High up on the facade of the church of Santa Caterina da Siena, in Via Giulia, are two circular reliefs, which depict a she-wolf and two chubby little chaps.
One may be forgiven for thinking that this is Romulus and Remus being suckled by a a wolf, a reference to the legendary foundation of Rome. However in the background are four letters: S P Q S. The letters S P Q R, which stand for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman People), can be seen all over Rome, but this is the only place in the Eternal City where you will see the letters S P Q S. The second 'S' is, of course, a reference to Siena.
The two infants are, in fact, Senius and Ascius, the sons of Remus. The good citizens of Siena were fond of peddling the myth that their city was founded by one of his offspring. The story goes that after Romulus had murdered their father Senius and Ascius were forced to flee. One brother rode a white horse, the other a black horse, which gave rise to the Balzana, the symbol of Siena, the city that Senius is said to have founded.
The Balzana always takes the form of a band of white above a band of black, an allegorical depiction of the triumph of good over evil. Needless to say, Siena's enemies gave the Balzana a rather different reading: the white band signifies how the Sienese talk and the black how they think.
The church of Santa Caterina da Siena a Via Giulia was built in 1766 by Paolo Posi (1708-76), an architect from Siena. The entrance is surmounted by the Balzana and, on display in the nave, are the flags of all seventeen of Siena's contrade (city districts).
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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