8.9 Brides, mothers and teachers

Female Sanctity in Siena in the Modern Period

The religious dimension has always been a fundamental component of Siena, constituting an essential feature of the city’ s identity. Considering that in the Middle Ages the city’s authorities commissioned a fresco in the most representative room of the Palazzo Comunale of an enthroned Madonna surrounded by a heavenly court of angels and saints, an exceptionally important work by Simone Martini, it is evident how much the people of Siena acknowledged their devotion to the Virgin and how intensely they experienced the feeling of the divine. In the context of the burgeoning expansion of communal society, with the birth of the bourgeoisie and the continuous evolution of the pre-existing social order, a different form of sanctity gradually took shape: Alongside the hermit saints, bishops, abbots, and abbesses of the great Hagiographic tradition, a ‘lay’ holiness began to flourish, made up of men and women who realised their desire for religious participation in new and heterogeneous ways, such as joining confraternities engaged in works of charity, the forerunners of modern social services, or groups of devotees who gathered around the fledgling mendicant orders and who created the concept of the Terzo Ordine (Third Order) as a compromise between the perfection of the Rule and the needs of a life lived in the world.

In the rich panorama of Sienese sanctity, an entirely female tradition has existed for centuries. It reached its peak in the Middle Ages with the extraordinary figure of Saint Catherine, herself a Dominican tertiary, but it has developed and borne abundant fruit from the modern period up to nearly the present day, through the experience of women of varied backgrounds, of both noble and humble origins, mothers and those sworn to chastity, whose testimony of faith is expressed in their love for God and charity towards their neighbour.

Venerable Margherita Bichi

Born in 1480 into one of the wealthiest families of the city’s aristocracy, Margherita was married at the age of seventeen. Widowed only a short time later, she donated all her possessions to the poor and, after becoming a Franciscan tertiary, devoted herself to a life of prayer and caring for the sick, even though she herself was in poor health. Often seized by ecstasies and visions, her reputation for prophecy led her to play an important role during the harsh siege that the city of Siena, allied with Emperor Charles V, suffered in 1526 by the Florentine and Papal armies. It was the city authorities themselves, fearful that the population might fall prey to panic, who called on her to provide spiritual support. Margherita claimed that the situation was a divine punishment for the city’s sins but, despite this, she was able to instil hope for victory in people’s hearts, showing them the way to atonement: She prescribed a public act of contrition and devotion—three days of fasting, followed by the confession and communion of all the people—and a renewed offering of the keys to the city to the Virgin Mary in 1260, the day after the Battle of Montaperti. In addition, given her affinity with the Franciscan Order, she also championed the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, recommending that a banner dedicated to it be borne to the Duomo in solemn procession. This was due to the fact that, at the time, the issue of the Virgin’s immaculate conception was the subject of a debate between the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The Dominicans considered this doctrine to be merely probable, while the Franciscans supported its veracity and the need for an official dogmatic pronouncement, which would not take place until 1854. However, the city’s faith in Margherita was so strong that she came up with the very plan of the battle, which she received from Mary while in mystical ecstasy. On 25 July 1526, the Sienese troops won a crushing victory, which was interpreted as an intervention by the Virgin. From that moment on, Margherita’s life was shrouded in silence. When she died in 1535, the Chapter of the Basilica di San Francesco decided to allow her to be buried in front of the Altare dell’Immacolata (Altar of the Immaculate Conception), which she had helped to erect with part of her patrimony and which was destroyed in the fire of 1555, twenty years later.

The title of venerable granted to Margherita is conferred on a servant of God after the Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi (Congregation for the Causes of Saints) has proclaimed their heroic virtues or martyrdom. Unlike saints and blesseds, the venerable cannot be the object of public worship.

Venerable Caterina Vannini

A figure with a powerful personal history, Caterina was born to a humble family in Siena between 1558 and 1564, in a house in what is now Via Tommaso Pendola, in the area now occupied by the Oratory of the Contrada of Tartuca, dedicated to Sant’Antonio da Padova (St Anthony of Padua). Orphaned by her father when she was very young, Caterina turned to prostitution at an early age and then, while still an adolescent, she moved with her mother to Rome, where she continued to work as a courtesan with the name of ‘Taide Senese’ (from the name of a prostitute who was the protagonist of a comedy by Terenzio, known as Terence in English). Her beauty won her many favours and, according to sources, she was Caravaggio’s model; there are good reasons to believe that the painter portrayed Caterina in the painting depicting La Maddalena in Estasi (Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy), of which several copies are known to exist throughout the world; the original appears to have been found in a private collection in 2014.

In Rome, during the Extraordinary Jubilee of 1574, Pope Gregory XIII banned all prostitutes in order to combat rampant corruption, and Caterina was imprisoned. Once she had been released, she decided to leave the city and return to Siena, having been deeply affected by the experience. Shortly after her return, while attending mass in the Church of Sant’Agostino and listening to a sermon on Saint Mary Magdalene, a penitent sinner, she was prompted to convert and donate to the poor all the possessions she had accumulated during her years in Rome. She thus embarked on a long journey of mortification and penance that led her first to don the habit of a Dominican tertiary and then, some years later, to take her vows in the Monastery of the Convertite di Santa Maria delle Grazie (Converted Sisters of Our Lady of Graces) in Via del Pignattello, now the site of the Istituto Sacro Cuore di Gesù (Sacred Heart of Jesus Institute). There, she spent four years in silence, in a narrow cell, experiencing visions and mystical ecstasies. She engaged in frequent correspondence with Cardinal Borromeo, who visited the convent in 1604 and 1605 and wrote Caterina’s biography. Ill for some time with dropsy, she died in 1606 in the odour of sanctity, and the Curia of Siena began investigations for the process of beatification; however, it never passed the examination of the Congregazione dei Riti (Congregation of Rites) and was closed in 1741.

In 1984, the Contrada of Tartuca obtained permission to transfer the mortal remains of the venerable woman to its oratory, which had been moved from the Convent of the Convertite to the Church of the Conservatorio di Santa Maria Maddalena in Via Mattioli in 1813. In the nearby museum of the Contrada, a reliquary with Caterina’s clothing and two portraits are on display, one dated 1775, a copy of a painting dating back to the Roman period, possibly by the celebrated painter Paolo Veronese, and a second attributed to Francesco Vanni.

Venerable Passitea Crogi

Daughter of the painter Pietro Crogi, Passitea was born in 1564 in the ward of Fontebrada, not far from the house of Saint Catherine, by whom she was strongly influenced from the earliest years of her life and with whom she was united by the stigmata, received, like the Saint, through a crucifix that still survives. The beginning of her spiritual ascent was also marked by a cross, thrown by her father, a sculptor, into the firewood as a failed work; retrieved by the young woman, the sculpture of Jesus on the cross ‘spoke’ to her, inviting her to a life of penance. Despite her young age, Passitea began to inflict mortification on her flesh and to manifest her inclination towards mystical practices and attitudes, which she alternated with caring for the needy, prisoners, and abandoned children. She was soon attracted by the Franciscan charism, particularly by the example of the Marche friar Matteo da Bascio who, desirous of a return to the first rigour of the Rule of St Francis, founded in 1528 the Ordine dei Frati Minori Cappuccini (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin), so called because of the peculiarity of their habit with a pointed hood. In 1590, after the death of her parents, she gathered together some young women and formed a congregation to which she wished to apply the Capuchin Rule, but met with resistance from the then Bishop Ascanio Piccolomini, who believed there were already too many convents in the city. In the meantime, the fame of Passitea’s charitable initiatives and mystical gifts had reached Florence where, relying on the protection of several wealthy families, she attempted to carry out her project; however, despite the favour of Christine of Lorraine and Maria de’ Medici, the future Queen of France, it did not come to fruition. Back in Siena, where Bishop Piccolomini had died in the meantime, and with the approval of his successor Cardinal Tarugi, the small community finally took possession of the Church of Sant’Egidio and the adjoining house in the area of the Castellare dei Malavolti, near what is now Piazza Matteotti, in 1598. The building of the monastery was completed in 1603 and it was here that the Capuchin nuns resided, vowing seclusion and strict observance of the rules of St Clare. In 1602 and again in 1609, Passitea was invited to Paris by the Queen of France and miraculous healings were attributed to her presence, which aroused great enthusiasm for her, to the point that she considered founding a convent in France. Her stay in Paris was, however, detrimental to the process of her canonisation due to her ambiguous involvement in the intrigues of the court that led to the murder of an Italian husband and wife who had been deemed potentially harmful to the crown.

On her return to Italy, she was able to build two more convents, one in Piombino and one in Santa Fiora on Mount Amiata, where the venerated crucifix carved by her father is housed. She died in 1615 in Sant’Egidio in Siena; the entire city flocked to honour her, and the process of canonisation began immediately, but was definitively interrupted at the beginning of the 18th century, not least because of the events in Paris.

The complex of Sant’Egidio, no longer in existence, was demolished in 1903 for the construction of what is now the Palazzo delle Poste (Post Office Building), the year in which the Capuchin nuns moved to the new purpose-built premises near the Basilica dei Servi. In the early 2000s, a new move took them to the convent that once belonged to the Capuchin friars, on the outskirts of Colle di Val d’Elsa, where they remained until 2016 and where the mortal remains of the venerable nun, placed in a wall niche, were also transferred, together with many of her relics and the crucifix from which she received the stigmata.

Blessed Anna Maria Giannetti Taigi

At number 60 in the centrally-located Via dei Rossi, which connects the city’s main street with the Basilica of San Francesco, there is a plaque in memory of Anna Maria Giannetti nei Taigi, who was born in that house in 1769 and lived there until the age of six, when her parents were obliged to move to Rome due to financial problems. She received her first Christian education from her mother and the Maestre Pie Filippini nuns of the Monti district, where she was exemplary for her obedience and goodness of spirit. From an early age, she worked at menial jobs to help her struggling parents and, despite her financial straits, found a way to provide assistance to and care for the poor and needy. She became a maid in a stately home, and, at the age of twenty, met and married Domenico Taigi, a young man with uncouth manners and a difficult character, but nevertheless honest and hardworking, who was also in the service of a noble family, the Chigi. The marriage lasted all her life and was marked by the highest Christian principles, since she considered it to be a lofty mission received from heaven, to the extent that she transformed her home into a true sanctuary, where God took first place. She had seven children, three of whom died in infancy, and was an outstanding and tireless wife and mother, dividing her days between the duties of her state and acts of charity towards her neighbour. She went to the city’s hospitals, providing the humblest of services and bringing the comfort of faith to the sick. She often visited prisoners, violent people and sinners, for whose spiritual salvation she offered unceasing prayers and endured fasting and penance. Devoted to the Holy Trinity, in 1808 she became a tertiary of the Ordine Secolare Trinitario (Secular Trinitarian Order) and was a counsellor to popes, cardinals, bishops, and statesmen. She possessed numerous mystical gifts: She often fell into ecstasy, had conversations with the Lord, and worked miracles and healings. For nearly half a century, until her death, she was mysteriously illuminated by a ‘sun’ with the image of a crown of thorns and a cross inside, the symbol of Christ’s incarnation; within this sun she saw the social and political events of the whole of Europe unfold, especially those concerning the vicissitudes of the Church, a gift she accepted with humility, using it exclusively for the benefit of her fellow human beings. She foretold many historical events that occurred precisely at the times and in the ways she had indicated, including the abdication of King Charles IV of Spain, the fall of Napoleon, the return of Pius VII from exile, and the election of the future Pope Pius IX. After years of illness endured without complaint, she died in 1837. Her uncorrupted body is preserved in the Basilica of San Giovanni Crisogono. In 1906 Pope Pius X decreed her heroic virtues, declaring her venerable, and a few years later, in 1920, she was proclaimed blessed by Benedict XV.

A strong and generous woman, she was the first to climb to the altars for having reached the heights of Christian perfection entirely in married life, holy within the walls of her home, constantly illuminated by the presence of God.

The Church in Siena awaits the final recognition of her canonisation and honours her, like the Church in Rome, on 9 June, the day of her death. In the Insigne Collegiata di Santa Maria in Provenzano, there is a beautiful painting, made in 2016 by Giovanni Gasparro, who managed to encapsulate the very essence of the Blessed in an image: Depicted in her domestic clothing, with her wedding ring on her finger and the so-called ‘habit’ with the red and blue cross around her neck, the emblem of the tertiaries of the Ordine Secolare Trinitario, she is intent on her embroidery work, but her gaze is turned upwards, where the sun bearing the crown of thorns and the cross that accompanied her throughout her life appears.

Blessed Savina Petrilli

Savina Petrilli was born in 1851 in a house on the slope of the Costone, indicated today by a plaque on the façade, not far from the place where Catherine of Siena had her first mystical vision, as if to establish a spiritual legacy that would be decisive in the life of the Blessed. Her humble family instilled Christian values in Savina from an early age; when she was fifteen, she joined the Congregazione delle Figlie di Maria (Congregation of the Daughters of Mary), of which she soon became president. Little by little, in spite of the lack of economic resources that her status as a simple commoner imposed on Savina, the desire grew within her to start her own religious family dedicated to the apostolate, a goal that, considering the times and her young age, she pursued with extraordinary determination. In 1872, with the permission of the Bishop of Siena and exhorted by Pope Pius IX to follow in the footsteps of the great Sienese saint, she and five other sisters took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, founding the Congregazione delle Sorelle dei Poveri di Santa Caterina da Siena (Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor of Saint Catherine of Siena), which the following year inaugurated its first headquarters in the modest house in Via Diacceto that had belonged to Savina’s father. As the very name chosen for the community indicates, in addition to her love for the crucifix, for the Eucharist, and for the Church, she had also drawn from St Catherine an unconditional love for the poor and needy, to whom she chose to devote her whole self, caring for them with love and self-denial. At the beginning of their journey, the sisters concentrated mainly on destitute and abandoned children, whose numbers grew until the house was too small to accommodate them all. With the help of benefactors, the community moved in 1874 to Via Baroncelli, near the Basilica of San Francesco, where Savina was able to buy the first rooms of what was to become, and is still today, the motherhouse of the Congregation. The change of location also led to an emphasis on new forms of poverty, and the Sisters began to expand rapidly throughout Italy and then abroad, sending their first missionary sisters to Belém, Brazil, in 1903 and to Argentina in 1909. In the meantime, in 1906, the Holy See had definitively approved the constitutions of the Congregation written by Savina herself. The charism transmitted to the sisters envisaged a life radically based on the priesthood of Christ: Just as Jesus, out of love, had made himself a brother to humanity by taking upon himself the burden of its sins, so they, out of the same love, were to become sisters of the poor and agents of divine Mercy, bringing relief and peace where there was pain and anguish. The very coat of arms of the Congregation is an organic set of symbols that reveal how Christ and Charity are at the heart of its spirituality: The cross with the crown of thorns indicates the sacrifice of Jesus, that same self-giving sacrifice to which the Sisters have been called; in the centre, the open book with the inscription Ubi Charitas Ibi Deus (where there is Charity, there is God) and the flaming heart emphasise that Charity is the very essence of the Institute, while the lilies flanking the cross are symbols of purity of soul, of life given to God in joy.

In 1923, after a lifetime spent in the service of her fellow human beings, Savina died in Siena and was buried in the Cimitero della Misericordia (Cemetery of the Misericordia) outside Porta Tufi with an immense crowd in attendance. Her body was moved in 1925 to the Church of Sant’Elisabetta della Visitazione, which had been built on a pre-existing building at the end of the 19th century at the behest of the Blessed as a pledge to the Virgin Mary and as the completion of the motherhouse, which stands opposite; the body is still housed in a sarcophagus under the high altar. The cause of canonisation was introduced in 1981. Declared venerable in 1985, she was proclaimed blessed in 1988 by John Paul II, and the Sienese Church celebrates her memory on 18 April. In addition to Italy, the Sorelle dei Poveri (Sisters of the Poor) are currently active in Germany, India, the Philippines, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina, where they devote themselves to the education of children and to caring for the poor, elderly, and sick, collaborating with the local Churches in catechesis and participation in liturgical life.

Close to the motherhouse, overlooking Piazza San Francesco, is the building erected by Savina herself, initially as a trade school for local girls, then as an oratory where, in addition to work and play, the first cultural and Christian elements were taught. It later became a public school, including the Ginnasio (grammar school), and finally, during the Second World War, it was given the status of a five-class primary school. On the 10th anniversary of her beatification, a bronze sculpture was placed in the space in front of the school, where children often play, showing the Blessed placing a hand of protection on the shoulder of a barefoot girl, a symbol of all the needy children she cared for.

Venerable Bianca Piccolomini Clementini

Heiress of the noble Sienese family, whose members included two popes, Countess Bianca Piccolomini Clementini was born in 1875 and received a thorough Christian education in a setting permeated by the great religious renewal resulting from the influence of Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), in which the Church took a position on social issues for the very first time. At the beginning of the 20th century, she actively collaborated with her younger brother Pietro, who had contributed to the foundation of the Società Cattolica Pro Cultura (Catholic Society for Culture) and the opening of a local branch of the Società Nazionale di Patronato e Mutuo Soccorso per le Giovani Operaie (National Society of Patronage and Mutual Aid for Young Workers), initiatives that aimed to improve the living conditions of the people by means of inter-class harmony. When her brother died prematurely, Bianca chose to continue his work with projects to support the poorest, especially single mothers. In 1907, she opened an embroidery and sewing workshop where she also took care of the Christian education of the workers through a proper religious school. When it became a limited company in the knitwear industry, she moved its headquarters to the family palazzo in Via Banchi di Sotto, not far from Piazza del Campo; it was at this time that she began to entertain the idea of creating a congregation of women who would be linked to the activity of the workshop and would carry out evangelisation work with young women, but without abandoning their secular dress. The life of the women workers was thus marked by spiritual readings during work, communal prayers, and a monthly Eucharistic meeting. Around this time, Bianca became acquainted with the Compagnia di Sant’Orsola (Company of Saint Ursula), also known as the Orsoline (Ursulines) or the Figlie di Sant’Angela Merici (Daughters of Saint Angela Merici), named after the Brescian foundress of this institute, which allowed women who joined to live with their families. Some time later, she founded the first Sienese nucleus of the Congregation, whose constitutions, officially approved twenty years later, provided for a particular declination of the Merician charism, according to which, alongside the Figlie (Daughters) who continued family life according to the original model, a group of women was permitted to live together, taking a vow of chastity and perseverance in the Institute. Bianca’s own mother, following her initial opposition, asked to join the Society, making Villa Santa Regina, just outside Siena, available as a training house. In 1950, the creation of the Federazione delle Compagnie Orsoline Italiane (Federation of the Order of Italian Ursulines) began, to which the Sienese family adhered from the beginning, while maintaining its own particular character. In 1957, by then infirm and reduced to blindness, Bianca asked to be allowed to resign from the leadership of the Institute; she died in Siena two years later, in 1959; the Catholic Church declared her a servant of God in 1995 and a few years ago, in 2016, Pope Francis proclaimed her venerable, recognising her heroic virtues.

The Compagnia delle Figlie di Sant’Angela Merici is still based in the beautiful Palazzo Piccolomini in Via Banchi di Sotto, built in the late 14th century and renovated in the 19th century, and donated by Bianca to the Institute a few years before her death.

I Comuni di Terre di Siena