Queens of the Renaissance – Catherine of Siena

wooden statue of Saint Catherine of Siena by Neroccio Landi, date unknown; taken from 'Queens of the Renaissance' by M Beresford Ryley, 19071347-1380

Catherine of Siena does not actually belong to the Renaissance. At the same time she played an indirect part in furthering it, and she represented a strain of feeling which continued to the extreme limits of its duration. During the best period of the desire for culture, a successor – and imitator – of Catherine’s, Sister Lucia, became a craze in certain parts of Italy. Duke Ercole of Ferrara, then old and troubled about his soul, took as deep and personal an interest in enticing her to Ferrara as he did in the details of his son’s marriage to Lucrezia Borgia, just then being negotiated. The atmosphere Catherine created is never absent from the Renaissance. She fills out what is one-sided in the impression conveyed by the women who follow. She was also the contemporary of Petrarch and Boccaccio, the acknowledged forerunners of the intellectual awakening that came after them, and being so, is well within the dawn, faint though it still was, of the coming Renaissance day. Finally, in her own person she contained so much power and fascination that to omit her, when there exists the least excuse for inclusion, would be wilfully to neglect one of the most enchanting characters among the women of Italian history.

The daughter of a well-to-do tradesman, Giacomo Benincasa, Catherine was born in Siena in 1347. Her father possessed several pleasant qualities, and a great reserve of speech, hating inherently all licence of expression. Catherine’s mother, Lapa, on the other hand, belonged to an ordinary type of working woman – laborious, but irritable and narrow. She brought twenty-five children into the world, and her irascibility may have been not unconnected with this heroic achievement. The sons also, after their marriages, continued to live, with their wives – it being the custom at that time – under the parental roof. Even a sociable temperament would easily have found such a community difficult always to handle cordially.

Catherine was Benincasa’s youngest child. As a baby she proved extraordinarily attractive. She was, in fact, so sweet and radiant that the neighbours nicknamed her Euphrosyne, and her little person was much enticed and humoured. Unfortunately, like all children of that period, she became bewilderingly precocious, and with the first development of intelligence, the religious passion revealed itself. With Catherine the desire for spirituality was inborn. At five years old she formed the habit of going upstairs on her knees, reciting the “Hail, Mary,” at every step. She delighted in being taken to churches and places of devotion, and at the age of six years her deliberate and piteous self-martyrdom commenced.

The child, during an errand on which she was sent, believed herself to have seen a holy vision. The incident had nothing extraordinary, for her imagination was keen, and her temperament nervous. In a later century, fed upon fairy stories, she would have seen gnomes, sprites, or golden-haired princesses. Instead, saturated in religious legends, she perceived Jesus Christ in magnificent robes, and with a tiara on His head, while on each side of Him stood a saint, and several nuns in white garments. This unchallenged vision produced colossal consequences. The child went home convinced that God Himself had come to call her to a better life; proud, frightened, and exultant, she set her mind to find out, therefore, how she might best become as good as God wanted her to be.

This beginning of Catherine’s religious life is painful to remember. She decided primarily that she must give up childish amusements; in addition, she determined to eat the least possible amount of food, and to fill up her life with penances in the manner of the grown-up holy men and women about her. She also procured some cord, and, having knotted it into a miniature scourge, formed the habit of secretly scourging herself until her back was lined with weals. Describing these first spiritual struggles of a child of six years old, Cafferini, her contemporary and biographer, says, “Moreover, by a secret instinct of grace, she understood that she had now entered on a warfare with nature, which demanded the mortification of every sense. She resolved, therefore, to add fasting and watching to her other penances, and in particular to abstain entirely from meat, so that when any was placed before her, she either gave it to her brother Stephen, who sat beside her, or threw it under the table to the cats, in such a manner as to avoid notice.”

This pitiable “warfare with nature” continued until she reached the age of twelve. Her parents, so far, had been pleased at her religious fervency. But at twelve years old the girl became marriageable. The comparative freedom of childhood ceased; Catherine was kept secluded in the house, besides being harried with injunctions concerning the arrangement of her hair and her dress.

She had, as a matter of fact, charming, warm brown hair. Unfortunately, a shade of gold was then fashionable, and Lapa, ambitious for a good marriage, insisted that the girl should do like others, and have it dyed that colour. Catherine resisted with all the strength of her frightened soul. But in the end, apparently through the persuasions of a favourite married sister, she allowed her hair to become golden. It was no sooner done than conscience suffered passionate remorse. In fact, to the end of life this one backsliding remained almost the sharpest regret Catherine possessed. She could never refer to it without sobbing, from which it is at least presumable that a canary-coloured head had its attractions for a saint of twelve years old.

Meanwhile, the choice of a husband became imminent. At this Catherine’s semi-passivity turned into actual panic. It was not possible both to marry and to give up one’s life to God. Only, who would listen to the refusals of so young a girl? Following the practice of the Roman Catholic religion, she took her difficulties to her confessor, and was saved through the proposal of a rather questionable trick. She had only to cut her hair off to make marriage impossible: no Italian would marry a woman with a shaven head. Catherine rushed home, and at once did as she was told, covering her work, when she had finished, with a white linen coif. Virgins in Italy wore their hair flowing; the stratagem, therefore, did not exist an hour before discovery took place. Then followed a passionate domestic scene. The whole family appears for once to have unanimously agreed that Catherine’s piety had overstepped the bounds of common sense. The loss of her child’s hair left Lapa infuriated. Exasperation grew so intense that for a time, with the view to breaking her stubborn spirit, Catherine was deliberately ill-treated. A servant had been kept for rough work in the kitchen; she was dismissed, and Catherine made to take her place. But the girl had not a temperament that could be cowed. She was a true Sienese, and Boccaccio, as well as others, speaks of the virile character of the people of Siena. The name Euphrosyne also still expressed her disposition. With a pretty childishness of imagination, she made religious play out of their harshness. Her father, she pretended, was Jesus Christ, Lapa she made the Virgin Mary, and her brothers and sisters the apostles and disciples. The kitchen became the innermost tabernacle of the temple where sacrifices were offered to God. In consequence, she went about diffusing radiance and a sober joy, and bewildering those who wanted to see her crushed and penitent.

In the end Giacomo interfered. He had the instinct of kindness, and was himself sincerely religious. Both the question of marriage and the system of ill-treatment were abandoned. A little later he gave consent to the pursuance of a religious vocation, and Catherine, still a child, became a member of the order of St. Dominic. It was not a strict community. The sisters did not live in retirement, but in their own homes, merely wearing a white veil and a black habit called Mantellate.

Just before this Catherine experienced a very human temptation. She became possessed by the longing to dress herself in the pretty clothes of a rich married woman, and to go out flaunting in silks and extravagance. The wish is more likeable than her physical self-torturings. The latter gain their power to distress, in fact, to some extent because her few temptations show that Catherine had all the average longings of humanity, and was not devoid of the companionable frailties of ordinary men and women.

The temptation was, of course, conquered, and from the glad moment of taking her vows Catherine intensified every austerity of conduct. As a child she had been robust and hardy. But the frightful treatment to which she subjected her system would have ruined any constitution, and from the time she grew up she became more and more delicate, suffering, and neurotic. The desire to suppress her excesses is very great. One could write abundantly and give only a life overflowing in fragrant incidents. But in the case of Catherine, to pass over foolishness would entail not only a falsification of character, but a falsification also of the curious atmosphere from which she drew the principal inspirations of her conduct.

From the age of twelve she forced herself gradually to eat so little, that her stomach became finally incapable of retaining solid food at all. How she kept life in her body for the last half of her existence is difficult to understand. Her bed, from the time she became a nun, consisted of a few planks with a log of wood for pillow. An iron band made part of her wearing apparel, and her discipline – if the one now shown as hers in the sacristy of St. Dominico is genuine – consisted of an iron chain with sharp projections for piercing and tearing the flesh. The idea was monstrous and horrible; nevertheless, its fortitude uplifts it into heroism. To pursue unflinchingly martyrdom such as this may be grotesque and ridiculous, but no invertebrate creature could contemplate it. Of all the violences, however, which Catherine did to her body, the one under which she suffered most acutely was her refusal of proper sleep. It is said, though it is extremely hard to believe, that for a certain length of time she took only half an hour’s sleep in the twenty-four hours, and that – only every other day.

Notwithstanding this, a picture given of her at the time by Father Thomas Antonio Cafferini, also a member of St. Dominic, and an intimate friend of the family, is altogether charming. He asserts that her face was always gay and smiling, more especially if she were called upon to help those troubled or out of health. Other contemporaries bear out this possession of an effulgent gladness. When she spoke her face became illuminated, and her smile was like some living radiance passing into the hearts of those she looked at. The same writer mentions her delight in singing and her love of flowers. A certain Fra Bartolomeo of Siena bears similar witness. He wrote, “She was always cheerful, and even merry.” He mentioned, besides, that she “was passionately fond of flowers, and used to arrange them into exquisite bouquets.” Catherine’s personal writings are strewn with references to plants and blossoms. It was also part of the fulness of a character unusually rich in finer fascinations that she was constantly singing. Melancholy she scarcely knew. The spirituality which did not produce happiness, she could only feel as a spurious effort. Either it lacked love or understanding.

For years she lived as a recluse in her father’s house, but while still in her teens it appeared to her – presumably through a natural wisdom of character – that God needed less personal worship than continuous benefits to others, out of her religious exaltation, and from that time Catherine’s public career commenced. Almost the first result of her belief in being called to an active existence was her constant attendance at the hospitals and among the lepers. One of the prettiest of all the stories told about her deals with her nursing labours. Pity had very small vitality either during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance; it was almost a dead quality of character, and the Sienese were particularly hardened by harsh experiences.

A woman who had lived a notoriously bad life lay dying in one of the hospitals, absolutely and deliberately neglected. A sinner laid low was scum to spit at for most people. Catherine saw no scum on earth. She smiled with all her native inborn softness at the dying woman, listened to her desolate complainings, her maundering reminiscences, gave her the nourishment she liked best, coddled her with sweet attentions, and finally, without any violent denunciations, brought her to repentance and tranquillity. A child might as tenderly have been coaxed out of a phase of naughtiness.

The incident brings one naturally to Catherine’s reputation as a peacemaker. She was still a young girl when tales of her persuasiveness were told to amazed, arrested audiences throughout the country. The Sienese temper was fundamentally savage; nothing, therefore, could touch fancy more than stories of a nature capable of acting as a gentle and cooling balm upon outrageousness. Catherine, as a matter of fact, possessed both the magnetism of intense belief and the power of innate urbanity. The first awed superstition by incomprehensible achievements. Forestalling the Christian Scientists, she had healed the sick by prayer, while her mere enticements brought about the end of many virulent dissensions.

To dabble with mystical methods is an old and universal weakness. The wife of a certain Francesco Tolomei, head of one of the noblest families in Siena, heard of Catherine’s miracles, and being hard pressed by domestic difficulties, turned to the dyer’s daughter for assistance. Madonna Tolomei was herself a profoundly religious woman, but she anguished with the consciousness that the rest of her family were damned. The eldest son, Giacomo, had murdered two men before he was grown up, and his cruelty had now become diabolical, ingenious, and systematic. There were also two daughters, bitten with worldliness to the marrow of their bones. Both were fast, dyed, and painted. Catherine offered to see the girls, but expressed no confidence as to the consequences. She found them with the garish hair that always touched her to the quick, and possibly felt more yearningly because of it. No account has been given of the interview. The two sisters, with the Tolomei blood in their veins, could hardly have been easy natures to lure out of worldliness; but at the end of Catherine’s visit, they were like lambs in the hands of a skilful shepherd. According to Cafferini, they threw their cosmetics into the gutter, cut off their gleaming hair, and in a few days joined the Sisters of St. Dominic. This is the kind of triumph of which Catherine’s life is full. Her personal magnetism was extraordinary, her insight actually a touch of genius. At this time also she was young, and herself a living exponent of how seductively gay goodness could make one. To the end, in truth, she remained less a nun than a woman, and as a woman she was the embodiment of enchanting sympathies and comfort. Merely to see her, – soft, sweet, mysteriously comprehending, – was like a cordial to an aching heart. But the most astounding part of the Tolomei story is still to be told. Giacomo, with his mad and bloody passions, was away when his sisters’ conversion took place. He came home to cow the house with terror. A lunatic let loose would have been less persistently dangerous. Donna Tolomei, shaken now with physical and not spiritual forebodings, immediately sent a messenger to warn Catherine that no danger was too horrible to anticipate; in his present condition he was capable of doing anything. Catherine did not feel a quicker heart-beat. She was steeped in intuitions and spontaneous knowledge. Ostensibly as an act of exquisite courtesy, she sent Fra Bartolomeo – who must have been a brave man – to explain matters, while she prayed with all her heart and soul for the unmanageable sinner. Some hours later Bartolomeo came back. Catherine met him smiling; she knew already the news he brought. Her prayers – so passionately eager – had already been answered. Giacomo – the diabolical, murderous, implacable Giacomo – was already meek as a lamb under the shock of a new and overwhelming emotion. It is not the least curious part of the story that he remained a changed character, and continued to abominate wickedness with the same intensity that in his earlier days he had practised it. Towards the end of his life he even took the habit of a Dominican of the Tertiary Order, the obligations of this third order not being excessive.

There is another story of this earlier period more enchanting still, in its original and tragic graciousness. Only before telling it the question of Catherine’s miracles should, perhaps, be dealt with, for they also commenced when she was scarcely out of childhood, and helped enormously to render her a recognized celebrity. They and her austerities are the unlikeable side of Catherine’s holiness. At the same time no saint of the period could have obtained a hearing without them, and no human system could have endured the strain put upon it by a mediæval religious enthusiast, without producing self-hypnotism and catalepsy. Catherine, at an early age, fell into trances, described by her biographers as “ecstasies at the thought of God.” Describing one of these ecstasies, her friend Raymond wrote “that on these occasions her body became stiff, and raised in the air, gave out a wonderful fragrance.” All the old Catholic writers, to whom miracles were an integral part of saintship, were generous in multiplying supernatural details. A good deal has to be deducted from these statements; but even then there remain a good many so-called miracles attested by other and more critical witnesses. That she was seen raised from the ground while she prayed, is a fact sworn to by a number of people. A man called Francesco Malevolti affirms that he saw her “innumerable times” raised from the ground as she prayed, and remaining suspended in the air more than a cubit above the earth. He mentions, to give weight to his evidence, that in order to test the reality of the occurrence, he and some others passed their hands between her and the floor – a thing perfectly easy to do. As this occurred in broad daylight, modern spiritualistic séances become clumsy in comparison. Catherine could do better in the fourteenth century.

The most important miracle of all was, of course, the stigmatization. That alone definitely assured her position as one with authority from God; it constituted the final and irrefutable sign of Divine and miraculous intervention. At the time of its occurrence Catherine was twenty-eight, and suffered extreme agony from it. The most curious circumstance about the stigmata in Catherine’s case was that they were not properly visible during her lifetime, but became perfectly clear after her death. In this one matter her successor, St. Lucia, the religious celebrity of Lucrezia Borgia’s day, outdid the woman she tried to follow. Her stigmata were always visible – bleeding wounds anybody could look at.

Returning to the loveliest of all the stories concerning Catherine’s girlhood, it must be remembered that the prisons of Siena were almost more filled with political prisoners than criminals. During the whole of the Renaissance political prisoners were in themselves almost sufficient in number decently to fill Italian dungeons. Catherine, who had the understanding to love sinners, habitually visited condemned offenders. Those forlorn of any hope in this world she insidiously replenished with winning dreams of hope hereafter. She did more. When the day of execution came, she joined the procession to the scaffold. What it meant, in the unconveyable desolation of that last public outgoing, to have the company of this woman, with her sweet, contagious promises in the name of Christ, would be hard to overestimate. She was at all times embodied comfort to be with, and even a sharp and reluctant death must have been easier when she was there to pour out pity and encouragement.

Among the prisoners at one time was a certain Nicholas di Toledo, who had spoken irreflectively against the Riformatori – the strong Government party. This Riformatori consisted of a council chosen originally at a tense political crisis for purposes of urgent amendments. The nobility had no part in it. Siena, since 1280, when a reconciliation occurred between the Sienese Guelfs and Ghibellines, had been a merchant oligarchy, first governed by the Nove, then by Dodici, and after both these had been swept away, by the Riformatori, into which some members of both the previous Governments had been included. The Riformatori began well and ended badly. The Noveschi and Dodicini members almost immediately worked against it; civil trouble became interminable. The new power, exasperated, fell back upon repressive horrors. People were arrested upon simple suspicion of disapproval, and then publicly tortured in order to appal others. A common habit was to tear a criminal slowly to pieces with red-hot pincers while he was bound upon a cart driven slowly through the principal streets.

In the case of Nicholas di Toledo, he had barely gone from the place of his impulsive utterance before he was arrested, and he was barely arrested before he was condemned to death. Such a sentence had never risen in his thoughts for one sickening moment even; it came with so awful an unexpectedness that his mind for an interval whirled to the verge of insanity. Nicholas di Toledo was scarcely more than a boy, and the first warmth of life ran in every pulse. This bitter, inconceivable end unnerved him – he could not make up his mind to die. Suddenly he thought of Catherine, of whom other prisoners may have babbled, and sent a messenger imploring her to come to him. She wrote afterwards to her confessor a full description of the brief drama. Her presence almost immediately calmed and heartened him. Both were young, and Catherine, if not actually pretty, was delicious with overflowing tenderness. For Nicholas, besides the optimism communicated to him by her spiritual promises, there must have been the unconsidered but poignant fact that she was a woman and he a man. It is undeniable that no monk, however good, could have helped his dying to the same extent. Catherine not only rendered it possible to go through with courage, but in the end tinged it with something almost blessed. She was with him, it would seem, most of the time, and not only promised to accompany him to the scaffold when the day of execution came, but previously took him to Mass, and persuaded him to communicate for the first occasion in his life.

Nicholas had been nothing deeper than a young society man, and the wrench of this merciless conclusion was all the greater because of it. Catherine, in her account of the circumstance, went on to say that he grew quite resigned, his only dread being lest his courage should fail him at the supreme moment. He repeated constantly, “Lord, be with me; abandon me not.” To help him she reiterated her assurance that she would be with him at the last. In a moment his face brightened, and he asked her with a boyish impulsiveness how it was so great a sweetness was being vouchsafed to him. With this to look forward to he could face the end, not only with courage, but with something strangely akin to pleasure.

They met, as she had promised, at the scaffold next day. Catherine wrote concerning it that when he saw her his face broke into a smile, and that he begged her to make the sign of the cross upon his forehead. She did so, whispering that soon, very soon, he would have passed to a life that never ends. Then occurred the unforgettable incident of the story. At the best Nicholas was a creature not disciplined to suffering, and the worst moment had yet to come. Leaping to obey an intuition in itself exquisite, Catherine did what the prudery alone of most religious women would have made unthinkable. She took the boy’s head in her thin, soft hands, and herself laid it in position upon the block. The action was like a caress in which his last impressions melted. He murmured the words “Jesus and Catherine.” The knife ripped through the air to his neck, and his head fell into the same trembling hands that had guided it during its last activity.

On its human side Catherine’s spirituality was seldom less than perfect. Character and beauty emanated from her every spontaneous action. Nicholas di Toledo was only one of the many men she fascinated, and the fact renders the question of her personal appearance peculiarly interesting. The triumphs of a plain woman are always more stirring than those achieved by a simple success of feature. The “divine plainness,” immortalized by Lamb, can convey subtleties not possible to the simple regularities of well-cut features. Catherine proved adorable to most people, but from her portraits it is practically impossible to receive any impression save that of dulness. This, at any time, was the last thing she could have been, but the conventions of the Roman Catholic Church in dealing with the portraits of saints opposed any lifelike treatment. The picture of her in the church of St. Domenico at Siena, said to be by Francesco Vanni, might do equally well for any other emaciated sister. There is no temperament in it, no illumination, no visible sweetness. The eyes are half closed, the expression is inert and apathetic. The mouth is small but meaningless, the nose is long and well formed, the oval of the face delightful. Vanni did slightly better on another occasion. There is an engraving by him which is very nearly attractive. The eyes, owing to the religious demand for humility, are again half closed, but the mouth is both delightful and winning, and a half-smile plays about her expression. Given the glamour of vivacity, the kindling changes of life, and Catherine when young must have been delightful to look at. Certainly many men loved her. She had the power of being poignant in recollection, and disturbingly sweet in her bodily presence.

Even the painter Vanni, wicked enough to have been conversion-proof, yielded to the disquieting need she roused in him. He had been a great hater, and the men he hated were assassinated without after-remorse. For some amazing reason – probably that of curiosity – he consented to interview Catherine. She was out when he called, and her Confessor Raymond received him. According to Raymond, who describes the incident, Vanni soon grew bored, and presently remarked bluntly that he had promised to call upon Catherine, but since she was out, and he was a busy man, he could not wait for her any longer.

At that moment Catherine appeared – according to Raymond, much to Vanni’s disgust. But Catherine was all smiles, comfortableness, and simple ease of manner. Vanni’s chances, in fact, of not being converted ended with her entrance. The manner of his surrender was humorously characteristic of the man himself. Catherine – she was always so clever when she was good – presently left the room. No woman ever knew better when another word would have been too much. She had hardly gone when Vanni broke out that, for the sake of courtesy, he could not wholly refuse her some gratification. At the moment he had four virulent hatreds, but to please Catherine he would give up, in the case of one of them, all thoughts of vengeance. He then started to leave the house, but before he reached the door stopped suddenly and declared he could hardly draw his breath, so intense was the sense of peace and ecstasy this one small action of the right kind had given him. Evidently it was useless to hold out against her influence, and he then and there declared himself conquered, and ready to abandon all the vices he could under Catherine’s gentle guidance.

Thus came an end to Vanni’s murders. Catherine held him for the rest of his days. It is only to be regretted that he did not paint her portrait before instead of after his conversion. He would have attended less to her reputation as a saint, and more to what was lovely and pictorial in her person.

Catherine no longer lived at home. She had instituted an informal sisterhood at Siena, where “Mantellate” sisters from every part of Lombardy lived in community. Her work still continued among the sick, the lepers, and prisoners. But rumours of her miracles, and of an almost miraculous gift of persuasion, were spreading to many parts of Italy. Talk of the dyer’s daughter had already reached the ears of the Pope at Avignon, and was paving the way to further political successes. Before Catherine had passed out of her teens she employed four secretaries to cope with the colossal inflow of correspondence that reached her. It was through the urgency of help in answering letters in fact that Catherine made the great friendship of her life, and drew under her influence the man who largely contributed towards keeping natural feelings alive in her.

Stephen Marconi never cast off a cheerful and innate earthliness. He came across Catherine originally, as so many people did, over the matter of a Sienese family feud. Stephen, headstrong and exuberant, had roused ill-feeling in both the Tolomei and Rinaldini families. Torrents of blood loomed as the sole termination. Mutual acquaintances had made useless attempts to produce peace; at the last crisis before violence Stephen’s mother implored him to go to the “Mantellate” sister. The suggestion drew some contemptuous comments. But the woman persisted, and essentially good-natured, Stephen went in order to pacify her. He had every reason subsequently to thank the solicitations that overbore derision. Catherine settled everything with absolute successfulness, Stephen himself speaking of the reconciliation that followed as truly miraculous.

More extraordinary than the reconciliation even was the effect of Catherine’s individuality upon Stephen Marconi. He possessed no natural aptitude for spirituality. Handsome, irresponsible, sought after, he epitomized effervescent worldliness. But, having once seen Catherine, he could not keep away. Excuses were raked together for further interviews, and one day, finding her overburdened with correspondence, he wrote a letter at her dictation. It was the beginning of the end. At first informally, and later explicitly, he became one of her secretaries; presently also a member of what was called her “spiritual family.”

Siena relished as a joke the dandy converted by the ascetic, but Stephen was unconcerned. An irrepressible humourist, he appreciated to the full the oddity of the situation; though if jocose, he was also deeply contented. Catherine had become almost instantly the instigating motive of his life, the one precious thing his heart needed. Catherine, on her side, was known to care for him more than for almost any other person. Her relations with him became those of a deep and exciting friendship. Towards the end of her life she heard a report that Stephen had definitely cast off his semi-worldliness and taken ascetic vows. Catherine should have known an exquisite and glowing comfort. Instead of it, her letter to him on the subject is very nearly petulant. That any action should have been taken without first becoming a matter of confidences between them clearly unspeakably hurt her. She wrote that of course it was a great joy to hear that he desired to lead a better life, but that she was “very surprised” that he should have made any decision without previously having said a word to her about it. She added further that there was something in the matter that she could not understand, though she prayed that whatever he did would prove to be for the benefit of his soul.

There is more sign in this of a woman stung by an unexpected neglect, than any religious exaltation at a soul saved. Stephen had not become a monk, and the misunderstanding swiftly passed over. But the letter is pleasant reading, because it was written at a time when Catherine’s mysticism threatened to overshadow the purely human kindnesses of her earlier years. The idea of Christ as the heavenly Husband had developed from vague symbolism into a definite expression of spiritual familiarity. It was an unrealized element of good fortune that Stephen’s whimsical frivolity kept alive in her a strain of normal sensations. She suffered whenever they were separated, and among the last letters she ever wrote, moreover, was one to Stephen with the pathetic, dependent cry, “When will you come, Stephen? Oh, come soon!”

Another secretary closely associated with Catherine’s life for many years was Neri di Landoccio, a poet belonging to the group of dawning Renaissance writers. He suffered from melancholy, and having once met Catherine, naturally clung to the heartening radiance of her presence. From his letters, his youth appears to have been vicious. He was, at any rate, haunted by the notion that his misdemeanours were greater than God would be likely to forgive. He worried himself into a dangerous dismalness – a gloom perceiving no remedy. Then Catherine wrote him a long letter. She reiterated that God was far more ready to forgive than humanity to offend; that He was the Physician, and mankind His sick and ailing children. She told him that sadness constituted the worst fault of all in a disciple of Christ. To believe in the unplumbable love of God, and still persist in disheartenment, was a form of unrighteousness.

Neri did his best, but a gentle wistfulness penetrated his disposition, and not even Catherine could give him gaiety of thoughts. He and Stephen Marconi – the extreme opposites in temperament – became deeply attached to one another. They corresponded when apart, and Stephen, after Catherine’s death, called Neri “among those whom the Lord has engrafted in the very innermost depths of my heart.” A third man constantly in Catherine’s society was her Confessor Raymond. Two small incidents told by himself, and against himself, suggest a perfectly honest and rather pleasant temperament, but a somewhat limited spiritual capacity. In the first, he confesses that when on their journeys great multitudes thronged to Catherine for confession and comfort, and that the fact of having to go for hours without food or rest greatly annoyed as well as wearied him.

From the other, both issue rather sweetly, but Catherine with almost a touch of greatness. Raymond, who again tells the story, says that she loved to talk to him upon spiritual matters, but that, not having the same mystical sensibility, these conversations frequently sent him to sleep. Catherine, absorbed in her subject, would continue for some time talking without perceiving that she lacked a listener, but when she did, she would merely wake the other, and good-humouredly tease him for allowing her to talk to the walls.

Catherine had by nature the sanest and tenderest common sense. It was she who wrote of prayer that everything done for the love of God or of our neighbours was a form of prayer, and those who were always doing good were always, as it were, at prayer. Love of one’s fellow-creatures was practically one long-continued lifting of the heart to God.

When Catherine came to the political portion of her life, the point at which she may be said to have indirectly affected the Renaissance in Italy was reached. The popes were still at Avignon, while Rome clamoured for a return of the papacy to its original capital. Petrarch, in a letter, pictured Rome as a venerable matron standing desolate and in rags at the gate of the Vatican. “I asked at last,” he wrote, “her name, and she murmured it forth. It reached me through the void, in the midst of sobs – it was Roma.” Certainly, since the removal of the popes to France, Rome, as a city, had gone to pieces. The churches were in ruins, grass grew through the pavements up to the very steps of St. Peter’s, peaceful sheep used its environments for pasturage. As the two great families of the town, the Colonna and Orsini fought unceasingly for supremacy, while the people were equally pestered, tortured, and destroyed by both. Save for those who fancied murder as a profession, life had grown a nightmare; decency and quiet were as things of which even the ashes had been scattered.

Catherine, like Petrarch, flung the weight of her eloquence on the side of the Romans, and Gregory’s return to Italy is always attributed by Roman Catholics to her influence. But before this question had become poignant between them, Gregory had already tested Catherine’s good sense in two political missions – one to Lucca, and one to Pisa. Both were successfully concluded, and in consequence, when Florence rose openly against the authority of the Pope, Catherine was chosen for a third time to conduct mediation. The employment of any woman as a diplomatic agent as early as 1370, was an extraordinary circumstance. During the Renaissance, frequent use was made of the intellectual adroitness of women. But, in Catherine’s day, females, as Boccaccio states definitely, had few occupations besides house-bound duties and the excitements of intrigue.

Catherine created an admirable impression in Florence. On her arrival she was formally met by the principal men of the city. The Florentine Republic had itself invited her to come to their assistance. At the same time pure enthusiasm would have effected nothing. Consummate intelligence only could move the Florentines. Each Bull that came from the French Court, and from a pope with every personal interest in a foreign country, newly exasperated them. Catherine watched warily, judging character and manipulating it, until Guelfs and Ghibellines, acute in unfailing antagonisms, equally authorized her to commence peace negotiations at Avignon. Catherine immediately started for France. Stephen Marconi went with her, and the actual journey must have filled her with many unavoidable pleasures. To begin with, she loved the country. In addition, the gypsy travelling of the day entailed perpetual chance incidents and unexpected humanizing makeshifts. A week of gentle progress among Italian scenery would keep the joy of life stirring in most people, if only unawares.

At Avignon her story becomes, even more than before, the dramatic triumph of personality. When she came nobody wanted her. The cardinals had strong reasons for not wishing an ascetic’s influence in the palace; Gregory, inert and ailing, flinched at the thought of a person noted for arousing qualities. She was received, notwithstanding, with ceremony. At her first audience, Gregory sat dressed in full canonicals, and surrounded by the entire conclave of cardinals, like a brilliant jewel in a purple case. Catherine behaved meekly, though in all likelihood her thoughts were less quiet than usual. For the papal residence was a gorgeous place; there were galleries, marble staircases, colonnades, magnificent gardens, elegant fountains. The ultimate possibility of luxury lay before Catherine’s sober eyes, the very air itself being perfumed.

This was sufficient to have perturbed her, for a markedly unclerical influence emanated from so much comfort. But the women who filled the palace jarred still more emphatically. Their sumptuous persons were obviously at home – the very atmosphere indicated femininity. A large number were, in fact, mistresses of the cardinals; the rest, relatives and friends of the Pope, who had been granted apartments in the palace. Gregory’s own morals have never been questioned. He sanctioned, by ignoring them, the scandals of his household, but his own life was that of an innocent and cultivated gentleman, with a liking for expensive living. Raynaldus, in his “Ecclesiasticus Annals,” says that he was of an affectionate and domestic nature, loving his own people, and, in fact, too much led by them, especially in the matter of benefices. His private life was above reproach, – chaste, kindly, and generous. A scholarly man, he delighted in the society of other scholars. At Rome he instantly remitted all the duties on corn, hay, wine, etc., which the clergy had previously levied, and which fell most heavily on the poor people. But the troubles and anxieties that followed his return to Italy, added to an internal disease, from which he had for some time suffered, brought about his death at the age of sixty-seven.

This internal disease had something to do with the gentle inertia of Gregory’s conduct. Once roused by Catherine to a certitude as to where his duty lay, he did it regardless of every personal inclination and affection.

But at the commencement of Catherine’s visit, the question was solely how best to deal with the disaffected Florentines. The issue did not prove gratifying. The Government had promised Catherine to send ambassadors to Avignon, suing for peace. New dissensions leaping up between Guelfs and Ghibellines, none were sent, and negotiations collapsed. In the mean time the ladies at Avignon had grown interested in the attenuated sister, who passed them constantly on her way to and from an audience. They started primarily with the frank indifference of society women to another of a lower class. But indifference became painful interest when in a few days it was breathed tempestuously that this pale woman had come almost solely in order to persuade the Pope to return to the Vatican at Rome. Scared and disordered, the papal ladies ceased to look insolent; they set themselves instead to conciliate the “Mantellate” woman. Led by the Pope’s sister, the Countess Valentinois, they made religion fashionable. Discarding all dancing, they instituted afternoon parties for pious conversation. The Countess Valentinois also visited Catherine in her own room, and after a few days, whenever Catherine went to the chapel to pray, she found all the court ladies following her example. Raymond, never very perspicacious, owns to being moved by “such unexpected signs of grace.” He even admired the lovely gowns and misleading courteseys of the seemingly repentant ladies. Clearly a little susceptible, Catherine’s churlish indifference greatly annoyed him. As her confessor, he had the opportunity of chiding her for this incivility – it was painful to see such pretty, graceful creatures repulsed so sternly. But Catherine upon this subject was adamant, and merely replying that had he the smallest inkling of the true dispositions of these mistresses of the cardinals, he would be nothing less than horrified.

Raymond, one imagines, still privately clung to a more pacific opinion; but if the story generally attributed to the Pope’s niece is true, his eyes were soon opened to the real sanctity of these ladies. Catherine had fallen into one of the trances frequent with her when at prayer. Elys de Beaufort Turenne happened to be kneeling conveniently near, and the opportunity to expose a spurious absorption thrilled her with pernicious pleasure. The temptation was too exceptionable to resist, and bending over, she presently ran a big pin into the Mantellate’s toe. The joke, as far as she was concerned, spurted into no more life than saturated fireworks. Catherine never stirred – unaware of the incident until afterwards. But Raymond realized for the future that some courtesies are means of concealment only.

The women of the Pope’s household were not alone in disliking Catherine. The cardinals objected to her as strongly. She had come to labour against everything pleasing in their lives. Those won over, besides, praised immoderately, and the instinct to strike a balance is natural and intuitive.

Her spiritual pretensions had not even, as far as they were concerned, been proved to be genuine. They solicited from the Pope, therefore, an interview with the Mantellate nun, in which the soundness of her theology might be tested. This encounter lasted from noon until late in the evening, during the whole of which time they endeavoured to confuse her into foolishness. But Catherine had a very clear brain and a very quick one. She knew her subject, and, being a clever woman, in a few minutes also, roughly, the temperaments of the men she was dealing with. The thought is a purely personal one, but it is difficult not to believe that she enjoyed the excitement. Catherine was humble through instinct, but she must have realized that she was considerably more capable than most people. Stephen Marconi, present during the interview, says that two of them were enticed over almost immediately, and took sides with Catherine against their own party. The questions put, however, were anything but easy to deal with. Among other points they queried how she knew that she was not really in the subtle clutches of Satan; it was no uncommon trick for the Evil One to change himself into an angel of light, or sham to be a vision of Christ himself. All this time her extraordinary manner of life might be simply a cunning prelude to damnation.

Catherine neither wavered nor deliberated; her calm was gracious and simple; she was exquisitely willing to be interrogated. The cardinals gave in; the struggle over, they had even the grace to admit that “they had never met a soul at once so humble and so illuminated.” Gregory, inherently a gentleman, afterwards apologized to Catherine for having permitted her to be molested by them, and from that time her troubles with the cardinals at any rate terminated.

Gregory himself had from the beginning been openly impressed by her. She left Avignon before the actual journey to Rome was made, but her passionately eager persuasions were the fire at which Gregory’s conscience chiefly ignited. For his household became desperate and loquacious at the mere suggestion. Gregory also had been born in France; all his roots were in the genial soil of Avignon. But Catherine would not let the matter rest. In a yearning and courageous letter, beginning, “Holy Father, I, your miserable little daughter Catherine,” she urged him to be overborne by nobody against doing his duty, for if God was with him, nobody could be against him.

Gregory went, and in a man old, fearsome, and extremely out of health, the action has an element of greatness. For the reputation of Rome, constantly reiterated by those about him, was very much like that of a den of wild beasts. Ser Amily, a provincial poet, who gives a rhymed description of the journey from Avignon, says, further, that all the physicians and astrologers prophesied a fatal termination to the expedition, but adds that they had apparently misread the constellations, as after some terrifying storms they sailed for the rest of the way upon a tranquil sea.

The fatal termination merely tarried somewhat, though the entrance into Rome proved a triumphant pageant. The streets had been laid with carpets, white flowers rained from every window – no welcome could have looked more cordial or inspiriting. The entry once over, however, Gregory found himself alone in an inimical country. Catherine wrote encouraging letters to him to discard all fears and strenuously to do all he could. But Gregory had done all he could. Rome, depraved and indocile, required a sterner nature at its head. He was ill and overtired, and fourteen months after having reached Italy, died, lonely and disheartened, at the age of sixty-seven.

Urban VI., by birth a peasant, short, squat, unpolished, succeeded him. The election was instantly unpopular. Half the people desired a French pope, residenced at Avignon and keeping French interests uppermost. The rest writhed under the truculent uncouthness of the new Pope, hating him personally. Matters became so envenomed that the most acutely aggrieved presently declared his election to have been illegal, and proceeded to place another pope at Avignon, known as Clement VII.

There were, in consequence, two popes – one at Rome, and the other in France. Both claimed supreme authority, and the confusion produced by them brought the papacy very near to the ridiculous. Then commenced, according to Muratori, a long series of terrible scandals in the Church. The result was unceasing private and public dissensions, incessantly culminating in murder. Urban excommunicated Clement and his cardinals. Clement, on his part, excommunicated Urban and his followers. The same benefices were conferred on different persons by the rival popes, each appointing his own bishop to every vacant see. Urban had been one of the cardinals during Catherine’s momentous stay at Avignon, and knowing his character, she wrote him after his election some very wistful counsel. The necessity of behaving benevolently was like a cry wrung out of her involuntarily; again and again, in different phraseology, she begged him to “restrain a little those too quick movements with which nature inspires you.”

This puts matters prettily – with an innate tact of feeling. Urban, in reality, was a man destitute of pleasant impulses. Fundamentally irritable, he possessed no control of utterance. Towards the cardinals his manners were inexcusable. He shouted the word “Fool!” at them upon the least hint of contradiction: over a difference of opinion he blurted furiously, “Hold your tongue; you don’t know what you are talking about.” Having determined to put down the rampant cupidity and immorality of these same cardinals, he raided their palaces as the quickest method of exposing them. On the other hand, he was a man of absolute probity, austerity, and courage. Petrarch had several times attacked the gluttony of high ecclesiastics. Urban ordered that one course only was ever to be seen upon the table of any prelate whatsoever, and adhered to the rule himself even upon occasions of hospitality. The following incident is a good example of his courage. As a result of the schism and his own extreme unpopularity, the people of Rome broke into open rebellion. The mob rushed to storm the Vatican. At the first rumour the household had fled to take refuge in other places. Only Urban refused to move, and remained alone in the great empty palace. When the mob stormed the doors and made for the Pope, they found him sitting motionless upon the throne, dressed in full pontifical splendour and holding the cross in solemn defiance in one upraised hand. The sight of his immovable figure, dramatic, repellent, denunciatory, broke the nerve of the impressionable Romans. They saw before them the representative of God, and with incoherent noises, fearful of eternal wrath, they fled, leaving the rigid figure impassive as an image, alone once more.

It was with Urban that Catherine went through the last exciting interview of her life. The impression left by her personality at Avignon must have been considerable, for when the election of Clement VII. took place and divided the Church into two disordered and querulous factions, the man who could not support a single adverse suggestion actually sent for Catherine to come and help him render the people of Rome at least loyal to the true Head of the Church. Catherine, though by now very frail in body, set out immediately, taking twenty helpful people with her, but, for some reason not given, leaving Stephen Marconi behind. Then, when she had got to Rome, and had recovered from the exhaustion of the journey, Urban insisted that she should give an address upon the schism before the entire assembly of cardinals.

She could only have looked a rather wan and paltry object set against the lace and silk and breadth of the well-fed cardinals. She was by this time nothing but a narrow line of black draperies and a thin white face. But the moment she began to speak the old warmth leapt into her voice, and the nun became more deeply rich in colour than all the scarlet and purple she fronted. Catherine never lost her head or her courage. She was there to rouse the sluggish morals of the cardinals, but she was quite aware that Urban stood almost as much in need of improvement as they did. With admirable clarity she laid stress upon the fact that the only weapons suitable for a pope were patience and charity. Urban owned neither, but the pluck and eloquence of the woman reached some responsive feeling, and he praised her then and there in a generous abundance of phrases. Unfortunately he did nothing else, and the following Christmas Catherine sent him another cajoling reminder – the kind of reminder only a subtle woman, and one with charming ways in private life, would have thought of. She preserved some oranges, coated them with sugar, and having gilded them, sent them to the Pope. With the present came a note, explaining that in the preserving all the acidity of the orange had been drawn out, and that, like the orange, the fruit of the soul, when prepared and sweetened and gilded on the outside with the gold of tenderness, would overcome all the evil results of the late schism, or, as with a careful selection of an unhurtful word, she put it – “the late mischance.”

Urban had previously empowered her to invite to Rome in his name whoever she considered would be useful to the divided Church in its hour of need. Among those Catherine wrote to William of England and Anthony of Nice, two friends, who lived in a pleasant convent at Lecceto, a few miles from Siena. A quaint correspondence resulted, for the two old men were sadly shaken in their comfortable habits by Catherine’s letter. Yet the letter itself was a singularly good one. She states in it plainly that the Church was in such dire necessity that the time had come to give up all questions of peace and solitude in order to succour her.

There were few characters that Catherine could not understand; certainly she understood her two friars perfectly. For the peace and quiet of their country retreat, where they sat and talked in the shady woods, had made them absolutely flabby of spirit. The thought of change and bustle flustered them from head to foot. Catherine had to write again, and this time she wrote with some directness that this was a crisis when character became visibly tested, and when there was no mistaking who really were the true servants of God, and who were merely seekers of a way of life personally congenial to them. These latter, she said, seemed to think that God dwelt in one particular place, and could not be found in any other. This letter must have harried the two old gentlemen sadly. Friar Anthony came to Rome at last, and though it is not clear whether Friar William accompanied him or not, it is probable that, when one gave in, both did.

Catherine endured great fatigue in Rome; it drained the remnant of strength left in her. Nevertheless she sent a letter from there to Stephen that was still almost playful. It is in this letter that occurred the winning petulance concerning the rumours of Stephen’s conversion. How little she could do without him issued again in a still later epistle, when she wrote to him, “Have patience with me.” At this time she was ill, in pain, tired to breaking-point with the Roman risings against the Pope. The schism had spread rapidly. Queen Joanna of Naples, to whom Catherine wrote regrettably stern letters, had flung her influence upon the side of Clement. Urban grew so uncertain that there was talk of sending Catherine – nearly dead through the strain already – to Paris, as the only ambassador likely to draw the French king over to the true Pontiff. She wrote instead, and while her letter was on its way, Charles V. joined the Anti-pope party.

When Rome, at least, had grown comparatively reconciled to Urban, Catherine returned to Siena. She was thirty-three, and the radiance that had magnetized men into contemplating even death with tranquillity, if she was only with them, had to a great extent gone out of her. Nevertheless, her correspondence shows that she never lost her fine discernment of character. Some of her letters are still masterpieces of practical understanding.

For a short time still she lived quietly with the men and women who loved and made much of her, though had she for a second realized how subtly indulged she was, a panic of dismay would have shaken her strenuous spirit. Physical strength, however, was almost exhausted. She suffered greatly, and with a touching foolishness – touching because of its presence in so much wisdom – she repeated again and again that God permitted demons to distress her, and, in consequence, bent her failing strength to wrestle with their torments. That a natural disease was killing her did not seem credible to imagination. Nevertheless, except during intolerable pain, her expression continued pathetically joyous. When she was well enough they carried her out into a neighbouring garden, lent for her use. Catherine never, after the first excesses of her childhood, repudiated out-of-door pleasures. She died in 1380, surrounded by a very passion of regret and tenderness. On her death-bed she confessed quaintly that in the early days of her spiritual career she had yearned for solitude, but that God would have none of it. Each creature possessed a cell in their own souls, where the spirit could live as solitarily and as enclosed in the world as out of it.

Stephen Marconi was with her when she died, and just before the end she entreated him to enter the Order of the Carthusians. Neri she begged to become a hermit. The injunction for a moment appears to lack her usual intuition. Yet it was probably the result of a very deep understanding. Neri’s nerves may have been more tranquil when not played upon by other people.

To the last she prayed, dying peacefully towards the “hour of Sext,” one Sunday evening, according to Stephen, the body until her burial retained a wonderful beauty and fragrance.

Her last request to the latter was reverently complied with, and for the future he carried on, with the grace of nature that made him so lovable, the most endearing of his dead friend’s labours – he became famous as a healer of feuds. The cult of Catherine’s memory gave a sentimental happiness to his days. He remembered her with the painful delight of a faithful lover. Nothing in their companionship had been too trivial for a living recollection. Being elected Father Superior to his monastery, he “invariably added the delicacy of beans to the fare of his religious on Easter Day.” He did this because one Easter Day he had dined with Catherine on beans, there having been nothing else in the house, and as Friar Bartholomew puts it, “the remembrance of that dinner stuck fast to the marrow of his spine.” As an old man, Stephen still cherished the smallest details of her life, and on one occasion, at the sudden recall of some little incident illustrative of her loving-kindness, he burst abruptly into tears, seeming as if his heart would break. The brothers were obliged to lead him gently to a seat out-of-doors, where a freshening wind restored him.

Neri also did as she wished. But his life as a hermit did not interfere with his literary labours, nor did it by any means leave him without society. Once he seems to have gone out of his mind for a time. Stephen mentions in one letter that he was told that he had been alienato, but that it is evident, since he had now heard from him, that he had recovered.

An account of his death, written by a monk to a certain friend of the dead man, Ser Jacomo, and given in the English version in Miss Drane’s life of Catherine, is sufficiently unusual to quote. It falls to the lot of few people to have their deaths recorded in quite such a superfluity of phrases.

“Dearest Father of Christ,

“My negligence – I need say no more – but yet with grief and sorrow I write to you, how our Father and our comfort, and our help, and our counsel, and our support, and our refreshment, and our guide, and our master, and our receiver, and our preparer, and our writer, and our visitor, and he who thought for us, and our delight, and our only good, and our entertainer; and his meekness, and his holy life, and his holy conversation, and his holy teachings, and his holy works, and his holy words, and his holy investigations. Alas, miserable ones, alas poor wretches, alas orphans, where shall we go, to whom shall we have recourse? Alas, well may we lament, since all our good is departed from us! I will say no more, for I am not worthy to remember him, yet I beg of you that, as it is the will of God, you will not let yourself be misled by the news; know then alas, I don’t know how I can tell you – alas, my dear Ser Jacomo, alas, my Father and my brother, I know not what to do, for I have lost all I cared for. I do not see you, and I know not how you are. Know then that our love and our father – alas, alas, Neri di Landoccio, alas, took sick on the 8th of March, Monday night, about daybreak, on account of the great cold, and the cough increasing, he could not get over it, alas. He passed out of his life, confessed, and with all the sacraments of the Holy Church, and on the 12th of March was buried by the brethren of Mount Olivet, outside the Porta Tufi, and died in the morning at the Aurora at break of day.”

According to the writer, Neri did not die until some hours after he had been buried at the Porta Tufi!

Catherine’s influence lingered in almost all those who had once responded to it. But the quality that remains rousing to the present day was her unremitting remembrance that one cannot be good without being happy. Though due to a different source, the spirit of the Renaissance seemed to emanate from her – the spirit that laboured so hard, in a world rich in all manner of things, to be joyful every minute. In Catherine’s case, it was the result, not only of a realization of life’s inherent wondrousness, but of an unconscious knowledge that heroism is never anything but smiling; that the acceptance which is not absolute, composed, and tendered in fulness of heart, is but a semi-acceptance after all.

In addition, Catherine had the one supreme characteristic that no age can render less superb or less inspiring. She was a nature drenched in loving-kindness. Consciously and unconsciously love streamed out of her, penetrating and unifying every soul she came in contact with. At all times there is nothing the world stands more in need of than loving saints, – at all times there is nothing that brings more creatures out of mistakenness, intractability, and mean-souled egoism than a glowing greatness of heart. And finally, there is nothing so vividly illuminating upon the intense and vital beauty of life and human efforts than the persons who, like Catherine, have but to enter a room, and, – satisfied, aflame, compassionate, – instantly transpose its atmosphere into delicious, renewing goodness.

– text and image taken from Queens of the Renaissance, by M Bereford Ryley, London, 1907