Head Hunting in Siena

Another day, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Siena is, according to the UNESCO website, “the embodiment of a medieval city….Throughout the centuries, they preserved their city’s Gothic appearance, acquired between the 12th and 15th centuries… The whole city of Siena, built around the Piazza del Campo, was devised as a work of art that blends into the surrounding landscape.”

Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus. Remus was, you may remember, the twin of Romulus, the founder of Rome. Romulus may or may not have killed Remus over a disagreement on where the boundaries of Rome should be, and Senius and Aschius may or may not have fled Rome after their father was killed.  In any case, they ended up in Siena, bringing with them the Capitoline Wolf, the bronze statue of a wolf suckling their father and uncle now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Since the Romulus and Remus story took place in the 8th century BCE and the Capitoline Wolf is circa 12th century CE, with the twins added even later, that part of the legend, at least,  is just legend. It’s the reason, though, that the Capitoline Wolf is the symbol of Siena.

I was beginning to get the hang of the group touring thing. Our bus would park outside the city walls and we’d walk, accompanied by a bit of narration on the history and culture of the area by our guide, to city center. Then we’d be left on our own, to do a little shopping, visit an attraction or two, have some lunch, get lost, and make it back to the bus.

In Siena, the bus dropped us off on the outskirts of town and we were walked to the Piazza Del Campo, the main city square.  Which, to my surprise, was not built over anything dating from the ancient Romans. The Campo was paved in 1349 with red travertine and was bordered by the homes of Siena’s medieval rich. Those homes probably still contain Siena’s rich.

Also on the Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico, a 13th century government building.  It houses the city museum of Siena on the first floor, and municipal offices on the upper floor.

We didn’t have a lot of time in Siena and I was on the hunt for the head of my patron saint, Catherine of Siena. So no sooner had we gotten to the Piazza del Campo, Patricia and I left to make a slow but reasonably straight beeline for the Basilica Cateriniana San Dominico. We were slow because we did a little shopping along the way, and only reasonably straight because we managed to get lost. Okay, I managed to get us lost.

“Is that the way we came?” asked Patricia, dubiously.

Famous last words: “No, but I think it’s a short cut.”

Did I mention that hill towns are hilly? After wandering downhill for awhile, we opted for the security of a known thing and retraced our steps back — up hill — to where I had turned us off our prescribed path. That’ll teach me to be adventurous.

The Basilica Cateriniana San Dominico was started in 1226 and originally dedicated to St. Dominic. But poor Dominic wasn’t Sienese. He wasn’t even Italian. So after home girl Catherine was canonized and the basilica obtained her papers and various parts of her body, it  (as the basilica website puts it) “was finally dedicated entirely to St. Catherine.”

St. Catherine was a peasant girl born in 1347 who became a Dominican nun, an advisor to Popes, and wrote (actually, her followers wrote as she dictated; she was illiterate) 375 theological letters before she died at age 33 from organ failure brought on by voluntary, ritualistic starvation. When she died in Rome, the people of Siena wanted her body back. But Rome wouldn’t give it up. So the Sienese decided to steal it. One version says that when they tried to pick up the body, the head (after years of mouldering underground) simply snapped off. And realizing that it easier to abscond with just a head rather than an entire body, they took off.  Somewhere along the way, they also got a thumb.

But it wasn’t really theft, you see, because Catherine wanted the Sienese to have her head. When guards in Rome stopped their convoy and asked to see inside the bag that contained her head, they found nothing but rose pedals. But when the thieves followers got to Siena, the rose pedals had turned backed into Catherine’s head. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

She was canonized in 1461 and, for her writings, became the first woman (there are now two others, and 31 men) declared a Doctor of the Church, in 1970. She, along with St. Francis of Assisi, is a Patron Saint of Italy and is one of six patron saints of Europe.

There was no photography allowed inside, but I know that morbid you wants to see the head of Catherine, so here’s a link to photos of the head and thumb, on the Atlas Obscura website. They also give the long version of St. Catherine’s life, complete with the tale of the miraculous Frisbee. How’s that for a tease.



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5 Responses to Head Hunting in Siena

  1. A lovely City, sadly I only saw it in the rain which spoilt it a bit.

    However, I live in a town called Grimsby in East of England which has its own Siena Tower. This is a water tower built in 1852 to provide hydraulic power to operate the giant lock gates of the dock. It was designed by a man called James William Wild who had visited Siena in Italy and had so admired the place that he based his design for the Grimsby Dock Tower on the Torre del Mangia tower in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena city centre.


    • We were very lucky in that it drizzled lightly for a few minutes in Pisa, but otherwise we had lovely weather for the two weeks we were in Italy.

      East Grimbsby’s dock tower does look like the one at the Palazzo Pubblico. How unexpected and fun it would be to see an Italian tower in England.

  2. Well, I DID click onto the link to see Saint Catherine’s mummified head. She must have been quite lovely in life. The muted colors of those old buildings in Sienna really impressed me more than their distinctive architecture. Thank you for your history-tour stories. Love them1

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