One of the most famous and legendary tabernacles in Siena.
Strolling through the historic centre of Siena, keeping your eyes peeled, we can notice tabernacles on the walls of many buildings. These are an urban, historical and cultural feature of the city, and bear witness to the deep-rooted Marian faith of the Sienese.
These are frescos or stucco reliefs created between the 13th and 20th centuries by famous or unknown artists: some are prominent on the main streets while others are secluded, some are large and imposing and others are small and simple.
In the Middle Ages, many towns were dotted with tabernacles, also called Madonnine or Madonnelle. Aside from the religious sentiment, they may have been installed primarily to illuminate dark and unsafe corners and were perhaps respected more than a simple lamppost precisely because they were intended for the Madonna.
Siena is a Marian city and very attached to the past, so the tradition of tabernacles has remained unchanged. There are about sixty of them, and on 8 September, the entire city gathers around the tabernacles with a wholesome celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which also involves the children of the Contrade.
One of the most striking and famous tabernacles one encounters is that of the Madonna del Corvo, visible on the wall of Via Stalloreggi at the corner with Via del Corvo, a true masterpiece that has survived centuries of urban history.
Frescoed by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma, at the beginning of the 16th century, the tabernacle is popularly known as the ‘Madonna del Corvo’, so much so that in 1931 the podestà of Siena, Fabio Bargagli Petrucci, decided to affix a plaque to the tabernacle to confirm this name.
The Madonna del Corvo was commissioned by the brothers Antonio and Caterino di Caterino Mariscotti on the facade of the palace in which they had lived since the beginning of the century. Sodoma was inspired by the Pietà sculpted by Michelangelo for the Vatican Basilica but he lacked the space, so he flipped the composition vertically raising the bust of Christ. The movement is balanced by the Madonna, who holds Jesus’ legs with her left hand (lowered compared with the sculpture).
There’s a legend behind its origin.: The Pietà was painted in the location where a crow, bearer of the plague, fell dead in 1348, making the disease spread throughout the city. For Siena, the ‘Black Death’ was an enormous urban mourning and a great collective trauma. Agnolo di Tura, one of the great Italian chroniclers of the 14th century and Sienese by birth, described it as ‘vast mortality, the vastest and the darkest, the most horrific’. that the city had ever seen. The number of dead remains incalculable in Siena, but the chronicler counted around eighty thousand people. Because of the plague, Agnolo di Tura himself lost five children that he had to bury. Agnolo di Tura’s tragedy wasn’t an isolated one. In 1348, Siena also lamented the disappearance of two of its most famous artists, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, both painters.
The truth about the Madonna del Corvo is much less fascinating. The Marescotti family who owned the palace commissioned the work and they boasted a single-headed black eagle with spread wings on their family crest.
But in the fresco is poorly drawn and the bird, rather than an eagle, resembles a pigeon or, with a bit of imagination, a plague-less crow.
Where: Via di Stalloreggi, corner of Via Madonna del Corvo
When: always visible wonder