June 1375, Piazza del Campo of Siena. A capital execution is going to take place in a few minutes under the wat
chful eyes of thousand of citizens. A round wood block is visible in the center, placed on a raised platform. The executioner is waiting, axe in hand. Then the spectators see a pale, thin, figure of woman rising unsteadily on the platform; she kneels and put her head on the block. No one move, holding the breath, a puzzled executioner looks around, seeking orders.
That lady was Saint Catherine of Siena. She was born in 1347 as Catherine Benincasa in Via del Tiratoio, near Piazza del Campo. Since she was very young she was greatly attracted to ascetic life; to the Medieval harsh ascetism, with all the repulsive overtones that we are no longer willing to bear – today a psychiatric test will be advised on such a girl– but she was possessed by a striking passion, that made her transcended and transform everything. Catherine was illiterate but she was dictating her letters, still in print today, that made her rise to become one of the greatest mystic of all times. She was taken by many for a living saint.
Modern readers of her letters are still impressed, 650 years later, because they contain a mix of violence, veiled eroticism and very pious feelings. In 1363 she had emerged from her cell, where she had spent three years in solitude, beginning her political career. Thank to her angiographer, Raimondo da Capua, a sort of press agent ante litteram who started to write about her in 1385, five years after her death, we know a bit more about her, but it is a very partial view.
Then, after Catherine, the real condemned man came up on the platform, and when he saw Catherine he laughted. She rose, speaking softly and caressing him, then she helped put his neck on the block and crouched close-by. The executioner’s axe rose and fell producing a hollow sound. Catherine took the severed man’s head into her hands, and then kissed the man’s lips, splashing her dress and face with his blood. All the bystanders stood in silence, hypnotized but what they were witnessing. Catherine calmly went down the block and walked home, keeping the men’s blood on her for weeks, refusing to wash.
Who was that man? We know that Saint Catherine met him several times in his prison cell and there is agreement among historians about his identity: he was Nicolò di Toldo, from Perugia.
Gerard de Puy, vicar general of the Papal States had tried to save his life, asking for leniency, but he failed because the accusations against him were rock solid. He had been condemned to death because he was accused, and found guilty, of sowing discord in Siena, in few words he was a spy planted to spread political subversion. A death sentence in Siena in those days for such crimes was indeed rare, unless a real murderous plot had been discovered.
It is highly likely that Saint Catherine of Siena was also involved in this papal plot to regain control of the rebellious city, but due to the fame of her sanctity she was left unmolested. There are also strong connections between Saint Catherine and John Hawkwood (to Italians his name was unpronounceable and for this reason they called him Giovanni Acuto) an English mercenary, running for decades a very successful mercenary company in Italy, mainly composed of British and German soldiers specialized in pillaging villages and cities.
At that time Hawkwood was on the side of the Pope, but in the past and, again, in the future fought against the Holy See. All depended on his personal interests. He was a very shrewd and successful soldier of fortune who had drifted south after having fought in France during the Hundred Years War, just after the treaty of 1360 who brought a lull of unwanted peace to the soldiers. He had married a daughter of Bernabò Visconti, master of Milan, and had been able to keep a spot-clean reputation even after the massacre of the civil population of Cesena in 1377, a shocking episode even for the low standards of the time, which did cost the life of 4.000 to 6.000 innocent people, murdered in cold blood. They were thrown out of their bed during a night-raid and put to the sword. John Hawkwood was so successful in his long career that he was finally buried in the Duomo of Florence, in 1394, under a splendid fresco painted by Paolo Uccello.
It is certain that St. Catherine conspired against the Sienese government together with the Salimbeni, a very powerful family, papal partisans with castles and towers in Maremma and Val D’Orcia, together with her mentor and biographer, Raimondo da Capua. An old Florentine chronicler, writing about Saint Catherine, noted: “She was esteemed like a prophet by some, but by the others she was held to be a hypocrite and a wicked woman.”