It’s Tuscany Month at Killing Batteries

Welcome to the first of many Tuscany posts in the month of January, marking the release of a heartbreaking work of guidebooking genius, the 2010 edition of Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria.

I don’t normally make such a big deal about the release of my guidebooks, but this particular guidebook is special, because, what with the lavish redesign, it’s effectively a first edition. Everyone busted their respective asses molding the old content into a gutsy new style, which is only being applied to select LP titles. There’s lots of changes: new maps, easier to navigate layout and better organized practical information, among other things.

The downside was that a scat-load of words had to be sacrificed to make this game-changing redesign. This text reduction was made possible by listing fewer eating and accommodation options, shortening site descriptions and, in some cases, tragically chopping out whole towns. As I’ve repeatedly made clear in the past, guidebook research, even in Tuscany, can be a ball-busting drag some days. But having to go home after all that pavement pounding and slash vast portions of text that literally took days to research drove me to weeping, desk-pounding, expletive-hollering despair on more than a few occasions. (My office can be a very dramatic place, as you might have gathered)

Well, it’s time to take those lemons and make limoncello. Amongst the sneak previews, my own Top 11 lists and extended tips and reviews that I’ll be posting this month, I’ll also be re-purposing (as we like to say in publishing circles) much of the Tuscany content lost to my reduced word count limits. Armed with the new edition and the grenades of info, tips and quips that I’ll be listing here, when you go to Tuscany you’ll be the envy of, well, me for starters. Boy, do I miss that food.

The first installment of the Lost Tuscany Text, is a box text about St Catherine of Siena, an A-List saint if there ever was one. Some of you Killing Batteries old timers may recognize chucks of this text, because I posted a longer, less informative, but far more hilarious version of the piece two years ago, entitled “Good for nothing kid or future saint?”. Sadly, this enlightening and wit-soaked box, which I wrote specifically for the previous edition of Tuscany & Umbria, did not survive the editor’s ‘delete’ button for the new edition, so I’m posting it here in its entirety:

‘Mom! Catherine’s Consecrating Her Virginity to Jesus Again!!’

Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), co-patron saint of Italy and one of only two female Doctors of the Church, was born in Siena, the 23rd child out of 25 (her twin sister died at birth). Like a true prodigy, she had a religious fixation at a very early age. She is said to have entertained plans to impersonate a man so she could be a Dominican friar and occasionally raced out to the road to kiss the place where Dominicans had walked.

At the dubious age of seven, she consecrated her virginity to Christ, much to her family’s despair. At 18 she assumed the life of a Dominican Tertiary (lay-affiliate) and, as wayward teens are wont to do, chose initially to live as a recluse in the family’s basement, focused on devotion and spiritual ecstasy. She was noted for her ability to fast for extended periods, living only on the Blessed Sacrament, which as nutritionists might attest, probably contributed to a delirium or two. Catherine described one such episode as a ‘mystical marriage’ with Jesus. Feeling a surge of humanity (or possibly boredom), she emerged from her cloistered path and began caring for the sick and poor.

Another series of visions set in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, compelled Catherine to take her work to the next level. Though it’s said she didn’t actually learn to write until near the end of her life, she began an ambitious and fearless letter-writing campaign – dictating up to three letters to three secretaries simultaneously – to all variety of influential people, including lengthy correspondence with Pope Gregory XI. She beseeched royalty and religious leaders for everything from peace between Italy’s republics to reform within the clergy. This go-getter, early form of activism was considered highly unusual for a woman at the time and her no-holds-barred style, sometimes scolding cardinals and queens like naughty children, was gutsy by any standard. And yet, rather than being persecuted for her insolence, she was admired, her powers of persuasion often winning the day where so many others had failed.

She is said to have experienced the stigmata, but this event was suppressed as it was considered bad form at the time to associate the stigmata with anyone but St Francis.

Acting as an ambassador to Florence, she went to Avignon and was able to convince Pope Gregory XI to bring the papacy back to Rome after a seven-pope, 73-year reign in France. A few years later she was invited to Rome by newly elected Pope Urban VI to campaign on his behalf during the Pope/anti-pope struggle (the ‘great western Schism’) where she did her best to undo the effects that his temper and shortcomings were having on Rome. This heroic, utterly exhausting effort likely contributed to her untimely death in 1380 at the age of 33.

Catherine’s abundant postmortem accolades started relatively soon after her death when Pope Pius II canonized her in 1461. More recently, Pope Paul VI bestowed Catherine with the title of Doctor of the Church in 1970 and Pope John Paul II made her one of Europe’s patron saints in 1999. Additionally, despite having received no formal education, her letters (over 300 have survived) are considered to be great works of Tuscan literature.