Siena, a city where the Middle ages live on…
Severed heads, devils, cages hanging from the walls of buildings… no, we aren’t immersed in a macabre and gloomy medieval tale, we are simply walking a few metres from the Corso di Siena along a striking alley called ‘Via del Refe Nero’.
Walking from via dei Rossi towards the Arch, you will find it on your right. Via del Refe Nero is one of the hidden corners of Siena that only the most curious visitor is lucky enough to notice.
Its name is ancient and likely linked to the presence of some workshop, perhaps of the art of the Linnaioli, which produced and sold ‘refe’, a double-reinforced thread dyed black or otherwise dark, used for sewing strong cloth or sacks.
Shortly after entering the alley, look up towards the rooftops and spot the wrought-iron cage dangling from the wall of a building to the right, which contains a severed head with a headdress impaled on one of the iron rod.
If you search for historical information on the subject, you would find that this was precisely the fate of those condemned to death in the Middle Ages… who might that unfortunate person have been?
What’s more, the palace from which this bizarre ornament hangs is called ‘The Palace of the Red Devil’. All these elements seem to bring back some ancient and mysterious legend of when knights, lords and crooks populated the city.
But that’s not it. The cage in linked to the extravagance and eccentricity of the Sienese antiquarian Giuseppe Mazzoni, the palace’s former owner. He was responsible for the distinctive almost neo-medieval appearance that we can admire today in the facade, adorned with coats of arms and numerous sculptural fragments.
His father Foresto Riccardo was also an art enthusiast, who founded the renowned Casa d’Arte Antica Senese (Sienese house of antique art) in 1880. While you are here, take a look inside the lobby of the hotel Palazzetto Rosso, a few metres away on Via dei Rossi, where Mazzoni’s father started trading antiques at the end of the 19th century.
Beyond the severed head, Via del Refe Nero has lived through the history of Siena. On 18 November 1893, a group of citizens gathered here for the first time, driven by a charitable spirit, to give life to what is still today the Public Assistance of Siena.
And the great Sienese author Federigo Tozzi, whose father owned a tavern nearby, talked about staying here in one of his novels.
Where: Via del Refe Nero
When: always visible wonder