Edited by Mauro Bucci 

Catherine Benincasa was born on 25 March 1347, and was the last of Monna Lapa’s 23 children. She had a twin sister, Giovanna, who died at birth. Monna Lapa breastfed her daughter herself, something that she had never had the time to do with her other children, due to all her pregnancies.
From a very early age, Catherine were excessively religious, fasting and mortifying her flesh to suffer the pains of Jesus.
Monna Lapa, unable to distract her daughter with words, in her concern resorted to other means, and tried to amuse her.
She took Catherine to Bagno Vignoni, where, at the time, the hot waters were said to have healing powers, above all for liver and stomach ailments and any nervous illness, but it was mainly a place of amusement. Catherine’s bibliographer wrote: “Monna Lapa wanted to take her daughter there, so that with all the parties and physical amusements, and the diversions and mental distractions, her religious fervour would cool”.
But Catherine, instead of bathing in the warm water in the pool, took the habit of placing herself right over the jet of boiling water, with the risk of burning herself, in order, so she said, to go through the agonies of hell.
Her mother was forced to take her back to Siena.

In her short life, there was another time when Catherine came to us, and this time it was her choice, in the early summer of 1377.
Many imaginative stories have been built around the reason for this visit, they talk about an attempt to make peace between the Salimbeni and the Tolomei, or to act as an ambassador for the Republic of Siena towards its internal enemies.
The real reason for this visit was much less political, and indeed the saint says so in a letter to her mother:
I believe that, if you had known about the case, you would have sent me yourself. I will put to rights a great scandal, if I can. It is not the fault of the Countess, but I ask all of you to pray to God and the glorious Virgin, to send a result, and it be a good one.
The Countess she is talking about was Benedetta Salimbeni known as Bandeca, the sister of Agnolino Salimbeni, both being the children of Giovanni Salimbeni, the powerful head of their family.
The scandal, however, was not what would come to mind today. It was merely that Bandeca wished to enter a convent after two marriages both concluding with the violent death of her husband. One was part of the powerful Farnese family, the other a Trinci, the lord of Foligno.
Catherine wrote to Bandeca about this. The first time you married it was a great fire, but soon it died and all that remained was the smoke of sorrow. The second seemed the material for fire, but it never took hold, and the wind of death came and took it away.
Bandeca was backed in her desire to enter a convent by her sister Isa Salimbeni, whose husband (Antonio of Messer Albertaccio Count of Ricasoli) had also been killed in war.
The problem was that the Salimbeni used marriage as the means to tie themselves to the leading families of the day, and they probably wanted to marry both sisters off to nobles of the family’s choice to make political alliances.
Catherine’s mission was, therefore, to convince the Salimbeni not to use their daughters and sisters as exchange goods, but to respect their wishes.
The people of Val d’Orcia were considered among the most uncouth and uncivilised, the Blessed Giovanni, who had travelled in these lands ten years before Catherine, had complained about the hard hearts of the inhabitants.
And a Dominican friar from Orvieto said that at Rocca di Tentennano he gave confession to sinners so stubborn that they had not approached the sacraments for over forty years.
It must be remembered that La Rocca was the capital of a government virtually always at war, meaning that it housed a garrison of a hundred or so hardened mercenaries, more used to violence than good manners and nice sentiments.
Catherine certainly complained about this, but she was also proud of her battle to bring faith and goodness to the town.
She wrote:
Friar Raimondo and friar Tommaso and Monna Tomma and Lisa and I are all at La Rocca, among scoundrels and so many devils incarnate that friar Tommaso says his stomach aches. And with all this, no one can sate their appetite. And they desire more, and find work for a good pay. Pray to the good God to give them good and sweet and bitter morsels.
Then she uses a metaphor to ask her family to bear up.
And do not always want to stay on milk. It is better to have the teeth of desire and bite into hard and mouldy bread. If it were necessary.
This battle against evil sometimes took on some truly supernatural aspects. Francesco Malavolti told how Catherine did not merely convert sinners when she was at La Rocca, she even freed those possessed by the devil.
Catherine spent about five months in La Rocca. According to the tradition, she lived in the town with her retinue and a stone plaque identifies the precise house, who knows on what grounds.
From her letters and the stories told by her biographers, it seems that she lived in the fortress, as guest of the Salimbeni.
A strong clue is the famous sentence carved on the door to the tower, which is mentioned in her letter to Monna Alessia:
Our Saviour placed me on an island and the wind buffets from all directions.
Another strong clue is the fact that everybody met in a friendly circle, on the rocky spur, contemplating the landscape and the view as far as Siena.
This rocky spur can be no other than that immediately below the tower before the entry to the main courtyard, which at the time was surrounded by wall. The walkway along these walls was like a terrace overhanging the road to Siena.
Even today, the panorama from this point takes in all Val d’Arbia up to Siena.
The dwellings of the Salimbeni and their retinues were on the court below the tower, and a corner of the palace still stands, while other pieces of the wall are behind the wing now used as the ticket office.

Apart from miracles on those possessed by the devil, what is certain is that the Saint started writing in her own hand when she was at La Rocca.
She herself said this in a letter to Raimondo da Capua, which began:
I wrote this letter, and another I sent to you, in my own hand on the island of La Rocca, with many sighs and abundant tears, and the eye in looking could not see.
And then:
...for it was fixed in my mind admirably, as by a teacher to a child, showing him through example. Therefore, as soon as you left me, with the glorious John the Evangelist and Thomas Aquinas, when asleep I started to learn.
So it would seem that she miraculously learnt to write while sleeping, with two great saints as her teachers.
One of her biographers describes her first steps in writing. She found a small jar of the red lead used to outline initials in a room in the castle (another clue that she lived in the castle), and sat down with a pen and some parchment and tried to try her hand at this wonderful art, having seen it exercised by her followers many times. And moved, as she says, by divine inspiration, she formed her first letters. Over these five months, Catherine did not remain at La Rocca all the time, visiting the nearby town of Castiglione, and the convents of the area, and she most certainly went to Montegiovi where Bandeca Salimbeni had retreated, to talk to her and try and reach an agreement with her brother Agnolino.

It was not until December 1377 that she left Rocca di Tentennano to travel to Florence, arriving there on the 13 December. We know that she died in Rome only three years later. We do not know what was the outcome of her mission to La Rocca. It would seem that the Countess Benedetta did not achieve her purpose, but her sister Ida, according to papers of the time, was a nun in a convent of Siena.