On a recent three-week vacation to Italy where my wife Maria and I go each year to celebrate our Italian heritage, we spent our first week in Siena. Our only previous visit there had been three years earlier on a one-day tour to several Tuscan hill towns with a hired driver. The schedule called for about one hour in each town. Siena was one of them. We likened the experience to dragging our fingers across the icing of a three-layer cake and claiming we had tasted it. Instead, what that hour did was convince us that a return visit of no less than one week was called for if we were to even begin to understand this remarkable place.
Siena sits in the center of Tuscany about 45 miles from Florence. Among its many attractions, the main one is the beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo with its surrounding buildings, restaurants, and shops. The piazza sits where a 12th-century marketplace once stood and, before that, a Roman forum. San Gimignano, dubbed the “medieval Manhattan” for its 14 towers, is 29 miles away, and Monteriggioni 12 miles distant with its castle that Dante described in his Divine Comedy. Our flight to Siena was 3,000 miles through space. Since we had flown to Italy several times previously the distance was no surprise. What did surprise us was the 700 years we had lost in getting there. Like an episode from the classic television show, The Twilight Zone, it wasn’t 2022 when we arrived in Siena. It was 1300.
Medievalism hangs heavy on Siena. In no other town we have visited in Italy were we so acutely aware of the sense of being transported seven centuries back in time. Medieval Siena is everywhere. In the slithering alleyways that hide from the sun and the dark stone buildings that form corridors of shadow. In the massive wooden doors more suited to keeping 14th-century intruders out than welcoming 21st-century tourists in. In the thick iron rings pierced into the stone walls where horses once were tethered and in centuries-old paintings and statues of the Madonna still looking down from their niches in those walls reminding passersby of the spiritual succor she offers against the uncertainties of life.
A short distance from the center of town is the Camporegio Hill. Atop it in bold relief against the blue Tuscan sky sits one of Siena’s many churches, the Basilica of San Domenico. Built between 1226 and 1265, it’s an imposing fortress-like building made entirely of red brick. Except for a single rose window over the main altar, its thick outside walls display no ornamental architectural or artistic features. Cut high up on the walls of this cheerless structure a few small gothic windows let in patches of light that do nothing to relieve the gloom within. Despite colorful frescoes by the Renaissance painter Sodoma and the Mannerist Francesco Vanni and a few religious statues, the single broad nave is empty. Only side altars relieve the severity of the empty space. On one of those altars is a grate of 15 iron bars crisscrossed like a large tic-tac-toe panel. The center square portion of it is larger than the others so that viewers can have an unobstructed view of the object on display — the severed head of St. Catherine of Siena.
Catarina Benincasa was born in Siena on March 25, 1347, the 25th child of her mother and father. Born a twin, her sister Giovanna died in infancy. Catherine was only seven years old when she began having visions of Jesus and the saints. Skeptical of her mystical encounters, Catherine’s parents entreated her to marry when she became a teenager. Instead, she became a nun. At the age of 28, she was said to have received the stigmata, the wounds Christ received on the cross. If she had harbored even the slightest doubt that her life was to be consecrated to God, the stigmata wiped that doubt away. She lived the rest of her short life as a model of piety, prayer, and asceticism. When Catherine died in Rome in 1380 at the age of 33 she was interred in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In 1461 she was canonized as a saint and Doctor of the Church. Three years later Raymond of Capua, Prior of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and Catherine’s confessor and biographer, decided that the people of her hometown should have at least part of her mortal remains to venerate. In secret and without official approval he removed the head from her skeleton and sent it to Siena where it was enshrined in the Basilica of San Domenico. It has remained there ever since.
Maria and I have been in scores of churches from Venice in the north to Naples in the south, most of them adorned with multi-colored marble, gold mosaics, jewels, and magnificent art. Yet none of them exerts a more powerful effect than this plain brick building with the dismembered head of a 33-year-old woman dead for almost 700 years. Standing in front of this bizarre icon, the age-old concept of the Great Chain of Being came to mind, the idea that all creation was a precisely ordered existence where every object in it was linked in a hierarchy from the highest being — God — down to the most basic inanimate object. The Chain was the explanation for why things were the way they were, that what seemed to mortal eyes a random universe devoid of order and purpose was really an intricate design in the mind of God where everything had its unique place and function which was both foolish and blasphemous to question. Standing in the empty silence of San Domenico’s, I could feel that same power that had inspired Catherine and held Europe together for a thousand years — that the Church’s teachings were a sure path to eternal bliss.
And yet, this morbid relic from another era seemed the embodiment of contradiction: how could the Church, which preached unequivocal acceptance of a person’s station in life, with all its attendant pain and tragedy, elevate this woman from a lower-middle-class family in 14th-century Italy to sainthood and Doctor of the Church? It seemed to fly in the face of everything the Church had taught about reconciling oneself to the life one was given. Famine was often no further than one drought away, poverty one whim of a greedy nobleman, death the almost-certain result of the unpredictable reoccurrence of the Plague. Catherine’s sainthood seemed a slap in the face of all the “ordinary” people who never traveled more than 10 miles from their town, having lived and died unknown. Or was the promise of eternal bliss enough to keep most people going through all the grinding tribulations of medieval life?
I came away from San Domenico’s that day with no philosophical conclusions more profound than that it’s easier to surrender to the flow of events than it is to look for some rational explanation for them, especially if there’s a reward at the end of the struggle. Today, there is general agreement that it was the Catholic Church that kept the embers of civilization from being completely snuffed out following Rome’s fall. For 10 centuries the Church worked to be a shepherd to its flock and, for the most part, succeeded, though it never passed up the opportunity to fleece it when possible. Historian Will Durant christened this period in Western history the Age of Faith and gave that title to volume four of his multi-volume Story of Civilization.
Despite the attractiveness of cloaking oneself in the blanket of faith as a way to deal with a hostile world, I haven’t dismissed the possibility that this idea is only a fancible version of the middle ages concocted out of my high school fascination with this period in history. I still have a strong affinity for those “dark” centuries between Rome’s fall and the reopening of Western eyes in the Renaissance. I want to know how people kept going through all those perilous centuries, what they thought about their God through that long period of darkness, and how they felt about their lives and their hopes for the future. Although much of classical civilization disappeared during the “dark ages,” historians have shown that those thousand years were not as bleak as previously thought, that they were in fact a time of transition when new ideas about government, religion, literature, and love began taking shape. Men and women were finding new ways to understand their creator and each other. Appetites for death-defying games involving swords and lances succumbed to more common-sense exhibitions of horsemanship and martial skills while naked carnal desire was putting on the more civilized literary raiment of courtly love.
More than any other Italian city we’ve been in with the exception of Pompeii, a dead city, Siena looks essentially as it did in 1300. Its Piazza del Campo displays the same graceful Gothic architecture that Catherine saw. The Palazzo Pubblico still houses the municipal offices of Siena just as it did 700 years ago. Even older is the Palazzo Tolomei on the Via Banchi di Sopra, the private home of the ancient Tolomei family of bankers and merchants. Built in 1205, it remains the oldest private residence in Siena. And the green and white Italian-Gothic façade of Siena’s cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta, would be a familiar sight to 14th-century Sienese.
While Siena’s medievalism displays itself most obviously in the gothic architecture of pointed arches, narrow windows, and vaulted ceilings found in both its religious and civil buildings it does so more subtly in the graceful paintings of the city’s most famous son, Simone Martini. Martini was born in 1248 when the most prominent Sienese painter was Duccio di Buoninsegna. Thought to be apprenticed to Duccio, though claimed by Renaissance art biographer Giorgio Vasari to be a student of Giotto, Simone softened Duccio’s stiff Byzantine style. His lyrical Annunciation with its long elegant lines, gentle pastel colors, and superb composition makes it one of the supreme masterpieces of medieval art. In 1340 Martini settled at the papal court in Avignon where he met and became friends with Petrarch. The poet commissioned a portrait of his beloved Laura from the Sienese Master. Although now lost, we know of its existence from Petrarch’s mention of it in his sonnets. But for the loss of this portrait, the world would know the face that has meant so much to Italian and Western literature for almost a thousand years.
When our week in Siena ended we packed our bags and moved on to the sunnier climes of Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. But though we left Siena, Siena didn’t leave us. Our thoughts kept returning to this most medieval of Italian cities and wondering at the strange vibe that still had us in its grip. About one thing we had no illusions: no amount of romantic reverie or revisionist history can change the fact that life in the middle ages was hard, dangerous, and uncertain. With images of the war in Ukraine, the poisoned politics of the U.S., and the disease of mass shootings that are an affliction on American society flooding Italian television no less than American, we found ourselves too often focusing on loss. We couldn’t shake the feeling that, despite all its advances, something irreparable had disappeared with the dawn of the Modern Age, christened appropriately by poet W. H. Auden as the Age of Anxiety.
The medieval Catholic Church, despite its many and blatant offenses against the message of its founder, had been a panacea against the hardships of medieval life. Through religious rituals marking important days and events on the calendar and through reliance on the gospels of Jesus that promised eternal bliss to His followers, believers trusted that their faith was the bark to carry them safely from the cradle to the grave. Maybe that was enough.
Sitting untroubled on three gently rising hills in the center of Tuscany, Siena is a striking remembrance of that time when order, belonging, and faith had helped mankind to see its way through some of its darkest hours.•