The petrified head of Santa Maria Maggiore is a carved head that makes a fine display of itself in mid-leaning air from one of the sides of the bell tower.
This unusual location is connected with some famous legends: in one case the stake of the famous necromancer Cecco d’Ascoli, in other one with a certain Berta.
Nowadays Berta is the curious name used by Florentines for this head who are aware of this bizarre sculpture.
According to legend, it would represent a barracks who, making great sacrifices, scraped together the money to equip the tower of a bell for the benefit of the Florentines, so that they were called by its sound in case of danger. It’s important to remember that, at that time, on the route of Via de’ Cerretani overlooked by Santa Maria Maggiore, ran the city wall moat.
According to another story
The episode has to be reconnected to Cecco d’Ascoli, versatile and controversial character. Among other things, he was poet, doctor, philosopher and astronomer, but above all a great lover of esotericism and necromancy.
His passion and his works about the occult sciences condemned him to the stake as a heretic in Florence, on September 16, 1327. But, back to the legend, tradition said Cecco d’Ascoli, as a necromancer, had made a pact with devil, according to which he wouldn’t suffered any torture if he had drunk a glass of water, which would have required as a last wish.
Being aware of the infamous pact that would have saved the life of the necromancer, a monk leaned from a window overlooking Via de’ Cerretani, along which passed through the procession of the dying man to Piazza Santa Croce, and cried aloud not to give him even a sip of water, so that he didn’t escape from his right condemnation.
Discovered, Cecco would avenged telling the monk that, on account of his interference, he wouldn’t have taken off his head from that window, and so would take place.
Beyond the legend
The only thing we really know is the statue dates back to the late Roman period, and probably it belongs to the same funeral complex in which were extracted the sarcophaguses preserved inside the Baptistery.
Lower down, walled in the same bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore, you can see a rectangular enrollment fragment, which confirms clearly the hypothesis the famous “Berta” is nothing more than a remnant of preexisting buildings incorporated in the new construction that took its place.