BENEDETTA'S STORY BEGINS in sixteenth-century Vellano, a remote mountain village perched on the slopes of the Appennines some forty-five miles northwest of Florence. The town, now as then, seems to defy the passage of time -- crooked, narrow streets wind their way through the steep hillside, high medieval walls overlook silvery leaved olive trees and dense chestnuts; terraced fields carved from the meager earth surround the jumble of buildings; and beyond the cramped confines of the village and its fields, off in the distance, past the gradually descending hills, are the vast spaces of the Arno river valley barely visible on the horizon.
In this idyllic place, on the night of St. Sebastian of the year 1590, Benedetta Carlini was born. Her birth and childhood, as she recalled them years later, have a fairytale quality about them, with supernatural events and portents of significant things to come. Her birth was difficult. Her mother, Midea, had such a painful labor that the midwife who attended her came out to the room where her husband Giuliano was waiting to tell him that both mother and child might die shortly. When he heard this, Giuliano beseeched God on his knees to spare their