelists. At the same time, the secular clergy was limited and little inclined to the scriptures, while the monastic orders were settled in the countryside, far from the urban centres, and dedicated to manual work and prayer. The response to this challenge was the birth of the Mendicant Orders of St Francis and St Dominic, which sought to extend their reach into the cities to bring the Gospel to them through sermons, teaching, and the administration of the sacraments, embracing a community life of poverty and charity towards the needy.

In the meantime, while the Franciscans and Dominicans were beginning to develop, various hermitic congregations in the ancient region of Tuscia (a territory that included Tuscany, part of Umbria, and Lazio) approached the pope to ask to be constituted as a religious family under the spiritual guidance of Saint Augustine. Thus it was that around the middle of the 13th century, the Ordine degli Eremiti Agostiniani (Order of Augustinian Hermits) was officially born, included among the Mendicant Orders or the ‘fraternità apostolica’ (apostolic fraternity).

A man of passion and faith, profound intelligence, and tireless pastoral care, St Augustine is considered one of the greatest fathers of the Latin Church. He was the author of numerous theological, mystical, and philosophical writings that contributed to laying the foundations of Christian thought. His most famous work, the Confessions, is a splendid spiritual autobiography written in praise of God. 

Augustine was born in Tagaste, Africa, in 354 into a family of small landowners. Although he received a religious education from his mother, his youth was ‘wretched and evil’, marked by a prolonged existential crisis. His path finally led him to Milan, where he held the Chair of Rhetoric and where, above all, he was able to listen to the sermons of St Ambrose, the city’s bishop, which were instrumental in his conversion. From then until the end of his life, he embraced a way of life devoted solely to Christ, and the restlessness that had marked his existence up to that point became ‘holy’ (sancta inquietudo) because it had been the cause first of the spiritual search, then of his encounter with God and, at the same time, of his love for God himself and for his neighbour. Back in Africa, the inner revolution that had swept away all doubts and questions led him to choose to live in fellowship with his brothers. First in Tagaste and then in Hippo (where he was a priest and bishop), he founded a monastery, dedicating himself entirely to preaching, study, and prayer. He laid the foundations for the renewal of the customs of the clergy by drafting the Rule, a set of rules to guide and organise monastic life. Taken as a model in the 13th century by the Order of Augustinian Hermits, the Rule stated in its incipit the main purpose of living in a communal way: ‘The first thing for which you were gathered together is that you live in one house and have one heart and one soul in God’ ( Rule 1. 2). The Augustinian Order was thus characterised by a way of life that was both contemplative and apostolic, dedicated to the search for God in study and in common life, with the aim of transmitting the truth sought and found to others. In this manner, Augustine’s search for truth and community life, the contemplative life of the hermits, and the apostolic action dictated by the needs of the Church converged in an extraordinary union. Even today, these are still the essential features of the Augustinian lifestyle and spirituality.


At the same time as the city was rapidly expanding, the Eremiti di Sant’Agostino (Hermits of Saint Augustine), at first devoted to contemplation and solitary meditation in the nearby forest of Lecceto, then, having been called to the apostolate by the pope, settled in Siena to satisfy the new demands of evangelisation by the fast-growing population. Once settled on the Poggio di Sant’Agata, they began to build the monastery and a large church, which would, of course, be dedicated to Saint Augustine. Work began in 1259 and continued for over fifty years, supported by donations from the Municipality, the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala, and private citizens. At the end of the century, the friars decided to build a transept, i.e. a connecting space between the nave and the area of the high altar, thus making it necessary to build a crypt underneath to support the weight.

It is difficult to establish exactly when the church was finished, but it must have been completed by 1398, the year in which, as documents indicate, a violent storm caused the bell tower, which was then one of the tallest towers in the city, to partially collapse. Subsequently, the Augustinian friars sought to adorn the interior with the works of the finest artists of the time; however, around the middle of the 18th century, some of these works were sadly lost in a terrible fire. A costly restoration of the building began, designed by architect Luigi Vanvitelli, which gave the church its current appearance. At the same time as the renovation of the adjoining convent (now housing Liceo Piccolomini), the portico in front was built, designed by Agostino Fantastici (1818). The church has a Latin-cross plan with a single large nave, in order to accommodate large numbers of worshippers, as was typical of mendicant orders. The right-hand side leads to the private chapel of the Piccolomini family, which houses a beautiful Maestà (Majesty) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The side walls of the hall are punctuated by a series of stucco pillars that alternate with polychrome marble altars, built between the 16th and 17th centuries. The focal point of the church is the monumental marble altar created in 1608 by Flaminio Del Turco, at the centre of which is an imposing ciborium, as indicated in the Ordinationes degli Eremiti di Sant’Agostino (Ordination of the Hermits of St Augustine), which stipulated that, in all the churches of the Order, the body of Christ should be kept in a ciborium placed above the high altar. Beneath the ciborium, housed in a sarcophagus made entirely of marble, are the relics of one of the Augustinians’ most beloved figures, Blessed Augustine Novello, whose remains were brought here after his death in 1309 at the Augustinian hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago, near Siena. Partly for this reason, the church enjoyed considerable prestige from the very beginning and was the destination of pilgrimages by the faithful who went to pray before the sacred relics, asking the Blessed for protection and miracles. As well as being one of the most artistically important places of worship in the city, with works by masters such as Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Pietro Perugino, Luca Signorelli, and Il Sodoma, the church is a veritable hymn to Augustinian holiness, thanks to the many depictions of the Order’s saints and blesseds scattered throughout the church: St Nicholas of Tolentino, one of the first Augustinians to be canonised, is depicted in a wooden sculpture in the transept; St Joseph Calasanz, who spent his life educating impoverished boys, is the subject of two paintings, also in the transept; Saint Rita of Cascia, so devoted to Christ that she wished to experience His same sufferings, is portrayed in a sculpture by Giuseppe Maria Mazzuoli, who also created the statue in one of the large niches in the hall, depicting Blessed Antonio Patrizi, a Sienese member of the Augustinian congregation of Lecceto; also in the transept is the statue of St Clare of Montefalco, depicted with a lily, the emblem of purity, and a burning heart typical of Augustinian iconography, a reminder of an episode in St Augustine’s inner life: ‘the word of God inflamed his heart with divine love’. The church was permanently abandoned by the Augustinians in 1972. Today the building is used for the Feast of Saint Rita, which is celebrated on 22 May, and for concerts of sacred music.


A few kilometres from the city, immersed in the silence of a wood of holm oaks, stands another key Augustinian site: The Eremo di Lecceto (the Hermitage of Lecceto), which has played an undisputed spiritual role over the centuries. It was founded by a group of hermits who chose this forest, once a den of brigands, and transformed it into a place of sanctity. The motto of Lecceto is still Ilicetum vetus sanctitatis illicium (Lecceto, ancient den of sanctity). Living first in tufa caves, some of which still exist today, the hermits consecrated their small church in 1228, the first nucleus of what would gradually become a hermitage-fortress under the Augustinian Rule, comprising a convent distributed around two cloisters, one Gothic and one 15th-century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, numerous friars from various parts of Italy and Europe asked to come and live in this place, which thus became a thriving centre of spirituality around which revolved eminent figures so renowned for their holiness and knowledge that a painting in the Hermitage depicts a ‘family tree’ with the twenty-five friars of Lecceto who have been venerated as blessed over the years. Saint Catherine of Siena herself frequented this place and was bound by deep friendship to some of the Lecceto friars, notably the Englishman William Flete, who was her spiritual father for several years. Abandoned and plundered following the Napoleonic suppressions, the Hermitage was saved by the Seminario Arcivescovile di Siena (Archiepiscopal Seminary of Siena) in 1816 and is now officiated by a community of Augustinian nuns. 

 A few kilometres from Lecceto is San Leonardo al Lago, the oldest of the hermitages in Siena. Half-hidden by thick undergrowth, it stands near the Montagnola, close to the plain once occupied by Lake Verano (now Pian del Lago). Sources document the existence of San Leonardo back to the 9th century, when the monk Benedict built a church. In the 12th century, the Hermitage enjoyed a privileged relationship with the episcopate of Siena, culminating in the granting of special protection by the papacy. Around the middle of the 13th century, the small community that had gathered there adopted the Augustinian Rule, but due to difficulties over the course of the century, it was incorporated into the nearby Lecceto, thereby forming a single entity. A place immersed in the deepest silence, San Leonardo al Lago was chosen as a spiritual retreat by Blessed Agostino Novello, who died here in 1309. 

Also in the Montagnola area, not far from the town of Rosia, was the Hermitage of Santa Lucia, most likely founded at the end of the 12th century. It was frequented by important religious figures, including Blessed Pietro de’ Rossi, known for his boundless love of the Holy Cross, and Blessed Giacomo da Rosia, celebrated above all for his charity. Miraculous episodes were attributed to him, including the ability to make a particular type of apple tree bear fruit every year—instead of every two—so as to feed the poor. In the 16th century, the Hermitage began its slow decline and is now in a state of abandonment. In the direction of Murlo, the Hermitage of Montespecchio once stood, although today it is in ruins. Founded in 1190 by a hermit named Giovanni, it was closely connected with Lecceto. Only the skeleton of the church remains, while the area occupied by the ancient convent is still visible.

The last of the Augustinian hermitages in Sienese territory is that of Sant’Agostino in Monticiano, built around the middle of the 13th century. The Monastery became famous because of the presence of Blessed Antonio Patrizi, born in Siena in 1280 and who came to Monticiano after completing his novitiate in Lecceto. Humble and devout, he alternated prayer with service to the community and assistance to the needy. The Blessed died in 1311 and has always been the object of great devotion; his body is still kept in an urn placed in the high altar of the church. Like the hermitage of Rosia, the hermitage of Monticiano was never part of the congregation of Lecceto and was suppressed in 1808, following the Napoleonic edicts.


Together with the other mendicant orders, the Augustinians contributed significantly to the economic and social development of the city, providing an example of how to live communally and providing a point of reference for the citizenry.

credit Sailko

Over the years, the friars created a genuine town identity linked to the cult of certain charismatic Augustinian figures, one of the most important of which was Blessed Augustine Novello. Born into a noble family in Tarano in Sabina (the belief that he was Sicilian has now been discarded), he studied law at the University of Bologna before working in the Kingdom of Sicily at the court of King Manfred. When the king died, he decided to radically change his life and abandon the privileges of the court to go to the Hermitage of Santa Lucia in Rosia, where, wearing the Augustinian habit, he concealed his knowledge and nobility until a defence of the monastery’s rights revealed his expertise. Taken to Rome by the Padre Generale (Father General), he was ordained a priest and chosen as a collaborator in the compilation of the Constitutions of the Order. Elected general of the Order, he renounced his mandate after two years, retiring to the Hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago, where, before his death in 1309, he reformed the statutes of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

His relics, which were moved to the Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena, were immediately venerated by the faithful, who acclaimed him as a saint to such an extent that a few years later, in 1328, Simone Martini, one of the greatest artists of all time, was commissioned to make an altarpiece dedicated to the Blessed. It has been suggested that this work, now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena (National Picture Gallery of Siena) and which came from the Church of Sant’Agostino, may have originally been situated on the monumental tomb of the Blessed in San Leonardo al Lago. On either side of the central panel, in which the large figure of Augustine predominates, are four small scenes of miracles performed by the Blessed, among the finest examples of Simone’s art. The work reflects the campaign mounted by the Augustinians in the first half of the 14th century to elect Augustine the new patron saint of Siena.


Not far from the Church of Sant’Agostino is the former Convent of Santa Marta in the district of San Marco, once inhabited by Augustinian nuns.

The presence of a female form of Augustinian monasticism was nothing new. According to Possidius, St Augustine’s first biographer, women’s communities were already in existence when the Saint was Bishop of Hippo. In all probability, he founded a women’s monastery in Hippo, where his sister was prioress. Some historians believe that the Augustinian Rule can even be traced back to a letter Augustine sent to these nuns in order to settle conflicts within the monastery and to lay down rules for communal life.

The Convent of Santa Marta was founded in 1329 by Milla de’ Conti d’Elci, a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in Siena. In the deed of foundation, a document still preserved in the city’s State Archives, it is specified that the convent was to be built within the city walls, in the new village of San Marco, an area characterised by the presence of other convents linked above all to the Ordine di Sant’Agostino (Order of Saint Augustine). The document explicitly required the nuns to be cloistered and to observe the Augustinian Rule.

Unlike the male Order, which was mainly focused on the apostolate and the care of the souls of the faithful, the female Order was centred on seclusion. According to the Augustinian constitutions, a great deal of space was devoted to prayer, and there were strict rules regarding diet and the observance of silence. Within the monastery there were various occupations that differed according to the education of the nuns: the more cultured ones prayed in the choir, read, and carried out intellectual activities, while the others, called ‘converse’, did manual and humbler work. Being cloistered nuns, they could not live on alms, so their sustenance came from land and real estate derived from dowries or bequests.

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From the 15th century onwards, the Convent of Santa Marta could count on a further income from the illuminations made by the nuns to decorate choir books and antiphonaries destined for the Cathedral of Siena and the Hermitage of Lecceto. Between the 14th and 15th centuries, the convent gained considerable importance, welcoming widows and maidens from wealthy families. Records become increasingly fragmentary from the 17th century onwards, and in 1810, following Napoleon’s edicts, it was suppressed and its property requisitioned by the State.

The interior is adorned with numerous works of art that reflect the nuns’ ties to the Augustinian Order, such as the Scene di Vita Eremitica (Scenes of Hermitic Life), frescoed by painters working in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Of particular importance are the Incoronazione della Vergine (Coronation of the Virgin) by Vanni and the Seppellimento di Santa Marta (Burial of Saint Martha) by an artist close to Simone Martini.

I Comuni di Terre di Siena