Tuscan Spring – Tuscan New Year’s Day

Siena and the discovery of an ancient world

In this section of the website, we propose five itineraries for visiting and discovering the area that have as their leit motiv a series of places located outside the usual tourist destinations, dedicated to the Marian cult and to the history of rural Tuscany.
25 March marks the Tuscan New Year’s Day (also known as New Year’s Day of the Annunciation) as a reminder that until 1749, in Tuscany, the statutory year began on the same day on which the Catholic Church had placed the feast of the Annunciation.

Five suggestions stem from this event, guiding us, on foot or by bicycle, to discover places, some hidden, symbolic of Tuscany’s identity and belonging, emphasising the role Tuscany itself has played in the history of humanity.
An initiative that aims to link the unusual knowledge of the area with the good omens of spring and rebirth, so heartfelt in the historical phase we are going through.

Percorsi nella Toscana rurale

The Marian cult in the Siena area

Travelling the roads of Siena, City of the Virgin we can find many tabernacles dedicated to the Virgin Mary. But the same thing can happen when travelling through our countryside, covered with tabernacles and roadside chapels, testifying the devotion towards Mary also in places far from the city.

The Marian cult is widespread in the rural areas of Siena for various reasons. Before the year 1000, we had no local saints to “worship” so, in order to spread Christianity (a more urban phenomenon) and enable Christian and non-pagan worship in our countryside, simply themother of Jesus was used.

In subsequent centuries, Siena conveyed the Marian cult in the conquered lands, almost ideologically, in order to impose itself militarily, politically, economically, and thus also religiously. It is precisely for these historical reasons that we can speak of an area with a religious and mystical vocation where the cult linked to Mary is still very much felt today.

Crosses, roadside tabernacles and roadside chapels

We can often find crosses, simple tabernacles or small shrines with sacred images along the roads of the Tuscan countryside, sometimes forgotten and worn by time. Nevertheless, these are testimonies of an ancient tradition, of a popular religiousness, today often forgotten, but once full of meaning.

The wood or stone crosses were generally placed at the entrances to villages or at the crossroads of country roads. They had four main functions:

  • protect travellers guiding them along the best route and defending them from possible dangers;
  • mark boundaries between neighbouring parishes, estates, or villages;
  • remember the dead following misfortunes or crimes, inviting passers-by to say a prayer for the salvation of their souls;
  • mark stopping points during the so-called “Rogations”, i.e. those processions that took place in the countryside to propitiate the sowing and harvesting of crops.

These crosses could take the form of small stems carved from stone blocks and roughly worked, or well-finished crosses, sometimes decorated with Passion symbols, dates and prayers.

The Tabernacles consisted of simple recesses in the facades of buildings or small isolated temples. Inside, they could have sacred images in terracotta or frescoes. The roadside Tabernacle often had the same function as the crosses in the countryside: at the specific place where the road forks or intersects with others, the traveller was forced to make a choice to take the right direction: who better than the Virgin Mary or a Saint could advise him on the right road to take?

Roadside chapels indicated landmarks related to the local road system and are evidence of ancient routes. They could indicate some sacred boundary, such as the territory of a parish, or they could serve as a shelter for travellers surprised by sudden storms or for pilgrims in need of rest.

“With the co-participation of the Regional Council of Tuscany”

Texts curated by Barbara Latini with the kind cooperation of the Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage of the Archdiocese of Siena. Technical implementation Vernice Progetti Culturali S.r.l.u.. Itineraries mapped out by the Val di Merse Cycling Group.