ITALY IS DIVINE. I’ve travelled there frequently over the years, never tiring of its beautiful countryside, picturesque historic towns, art, cuisine, wine and, of course, the warmth and gregariousness of its people. I was 24 the first time I visited, newly married and more than ready to experience this sense of the sweet life, this dolce vita, which the country promises. On a fresh autumn morning my husband and I flew to Pisa and took the train to the prettiest of all the medieval Italian towns, Siena.
I have a photograph taken not long after we arrived in the town’s main square, the Piazza del Campo, where twice-yearly the ferocious drama of the bareback horserace, the Palio, is played out. In the photograph I’m standing in front of the famous Torre del Mangia, the huge bell tower which pierces Siena’s skyline. I look very small. I have long, wavy, golden red hair.
The following morning we embarked on the tourist trail. Our first stop was the Basilica of San Domenico, where the relics of St Catherine, Siena’s patron saint, can be found. From the outside San Domenico is an austere, barn-like construction dating from 1226, its red brick reminiscent of the type used in post-war English council houses rather than a Gothic Cistercian church. Inside, however, it opens up its airy splendour, revealing its graceful arches and pillars, and the magnificent frescoes which adorn the walls depicting the life of St Catherine in heavenly pastels. In all of them she wears her full nun’s habit and veil.
The church was calm. There were a few tourists like ourselves quietly perusing the frescos and a small handful of older local women in the pews who, we figured, regularly came to pray there. Their heads were bent, their rosary beads clasped tightly in their hands, their muffled voices echoing around the nave.
As I walked along the right wall of the church I caught one of the women staring at me. Then she rose to her feet, blessed herself, kissed her rosary beads and began to follow me. Moments later another of the women did exactly the same thing, then another. By the time I had reached the end of the pews there was a small crowd of local women at my heels, murmuring prayers and bowing their heads. Then the first woman placed her hand on my arm to stop me and began speaking to me in Italian, earnestly nodding her head and pointing at the frescoes. I had no idea what was going on but smiled nonetheless. My Italian has certainly improved over the years but then I hadn’t even a smattering of it under my belt. I did however recognise the word ‘grazie’. I shook my head to let her know I did not understand.
The women then led me over to a small alcove. Within it was an altar. On the altar was a gilded tabernacle inside which was St Catherine’s head. Her actual head. Shrivelled and, I have to admit, a little on the creepy side.
St Catherine, I had gleaned from my walk around the church, was an important intermediary between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy at a time of great political upheaval, and was prone to extreme fasting, mystic visions, swooning and fainting. In 1531, her head had apparently survived a fire and once, during a religious procession through the town, someone had attempted to steal it and had dropped it. All amazing I know, but unfortunately still not enough to endear me to it. I nodded politely, trying to make my escape.
The first woman gently tugged at my hair, holding it up to show me as though it was clear I had no idea what was growing on my head. All the women started smiling, their eyes kind, devout, their hands warm on mine. Were they trying to tell me that I should have covered my hair coming into the church? Were they trying to teach me something about extreme fasting, or fainting, or swooning? Then they began to sing gently, still touching me. Never mind that this was turning into a Fellini movie, it felt like I was being blessed.
Eventually I was able to say goodbye and took my leave, moving on to the next part of our visit, Casa di Santa Caterina — Catherine’s house. Inside, the building is decorated with paintings of events from Catherine’s life. As I looked up it all became very clear. There was a painting of Catherine as a young woman, standing in the main room of her house. She is small, she has long, wavy golden red hair. Her nun’s veil had hidden it in the frescoes of the Basilica.
Were the women only teasing me or did they actually believe I was some kind of reincarnation of St Catherine? Whichever it was, the intensity of that moment has stayed with me and still makes me smile. It was the genuine, warm, human contact from those women which ultimately made it divine.
The first woman gently tugged at my hair, holding it up to show me as though it was clear I had no idea what was growing on my head