THIS LIFE

Michèle Forbes

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - CONTENTS - by Michèle Forbes

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

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