Bl. Peter of Siena was also known as Pietro the Silent because he didn’t speak more than necessary–and he was a salesman!

My apologies for the delay sending this. I intended to finish on the 16th but that turned out to be the day I broke my arm! I am  now back on the computer with some assistance. Thanks for your continued patience. Merry Christmas to all!

Pietro (Peter) was born in the village of Campi, in the Chianti region of Italy, so famous for its wines, in the early years of the thirteenth century; the exact date isn’t known. The family moved six miles away to the nearby city of Siena when Pietro was a small child. This is actually all that we are told of the saint’s family background by Pietro da Monterone, the author of his Vita. (1) All the same, knowing about this move offers us some significant information; it gives us a glimpse into the social history of the time. It means that Pietro’s father was one of the large numbers of peasants who moved to Siena from Campi and other small villages near the city at that time because of the greater financial opportunities. A whole new class of people, the artisans in the trades, became citizens and wanted a place in deliberating the course of city life.

Siena at that time excelled in the manufacture of the woolen cloth that brought such great income to the Italian merchants at the fairs in Champagne. The sellers of the famous Siena wools were backed up by a whole industry of carders, dyers, weavers, and other specialists of the trade. There was a great need for equipment as well, including carding combs. Manufacturing and selling the combs was the work Pietro’s father took up in Siena to feed his family. It is the trade that in time Pietro was soon set to learning as well. It is from this that he derived his Italian appellation Pier Pettinaio: Peter the combseller. Coincidentally, around a century later, another saint would come out of the clothing industry in this city: St. Catherine of Siena was the daughter of a dyer.

Pietro is described by his first biographer as being very lively as a little boy, and actually “impetuous and tempestuous” as a youth, though he kept himself from the vices common to his age.  He probably did not receive very much education, as there were few options for schooling for the poor, at least not beyond the cathedral grammar school. In later life, Pietro stated that he didn’t know how to write very well, and dictated a letter he was asked to send.

Soon after completing his apprenticeship, he married, one of the things that commonly settles and sobers a young man. Unfortunately none of the early sources have transmitted to us his wife’s name, though they all tell us that the two of them lived together in perfect harmony. Pietro was such a good husband that he took great care to always be home right at dinnertime, in order not to annoy his wife (who he called mia Padrona – “the boss”). Unfortunately they were never able to have children as they had hoped. In later years, by mutual agreement, they lived together in continence.

In his youth, Pietro seems to have been rather superficial in his religious practice, but around the time of his marriage he underwent a conversion. His biographer doesn’t really give us any details, but he became deeply committed not only to attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments, but to living the values of the Gospel.

So it was that he became known for absolute honesty in business matters, refusing to use any damaged parts in making his combs, and asking only a fair price for his wares. Because of his reputation for honesty and good craftsmanship, he was the most successful man in his trade in Siena. When he went to the general market on the piazza on Saturdays, everyone crowded to his booth, and he sold far more combs than the other sellers; when he realized this, Pietro would come to the square only in the afternoon after Vespers, to give the other merchants a chance.

His honesty was not limited to business. Once, when he was passed over in a tax assessment, he voluntarily assessed himself and turned the money over to the city.

He was also trusted by others for his great discretion. The Biccherna, or city account books of Siena record an instance where Pietro turned over money to the Comune that had been given to him in confidence by a man who had stolen it from the treasury while holding an office in the city and who wanted to return it anonymously; on another occasion he gave the city officials money from another anonymous man who wanted to restore what he had taken illicitly by usury. (2)

Because business was so good for him, Pietro soon had money, and acquired land of his own – a vineyard, where he loved to spend time. He even missed Vespers because he couldn’t get back from his vineyard in time. This led to a crisis of conscience, and he determined to live with greater simplicity; he sold the vineyard and his house, and he and his wife went to live in a small house near the Porta dell’Ovile.  He decided to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor, but on the advice of friends, he held back his wife’s dowry, until after her death.

When Pietro’s wife was dying, she asked him to look after a friend of hers for whose little boy she was godmother. She was evidently a widow, and hard up financially. Pietro promised to do so. After his wife died, he continued to faithfully aid the family. When the mother in turn died, Pietro looked after the son as if he were own, and saw that he was successfully apprenticed to a tailor.

We don’t know for certain when Pietro joined the Franciscan Third Order, as his biographer is unclear about this, but it may have been while his wife was alive or shortly after she died. But he adopted the poor and simple habit of the tertiaries while still continuing to practice his trade. At the same time, along with eight companions — lawyers, merchants and artisans — he collected and distributed alms and volunteered at the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, where he cared for the sick with great devotion.

On several occasions, the Comune (that is, the city) of Siena entrusted him and his companions with public duties.  In 1282, the communal council agreed that Pietro should be among those given the task of choosing the five prisoners who were to be released in honor of the feast of the Circumcision. (3) In 1285 Pietro and Compagno, another tertiary (or mantellato, as they were commonly called), were given 300 lire from the Comune for distribution as public charity to the poor. (4)  In 1286 Pietro and his companions were entrusted with money from the Comune to have some religious pictures painted on the gates of the city. (5)

He also became known as a peacemaker. An acquaintance of his named Mino was planning a vendetta against a man who had done him an injury.  Pietro met him on coming out of church and knowing by divine revelation what he was planning, took him aside, revealed that he knew everything he had been thinking, and dissuaded him from his plan.

He also criticized the instigators of civic strife caused by the different political actions in the city. One was the Ghibellines, who supported the Emperor against the Pope, and the other, the Guelphs, the supporters of the papacy. They fought constantly, real battles. When one faction came to power in one of the Italian cities, the members of the other party would be exiled. On one occasion, after the Ghibellines had been expelled from Siena, some of them, who had taken refuge in Arezzo, asked Pietro to intercede to obtain their return to the city.  But he refused, saying they would return “when your sins have become less than those of your adversaries.”

Pietro was also known for his concern for spiritual lives of others; some of them were highly placed people.  A Sienese judge, Jacobus of Chiusi, gave alms in secret to a poor woman in great need.  Pietro evidently learned of this by supernatural means, for one day, meeting the judge on the street, he said to him, “Dearest Jacobus, your prayers and your alms have been accepted the sight of God, and because of your work a very great reward is stored up for you.”

Pietro was also an enthusiastic participant in pilgrimages.  He went to Rome, to Assisi (perhaps to obtain the extraordinary indulgence of the Portiuncula), and La Verna, where St. Francis received the stigmata.

Pietro was reported to have had many mystic experiences.  He frequently prayed in churches all night. He used to come to the cathedral of Siena very early, before Matins, when the church was locked, but an angel would open the doors for him.  It was there that he had a vision of the perfect life that St. Francis had led.

In time, Pietro, who was getting old, fell ill, and some of the local Franciscan friars came to visit him. He asked them to stay with him, because he feared he might die, and told them he wanted the friars with him at his death. They explained they couldn’t stay at night outside the convent. So they took Pietro to live with them at the convent of San Francesco.

He asked the Franciscans for permission to retire to a small cell near their hermitage of Alberino, where he spent the rest of his life.  It was there also that he wrote all the sins of his life, beginning with his childhood, on a piece of paper, and going to the oratory of St. Francis, read the paper over and over, praying with many tears and great contrition.  By means of a wonderful sign from heaven he learned that his sins were forgiven; an angel erased the writing from the paper, and it became “as white as snow.”

The Franciscans regarded Pietro so highly that they frequently sent novices to him for spiritual advice. Pietro also had a great influence on groups of the laity in Siena, Pistoia and Florence, with whom he was in contact, some of them belonging to the Spiritual Franciscans.

Shortly before his death, Pietro foretold the future of the cities of Tuscany. “Woe to you Pistoia!  Woe to you, Florence!  Woe to you, Siena! For Pistoia will almost perish through various wars, Florence, split by division into factions will be defeated twice at Montecatino and Altopasso; but the city of Siena will suffer from many calamities and internal war.” All this happened as he said.

In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV officially set his seal to the bull Supra montem, approving the Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis. Peter had lived to see his order proclaimed throughout the Church. He died in December of that same year.  Not long afterwards, the city of Siena voted to erect a noble monument over the tomb of their “venerable citizen.” (6) He was popularly regarded as a saint from then on. Pope Pius VII approved his cult in 1802.

Bl. Pietro is still greatly honored in Siena. In 2012, a Compagnia Pier Pettinaio was founded in the city with the purpose of “mutual aid, solidariety, and social and cultural promotion” among the local people. With the founding of this new guild can the push for a formal canonization for Bl. Pietro be far behind? We have already seen this happen with Rose of Viterbo, and Amato Ronconi (see November post).  The Compagnia undertook to have a new biography of Pietro written in Italian, and has announced its publication earlier this year, so the likelihood is pretty good that they will work for his canonization.

Bl. Pietro and Dante

Several of Pietro’s contemporaries wrote about him, but none more famous than the great poet Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy. This work and Pietro’s part in it was the subject of one of my grad school papers. I’m going to summarize it here, without most of the footnotes. But I’ve also added a few details. I think there is enough there for a whole book, and it’s hard to put into a small sketch. But here it is:

For those unacquainted with it, Dante’s great poem is centered around his imagined trip to hell, purgatory and heaven in the year 1300, the year when the great jubilee of the redemption was celebrated in Rome. On the mountain of Purgatory, he travels through various circles, where people do penance for the seven deadly sins. In the circle of the envious, who have their eyes sewn shut with iron wires because they sinned through their eyes, he meets the spirit of a noblewoman of Siena. She tells Dante:

Sapìa was my name, though I was far from wise,
for I rejoiced much more at harm done others
than at my own good fortune.

Not only that, the people she envied were her fellow citizens. We’re not told the reason for her jealousy in the poem, but knowledge of her life might give some clues.  Sapia was a member of the powerful Salvani family. She was born about 1210, and married in about 1230 to a nobleman named Ghinibaldo Saracini, with whom she had five children. She was the aunt of the Sienese dictator Provenzan Salvani. Some have suggested that Sapia resented her nephew’s rise to power perhaps at the expense of her husband. In addition, she may have been exiled from Siena at that time because of political differences with the ruling faction, and felt unfairly left out of what the others enjoyed. (7) Her envy even led her to blasphemy when she watched her townsmen, headed by Provenzano, engaging in battle at Colle in 1269:

And, so that you know I do not lie,
hear me out when I tell how mad I was,
with the arc of my years already in decline.
My townsmen were near Colle,
engaged in battle with their enemies, and I prayed
that God let happen what in fact He willed.
When they were routed and turned back
in bitter steps of flight, I watched the chase,
my heart filled with such boundless joy
that recklessly I turned my face to God,
crying: “Now I do not fear you any more,”
as the blackbird said after a glint of sunshine.

She then tells how repented.

I sought my peace with God
at the very last, and penitence
would not have yet reduced the debt
had it not been for Peter the comb-seller
who in his charity was grieved for me
and remembered me in his devout petitions.
(Purg. XIII, 109-129, trans. Mark Musa).

Sapia means that because she repented only at the very end of her life, she had not done sufficient penance and was headed for quite a lengthy stay in Purgatory, but that Pietro’s prayers had reduced that “debt” to God.

What brought the humble artisan turned hermit and the great lady together, and how did Pietro come to know that Sapia needed prayers? One of the earliest fourteenth-century commentaries on the Commedia, known as the Ottimo, says, “in Siena at the time of the Author, he [Pietro] performed many miracles in healing the sick and seeing seeing many revelations; the said lady in life visited him and gave him alms and asked him to pray for her.” (8) This explanation is strengthened by the fact that Sapia through much of her life was very charitable; we know that she supported a hospice for pilgrims and the poor that her husband had founded near their castle, and in 1274 made it a beneficiary in her will. (9) So it is very likely she also gave alms to the hospital where Pietro worked during her lifetime, gave them to Pietro himself, and there perhaps her story came out.

But how did Dante come to know of this story? I believe there is little doubt it’s a true story. Dante’s work is thought to be a mostly truthful portrait of all the real people he wrote about. No one knows if Dante and Pietro ever met; Pietro died while Dante was still a young man, but it is possible; Florence was close to Siena, and Dante was known to have visited there from time to time. Pietro, however, was certainly always discreet, and wouldn’t have betrayed a confidence like Sapia’s; Dante would not have known Sapia, who died when he was young. Perhaps he learned of it from her relatives.

But Dante, I believe, knew much more than this about Pietro, who was also said to have come to Florence on at least one occasion. He was very influential among the group of Franciscan spirituals at the Franciscan school of studies at Santa Croce, including Pierre Jean Olivi and Ubertino da Casale. Ubertino wrote:

When I came to the province of Tuscany, I found the spirit of Jesus burning strongly in many virtuous people.  Among them were a man full of God, Pietro of Siena, a comb-seller, and a most devout virgin, Cecilia of Florence, who so introduced me into the mysteries of Jesus that it would be a wondrous thing if their penetrating spirit could be put into writing . . . And in the company of these two great practisers of seraphic wisdom was the doctor of speculation and chief defender of the life of Christ, that brother so dear to God, Jean Olivi, who now, since his happy death, is reigning, as I hope, in heaven. (10)

Dante is thought to have spent much time in this circle, and to have adopted some of their ideas, though he was also critical of the Spirituals at times. Their major influence on him was in their belief, following the twelfth-century mystic Joachim da Fiore, that they were living during a period that would be a preparation for the “third age” of salvation history, the great period where the Holy Spirit would reign in the Church. They felt this age would be one where the laity would be converted in great numbers. Olivi wrote: “From Francis’ time until now this angel [of this period] has fished more in the sea of the laity tossed about by secular cares than on the land of the regulars and clerics.  For simple, uneducated men are more easily brought to penance than great clerics or monks.” (11)

Lay spirituality was also important to Dante, who saw his work as a poet and layman as a true vocation. He saw his poem as a message to mankind commissioned by God. The Purgatorio climaxes with Beatrice’s explanation of Dante’s prophetic mission, to write down his own vision to those “who live the life that is a race to death” (Purg. 33: 52-54). In fact, throughout the Purgatorio he gave great attention to the prayers of the laity, especially as they helped release the souls of loved ones from Purgatory. This type of prayer was very common among the fraternities of various kinds in Florence and other Italian cities, and especially the new fraternities of the Franciscan and Dominican tertiaries. Dante was close to the Franciscans, and some have thought that he himself was a Tertiary, or Franciscan penitent, though there is no real concrete evidence for this. But his writing shows the same concerns as the Franciscans and lay tertiaries.

With this in mind, I think we can see a wider influence of Pietro the Franciscan tertiary on Dante. I think it can be seen in the structure of Purgatory, especially the entrance gate, guarded by an angel, which has been variouly interpreted. The interpretation I think best is that of Peter Armour, who believes that admission to Purgatory symbolizes admission to the church of penitents. (12)  The whole of Purgatory, then, is a great fraternity of pentitents.

Some of the imagery Dante uses shows a possible influence from the mystical experiences of Bl. Pietro. For instance, the gate to Purgatory that the angel opens with the keys seems to recall the locked church door being opened to Pietro by an angel, as mentioned above. Pietro also saw the marks of sin erased from his paper after his penitent tears; the image is strikingly similar to the one in which Dante receives seven P’s (Peccati=sins) on his forehead from the stroke of the angel’s sword, which are erased one by one as he goes through the various circles.

The spiritual relationship between a great lady like Sapia and the humble artisan Pietro is another sign of the new fraternal spirit brought by St. Francis to the people of his time.

Dante, as a layman, was a particularly good example of the spirituality of his time, and he has much in common with the Franciscan tertiary saint, Bl. Pietro of Siena.


(1) This Vita, written around 1330, is our main source for the saint’s life, along with a handful of references by his contemporaries and some documents in Siena’s archives. Fra Pietro of Monterone was a friar at the convent of San Francesco in Siena where the Bl. Pietro spent his last years. He may have known the saint personally, as several later authors state, but most of his information probably came from other friars and citizens who knew him. The only known copy of the life was destroyed in a fire in the sixteenth century, but fortunately it was translated into Italian before this, and this text, first published in 1529, was reprinted and annotated in a nineteenth-century edition; Luigi de Angelis: Vita del B. Pietro Pettinajo sanese del terz’ordine di San Francesco (Siena: Francesco Rossi, 1802). All references to Pietro’s life are taken from this work unless indicated otherwise.

(2) Siena. Archivio di Stato. Libri di Biccherna, February 1258, cited in A. Lusini, “Il beato Pietro Pettinaio,” La Diana 1 (1926), p. 268.

(3) Siena. Archivio di Stato. Deliberazioni del Consiglio Generale. Vol. 29 a C. 24, 1284; Cristofani, F. “Memorie del B. Pietro Pettignano,” Miscellanea Franciscana 5 (1890), p 1890, pp. 51-52.

(4) Siena. Archivio di Stato. Libro del Camarlingo, 1285, c. 12.t. (A. Lisini, “Notizie sul B. Pier Pettinagno,” in Miscellanea Storica Senese 5 (marzo 1896), p. 45).

(5) Siena. Archivio di Stato. Libro del Camarlingo, 1286, July, c. 224. (A. Lisini, op. cit. p. 45).

(6) G. Mengozzi, “Documenti danteschi dal R. Archivio di Stato in Siena,” Dante e Siena. (Siena, 1921), 159-160.

(7) “Sapia of Siena,” in Jay Ruud, A Critical Companion to Dante (New York: Facts on File, 2008), p. 512.

(8) Anon. L’Ottimo Commento della Divina Commedia (Pisa: Capurro, 1828), II, p. 236, note 124.

(9) B. Aquarone, Dante in Siena, (Siena: Ignazio Gatti, 1865), p. 128.

(10) Ubertino da Casale, Arbor Vitae Crucifixi Jesu; quoted by Franca Ageno, “Per l’interpretazione di quattro passi danteschi,” Studi Dantestchi 24 (1957), pp. 212-213.

(11) The text can be found in David Burr, Olivi’s Peaceable Kingdom: A Reading of the Apocalypse Commentary (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 120-21 some for the English and for the Latin, p. 130.

(12) Peter Armour, The Door of Purgatory: A Study of Multiple Symbolism in Dante’s Purgatorio (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).