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The hermit who lived with snakes

A statue of St Verdiana in a convent in Montaione, Italy

Verdiana (1182-1242) is one of those saints so encrusted in legend that the faithful have been inclined to suspect a deeper truth.

She lived nearly all her life at Castelfiorentino in Tuscany. At 12, one story goes, she went to work for an uncle who left her in charge of a warehouse where beans had been stored. The uncle then waited until famine threatened the local population and sold off his beans at an inflated price.

He was unaware, however, that Verdiana had already given the entire contents of the warehouse to the poor and starving. For a while she was far from being a favourite niece.

Fortunately, though, when Verdiana set herself to pray all night, the warehouse was miraculously re-stocked.

Embarrassed by the celebrity which this feat brought her, Verdiana decided to depart on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – or Rome, in another account. When she returned the townsfolk of Castelfiorentino begged that she should never leave them again.

With this request she graciously complied, provided that they built her a hermitage. A small cell was duly erected near the River Elsa, beside an oratory dedicated to St Anthony.

In this enclave, reputedly measuring but 10ft by 4ft, and furnished with nothing save a stone seat, Verdiana spent the next 34 years. The only communication she had with the outside world was through a little window opening into the oratory.

She ate once a day, mainly contenting herself with bread and water, with the occasional vegetable thrown in as a luxury. She slept on the bare earth, though in winter she allowed herself the use of a plank. Of her sanitary arrangements there is no mention. There were occasional visitors, among them St Francis of Assisi. Saints apart, however, Verdiana preferred to receive the poor and afflicted. If her rich admirers brought her presents, they were immediately handed over to the needy.

To add to her trials, two snakes took up residence in her cell, and would share her meals. If they did not like the food on offer, they would apparently beat Verdiana until she was senseless.

When one of these snakes died, and the other ran away, Verdiana knew that her end was nigh. She addressed herself to Psalm 51 – “a broken and contrite heart, oh God, shalt thou not despise” – and gave up the ghost.

Her reputation grew in memory until in the early 18th century a church was built in her honour where once St Anthony’s Oratory had stood. There, what purports to be her cell may be visited, while in the church there are frescoes illustrating scenes from her life.

The Florentine artist Giovanni Sagrestani produced two pictures of Verdiana around 1711. They are now in the Museum of Art at Harvard.