Fontebranda: poetry, tradition, and the air of spring in Siena
Fontebranda, in Siena’s noble Contrada dell’Oca, is the largest and most famous fountain in the beautiful Tuscan city.
It is a source of pure water but also of poetry, legends, and traditions.
Dante mentions it in “The Divine Comedy”, in the Inferno’s Canto XXX, set in the forgers’ circle. One of the damned souls, Master Adam, tells the poet:
But if I here could see the tristful soul / Of Guido, or Alessandro, or their brother, / For Branda’s fount I would Dot give the sight. The Florentine counterfeiter tells Dante that he would give up drinking the fresh water of Siena’s fountain if only he could see some of his acquaintances down in hell with him (
I’d not give up the sight for Fonte Branda.) – obviously considering it a great sacrifice.
Almost five centuries later, Vittorio Alfieri praised the fountain in a sonnet:
Fontebranda mi trae meglio la sete, / parmi, che ogn’acqua di città latina (“I believe Fontebranda quenches my thirst better than any other water in any other Latin city”).
Verses as well as legends apparently gushed from the fountain – protected by a Gothic-style structure built and renovated between the 11th and 13th centuries). According to one old chronicle, for example, drinking its water made you insane: “When you want to infer someone is as unsound as the people of Siena are known to be, you will commonly ask whether they have drunk from Fontebranda”.
Saint Catherine was born in Fontebranda’s quarter in 1347. According to written tradition, the fountain played a part in an episode in her holy life:
“One night, while praying, Caterina came round and called two of her disciples with great urgency, saying ‘Go immediately to Fontebranda because a woman wants to jump in it. Stop her and bring her here’.”
“The two went and found a disheveled woman who wanted to drown herself because her husband had found out she had been unfaithful to him, and wanted to kill her. They brought her to Catherine, who had such an effect with her pleas that the husband forgave the wife and the scandal was avoided” (translated from “I fioretti di santa Caterina”, Città Nuova, Rome 2008).
Finally, let us end with words by the great Argentinian author Julio Cortázar (1914-1984):
“I stayed at length near Fontebranda, then I went up a street, carried away barely putting any motion in it. I reached the house where Catherine of Siena once lived, and sat on the threshold to rest, imagine, and ponder. The ten o’clock sun was out, making the sky of Siena-of-the-shadows more yellow than blue, breaking up the ground into brilliant stripes, like pure streets, where perhaps only Caterina Benincasa once had the right to walk.”
“Siena is a quiet city (all of Italy is, despite the ‘Baedeker’ notion that mixes commercial tourism with the truth of pure places), and I liked feeling at one with its quiet light, looking at the saint’s home between my knees, still hearing Fontebranda’s cluck in my mind. Then above me, from a window, a girl’s voice started to hint (it would be cowardly to describe it in any other way) at an old, sweet and lively song, in which the word ‘spring’ jumped around like a bunny. In the empty street, that voice suddenly became part of the sun and the saint, and Siena sang its present as if to prove to me it was still in touch with the past, which I was desperately chasing around Tuscany” (translated from J. Cortázar, “Imagen de John Keats”, Alfaguara, Madrid 1984).