A charming alleyway that preserves the echo of an ancient art and perhaps also the Via Francigena… and a chilling legend!
Halfway down Via Pagliaresi (also known as Cane e Gatto) is Vicolo degli Orefici (Goldsmiths’ Alley), one of the most characteristic and least-known alleyways in Siena. A long, winding alley that opens onto a timeless world, enriched with plants and flowers, which the inhabitants take great care to tend to in this corner of Siena.
This dead-end alley was once open and connected the Cane e Gatto street with the parallel yet distant Vicolo dei Magalotti, which connects Via Pantaneto with Via San Martino.
The etymology of the name is uncertain. The Pagliaresi family did indeed trade in gold, and perhaps the same Pagliaresi who was part of the 1259 commission elected to build Porta San Viene is responsible for the expansion of the goldsmith’s business in this street. Between the 13th and 14th centuries, the art of goldsmithing, which included working precious metals, copper, bronze and brass, developed considerably in the city.
The concentration of goldsmiths in this area is also attested by the existence of the so-called Vicolo dell’Oro (Gold Alley) nearby.
Vicolo degli Orefici may appear insignificant to a distracted traveller. In reality, if you look more closely you will notice tall tower houses along it or nearby. In particular that of the Cauli, right in front of Piazzetta di San Giusto, still one of the tallest in Siena. The fact that such ancient and important buildings are not aligned with today’s Via San Martino street, but are further back, in Vicolo degli Orefici, has led some to believe that this is what remains of the original Via Francigena route, which ran along the ridge of the hill until the 13th century, rather than not halfway up the hill.
As you enter the alley, pay attention to two details. The first is an ancient well carved out of the air shafts halfway down the alley, one of the vertical openings made during the excavation of the underground aqueducts. In Siena, houses, stately palaces and convents in the centre were often equipped with these wells for water supply, the use of which was subject to a sort of water tax paid to the Biccherna, the financial office of the ancient Commune of Siena.
The second detail to focus on is a rare example of carved terracotta piping, an elegant and functional type of piping used since Etruscan times.
Vicolo degli Orefici is also the background to one of the legends that circulate in Siena.The story goes that in the early 19th century, a man who lived at the beginning of the alley, due to a bloody affair, found himself living the dual existence of man and werewolf.
On the nights of full moon and dark and stormy nights, he would fall prey to violent and bloody thoughts until the terrifying ritual of transformation was triggered: the hair, the nails, the body. Then he would hide in a small vegetable garden behind a gate and from there he would start howling and panting.
Closing the gate behind him, he walked the entire alleyway looking furtively left and right. The local animals went mad, especially dogs, while the men locked themselves in their homes.
According to legend, the man in Vicolo degli Orefici became a werewolf as a result of a curse. Out of desperation, he allegedly violently killed a shady loan shark to whom he owed a lot of money. Human justice never reached him. No one knew, no one understood, and that murder ended up forgotten by men.
But as if by otherworldly justice, a cruel sentence befell him, transforming him into a werewolf. So, on dark and windy nights, illuminated by a veiled moon, similar to the one on the evening of the atrocious murder, he would come out of his secret refuge and repeat all the acts of that dramatic night in a disconcerting ritual of retracing the path, gestures and screams.
Where: Vicolo degli Orefici (within the Contrada del Leocorno neighbourhood)
When: always visible wonder