La Berta – Florence, Italy - Atlas Obscura

Florence, Italy

La Berta

Legend says this mysterious stone head belongs to a woman who was petrified by an alchemist. 

According to legend, this disembodied head, dubbed “La Berta,” has been sticking out of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore since medieval times. Its origin is unclear, meaning locals have had centuries to cook up their own theories to explain its presence.

The most common bit of lore says the head belongs to a woman who was petrified on September 16, 1326. According to this tale, the woman was a victim of Cecco d’Ascoli, an astrologer who was on his way to be burned at the stake for heresy. As he was carried in a procession along Via dei Cerretani, he stopped to ask for some water.

Little did he know that looking out a church window was Berta, who at that very moment told everyone watching to deny him a drink. Berta claimed the man was an alchemist who could communicate with the devil using water, and that the devil himself would grant him immunity. D’Ascoli, furious, cast a curse on Berta, preventing her from ever moving.

There are, however, more practical theories behind the head’s appearance. One theory says the head is a memorial to the greengrocer who donated bells to the church so they could chime whenever the city gates would open or close. This would explain why it sticks out the bell tower wall, and not a window.

Some historians also claim Berta is no more than the head of an old Roman sculpture, for the remnants of such would be commonly used as decoration in the Middle Ages. This theory is probably the most believable, and yet, locals still tell legends of dark magic and curses to the few passersby who notice Berta.

Know Before You Go

The head is easy to miss, so be on the lookout when passing through Via dei Cerretani.

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