Frozen in stone

Curious Florence

Rose Mackworth-Young
January 16, 2014

High up on the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore, the stone head of a woman, known as Berta, juts out bizarrely from the rough façade.


The story goes that on September 16, 1327, Cecco d’Ascoli, a doctor, astrologer and teacher, was being led to execution after predicting that the future queen of Naples would be ‘inclined to lust’—an accurate prophecy as it turned out: Joanna I had four husbands, one of whom she killed, and she was suffocated to death in her own bed.


As Ascoli was being marched to the bonfire on which he would be burned, crowds poured out into the street to shout and jeer at the poor man. When he passed in front of the church, he begged the crowd for a little water for his parched throat. Berta, watching from a window in the bell tower, shouted cruelly, ‘He’s a wizard! If he drinks he shall not burn!’ Ascoli, in response to the woman’s meanness, cursed her, saying, ‘And you shall never again lift up your head from that place!’


To this day, her petrified head can be seen on the wall of the tower, waiting to be freed from the curse.

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