Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The mystery of the woman in the wall

The mystery of the woman in the wall
Keen-eyed visitors to Florence may spot something unusual perched high upon the walls of the Santa Maria Maggiore bell-tower – a woman’s head.

The petrified stone head seems very out of place, too strange for a statue, too low for a gargoyle, but as you may have guessed, there’s a story behind it, dating back to the year 1327.

Executions were common in medieval times. One man unlucky enough to be sentenced to death was Cecco d’Ascoli, a doctor, astronomer, teacher and poet. So regarded were his skills that he was employed by the Duke of Calabria as court physician. Unfortunately, his talent as an astronomer was his downfall, after he read a horoscope and was accused of heresy, falling foul of Florence’s deeply religious friars.

Sentenced to be burnt at the stake, he was being transported to his death when his wagon passed the bell-tower. Parched with thirst he called out to a woman who was watching from the window, Berta. But instead of helping him, she warned anyone against giving him water as, fearing him to be a master of wizardry, she believed he would draw power from it to escape the flames.

Infuriated, Cecco d’Ascoli put a curse on Berta – “Thou head there shalt no longer rise”. He called, before being burnt alive. The legend lived on, and the lonely petrified head of Berta was installed in a window of the bell-tower.

So if you’re ever passing by, look up and say hello to Berta, she could probably use the company. (Just don’t expect her to offer you a drink.)