Siena, Sadism and a Saint's Head

A visit to Siena wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Basilica San Domenico to see the dismembered, mummified head of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Her right thumb also resides in a smaller reliquary not far from her head.

At the age of 7, Catherine had her first of many visions, with Jesus on a throne, surrounded by saints. As a teenager, she took a vow of perpetual virginity and gave herself over to prayer and worship. She joined the nunnery and had a vision of Jesus placing a ring on her finger in marriage. This ring, for the record, was no ordinary wedding band, it was made from the baby Jesus' holy foreskin.

Ouch...( This particular wedding band was never replicated by the store, Tiffany, for obvious reasons )

For the rest of her life, Catherine said she could see the ring on her finger.

Catherine died young, at the age of 33, while in Rome. Her hometown, Siena, wanted to have her body. When they realized they would not be able to smuggle the whole body past the guards in Rome, they took only her head, hidden in a paper bag.

The rest of Catherine's body remains in Rome, and her foot is said to be in a reliquary in Venice.

The only painting of Catherine made during her lifetime, by Sienese painter, Andrea Vanni.

A view of Basilica San Domenico.

The Torre del Mangia. 'The Tower of the Eater'. ​Built in 1338-1348.

The tower got its name from its first bell ringer, the man who would climb the steps at the designated time (all 400 of them) and ring the bell for the town’s people. Giovanni di Balduccio, who was nicknamed 'Mangiaguadagni', was commissioned to ring the hours in 1347 and he has since lived on in history, giving the tower its name. Apparently, the reference mangia(coming from the Italian word mangiare, to eat) refers to his well known habit of "eating through his earnings."

How he managed these stairs after a huge Tuscan meal is a miracle in itself.

A view of the Duomo of Siena

After my visit with Saint Catherine's body parts, I stumbled upon the Museo della Tortura, Museum of Torture.

An interesting window into the darker side of mankind for only 10 euro. It seemed fitting with the way my day was going, if sightseeing should have a theme. There are 200 original torture machines and implements with descriptions of when, how and where they were used, and for what types of crimes or interrogations. The iron maiden, the rack, the thumbscrew, the skull crusher. It was fascinating and I was intrigued, perhaps a bit too intrigued. It's scary to think how sadistic humans can be.

My day of sadism, gluttony and all its medieval splendor has come to an end. I find a quiet table in Piazza del Campo and have a few glasses of local Vernaccia wine and ponder the history of Siena.

According to local legend, it was founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus and thus nephews of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Supposedly after their father's murder by Romulus, they fled Rome, taking with them the statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants, known as the Capitoline Wolf. Taking this statue on a road trip is an impressive feat in itself.

I'm sure Rome was infuriated, but it paled in comparison to the theft of Saint Catherine's head years later.

As legend has it, the stolen Capitoline Wolf in its new home in Siena.

#siena #saintcatherine #museodellatortura #basilicasandomenica