- The Apotheosis of Niccolò Toldo: An Execution “Love Story”
Appendix: A Translation of Saint Catherine of Siena’s Most Celebrated Letter
The salient, integrating feature of Saint Catherine of Siena’s Letter 273 is an epistolary “romance” that is central to the text, framed by exhortations to spiritual heroism, and based upon Catherine’s brief relationship with the condemned political prisoner, Niccolò Toldo of Perugia. 1 (See Appendix for an English translation.) Catherine and Niccolò participate in a gripping, emotionally charged sequence of events. They meet in the jail of Siena, are joined in a crescendo of increasing intimacy, are separated by the executioner’s axe, and are finally “wed” through munificent Divine Charity. Their bittersweet execution/”love story” reveals Catherine’s extraordinary, seldom-displayed, narrative powers; it celebrates Toldo’s gallantry and Catherine’s faith, and underscores the spiritual “first Truth” that God is Love, “the Blood,” the apostrophized “tapped cask” of Christ that transforms death into resurrection, and that engenders a flood of inspirational prose: 2
O botte spillata, la quale dài bere e inebbri ogni innamorato desiderio, e dài letizia e illumini ogni intendimento, e riempi ogni memoria che ivi s’affatica, in tanto che altro non può ritenere, né altro intendere, né altro amare, se non questo dolce e buono Gesù, sangue e fuoco, inestimabile amore!(Let. 273, par. 2) [End Page 164]
As the heroine and leading lady of her drama, the author is remarkable for her compassion, sensitivity, vulnerability, and dauntless courage in confronting overwhelming forces, especially death. Her self-portrait eclipses comparatively lifeless, insistently laudatory biographical portrayals, for readers catch a rare glimpse of her as a flesh and blood woman torn by grief, passionately devoted to her soulmates and to God, face to face with mayhem, bloodied, and on her knees. 3 At the last—on the scaffold as if upon Calvary—she catches Toldo’s severed head, occupies the limelight, triumphs in humility, and takes her place as a grounding point for the lightning of Christ that strikes the souls of the saved, and ties believers to their Maker and to each other with “[il] legame dolce della Carità. Il qual legame legò Dio nell’uomo, e l’uomo in Dio.” 4 A dynamic figure, tension-fraught, caught between body and spirit, heaven and earth, through her text Catherine reveals herself, and her conception of sainthood as an arduous, Christ-like undertaking. 5 As Christ is “Dio e Uomo” through Divine Love, she ultimately appears as woman and saint, and as Charity.
With her by his side, Toldo goes to his death joyfully: “Poi egli giunse, come uno agnello mansueto, e vedendomi cominciò a ridere, e volse che io gli facesse il segno della croce” (par. 8). As he is beheaded, in a surprising denouement, he spills blood, “il quale valeva per lo sangue del Figliuolo di Dio!” (par. 10) 6 Jesus as a deus ex machina descends, and “si vedeva Dio e Uomo, come si vedesse la chiarità del Sole, e stava aperto, e riceveva il sangue [di Niccolò] nel sangue suo” (par. 9). By “[il] Figliuolo, sapienzia, Verbo incarnato, gli donò e fecegli participare il crociato amore,” Catherine alludes to the Crucifixion; having received Niccolò’s eucharistic head and blood, she avows, “io non potevo sostenere di levarmi il sangue, che mi era venuto addosso, di lui” (pars. 10, 12). Her role recalls the Virgin’s, Niccolò’s role recalls Christ’s, and the portentous Sienese drama is modeled upon the Passion, and unfolds in the following manner.
On a day prior to the beheading, imbued with evangelical fervor, Catherine visits Niccolò in prison, comforts him, and acts as his spiritual adviser: “Andai a visitare colui che sapete, ed egli ricevette tanto conforto e consolazione che si confessò, e disposesi molto bene” (par. 5). Under her influence, he attends Mass, takes communion, and appears to possess “quella volontà accordata e sottoposta alla volontà di Dio” (ibid.). Since he fears a final show of cowardice, she agrees to a rendezvous at the execution, and he gratefully declares, “‘Io anderò tutto gioioso e forte, e mi parrà mille anni che io ne venga, pensando che...