This little corner outside Siena is a microcosm of Italian history and culture. The hill on which the tower stands was once an Etruscan necropolis, not far from Sienavecchia, an early Etruscan settlement situated near copper and iron deposits. In those days a network of roads connected the mining areas with the valley of the Merse river, winding all the way to the Tyrrhenian coast. Pieve is one of many pulse points along that ancient road. The Etruscans were succeeded by the Romans, although little trace of them is left, some inscriptions and tombs ; a few coins, vases, and iron weapons of Roman manufacture lying in a dusty museum. More traces remain of the early medieval period when a few abbeys and churches were first being built in the area, while, not far away in the woods outside the town of Rosia, just down the road from here, a community of hermits dwelled, seeking union with God. With the eleventh century came a building boom spurred by the expanding population and the need to cultivate more land to enhance the food supply.
The oldest buildings in Pieve have been standing here for over one thousand years, and date back to just prior to that moment of expansion. The main theory of their origin is that they were part of a monastery complex, one of many throughout the area, which were established at the time of the first millennium. The tallest building of the complex is a squat tower, four stories high, poised on the crest of the hill overlooking the plain, where the lights of the town of San Rocco can be seen twinkling at night. The hillsides of central Italy were once covered with towers like this one, which served not only as defense and as a nodes in a communication network, but as status symbols representing the power and economic prosperity of the villages and their leaders. They were emblems of the consolidated and ambitious self, an “I” erected towards the sky.
Thick walls once extended from the base of this tower to gird the whole complex within their protection. Those walls tumbled away centuries ago. The large rectangular building opposite the tower has gothic windows, a typical feature of sacred architecture which suggests it might have been a monastery. One of the old timers who lives in the newer village below Pieve tells the story that his own grandfather claimed he could remember a time back in his childhood when two very ancient and emaciated monks with beards down to their navels, dressed in ragged robes were living there, growing cabbages and turnips. A rough calculation would place that period back to the mid nineteenth century, or perhaps earlier.
There is some debate as to the origin of the building where the apartments of Alice and Duccio are located. Duccio claims it once housed a community of nuns in the late middle ages. After all, documents exist proving the presence of monks in Pieve, so why not nuns? For hundreds of years the whole territory was teeming with religious activity. In medieval times, the woods were full of hermits living in caves, like San Galgano and San Leonardo al Lago, whose rustic dwellings were incorporated into the crypts of churches built to honor them, and later Cistercian abbeys and Benedictine monasteries began to spring up like mushrooms all over Tuscany. Over a dozen ruined chapels, convents, and monasteries are scattered throughout the woods, including the hermitage of Santa Lucia not far from here. All these places were under the jurisdiction of the nearby abbey of Torri, just down the road, and probably served as major stations in the pilgrims route connecting France to Rome, the Via Francigena once traveled by thousands of people on foot each year.
Alice’s kitchen was probably the refectory, says Duccio, and proof of this was supplied by Guido, a neighbor recently deceased at the age of ninety, who could remember years ago during his childhood having seen a stone relief above the fireplace showing people eating at a table, which may or may not have been a representation of the Last Supper. The relief disappeared sometimes after the Second World War, when the house was occupied by German soldiers. Only religious buildings would have had such sculptural decorations, unthinkable in the house of peasants or simple laborers. Besides, Duccio claims, he hears ghostly bells at night, haven’ t I heard them? He pierces me with his wandering eye. I smile and shake my head, then remember the wind chimes that woke me before dawn on my first night in this house.
Nonsense, counters the engineer, who has published a book about the history of Pieve and loves to talk about his research. There are no nun’s ghosts fretting in Pieve. The building where Duccio and Alice live was not a convent at all, but a workshop of the wool-workers guild. Siena, unlike Florence, had no rivers or streams to provide energy, thus its industries developed outside the town, in the Val di Merse, an area rich in water resources. The monks of Torri, master hydraulic engineers, quickly harnessed the Merse, draining the marshland, creating canals, and building the mills whose ruins lie hidden deep in the woods today. When these works were completed, the monks made a deal with the craftsmen of Siena to allow them to use these facilities. In return the City of Siena promised to protect the monks and their land. The masters of the art of wool were based in Stigliano just down the road, where fulling mills operated along the streams, to clean and thicken wool. The houses in Pieve may have served their guild as homes, storage areas, or workshops.
Of a more romantic vein, I like to think of the nuns in this house : a handful of women living according to Benedictine rule. Saint Benedict ordered his followers to spend seven hours a day in manual labor, either in the fields or in a library transcribing books, and two hours of spiritual study. Here perhaps these women lived tending cabbages and carrots, pursuing a life of inner search, although their spiritual and intellectual instruction was probably imparted orally, for most women during the middle ages could not read. Perhaps they sat in this very kitchen, taking their meals together after the day’s work.
Once again I wake in early morning to the faint, far away yet distinct sound of chimes. Ding ding ding and then all is silent. Is it the nuns rising for prayer in the early hours of the morning?