Fontebranda, just inside the city walls, is the oldest of the Sienese fountains. Especially for Siena, water was of great importance in medieval times because Siena is built on many hills, far from most waterways and mountain peaks. Fontebranda, whose water was fed from one of the main underground aqueducts, dug through rock, “for centuries quenched the thirst of half the city.”1 Like other medieval fountains, Fontebranda’s first tank was used for drinking water. It’s second tank, with water fed from that flowing from the first, was for watering the animals, and it’s third, with water flowing from the other two, was for washing.3 The water also was a necessity for numerous dyeing and tanning businesses nearby, as well as mills just outside the city walls.1;4
The existence of a fountain at the site is documented back to 1081, but was rebuilt and expanded by Bellamino in 1193. Cross vaults were built and four stone gargoyles were placed on the facade of the fountain in 1246 as designed by Giovanni di Stefano.1 These gargoyles enclose the coat of arms of Siena. Fontebranda was built entirely of brick and tavertine, and has three strong Gothic arches that form its structure.2;3 From a distance the structure is easily missed, but up close, the fountain reminds one of the middle ages.
Fontebranda is associated with the birth and early life of Saint Catherine as its water helped sustain her, her family, and her father’s business that depended on the water for dyeing cloth. As a result, Saint Catherine has sometimes been called the Saint of Fontebranda.1 Catherine was a younger child in a very large family. It is said that she began having mystical experiences, seeing guardian angels, when she was only 6, and was one of “the most brilliant theological minds of her day.” She was a tertiary of the Dominican Order, worked to bring the papacy of Gregory XI back to Rome from its displacement in France, and to establish peace among the Italian city-states. She was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and is one of the two patron saints of Italy, the other being St. Francis of Assisi.5 It is also speculated that Fontebranda is cited by Dante in the thirtieth canto of his Inferno, though more recent studies express doubt.2
Today, the fountain is the site of many outdoor concerts and performances throughout the summer, and is right across the street from Siena Italian Studies.