We make it a point to visit Siena every year…..at least once. It’s a town I’ve liked ever since my first trip in 1990, and our visit last month did nothing to tarnish our high opinion of it.
My first 3 stays were just quick overnights on my way to somewhere else, in hotels slightly outside the town walls. It wasn’t until my 4th stay that I really developed an appreciation for Siena because I was finally INside the walls – and it didn’t hurt that I was there for 2 weeks.
Why 2 weeks? Well, this was the beginning of what is turning out to be a lifelong quest to learn Italian, and Siena was noted for having several good schools. Unfortunately, in my ranking of personal language studies, this particular school falls at the absolute bottom. I don’t remember learning even one thing from it – not a word or idiomatic expression or verb tense. However, it was far from a waste of time. I met my friend Ingrid, a lawyer from Sweden, and we immediately decided it was our duty each day after class to try a different restaurant for lunch, accompanied by a different wine. It was a hugely rewarding 2 weeks!!! In fact, my favorite find back then is still a favorite, and we ate dinner there once again on last month’s visit.
Siena has many great museums, but in all of my visits there, I’ve only been to 2. One is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Opera means work or works, and most large churches have a museum nearby, containing treasures (or works) that were once in them, but for whatever reason, are no longer. For instance, the Opera del Duomo in Florence has Ghiberti’s original baptistery brass doors to protect them from the ravages of pollution. There’s also a Michelangelo Pieta’ containing a self-sculpture standing behind Mary and Jesus. We’re talking top quality stuff here! In Florence’s case, if I had to make a choice between seeing the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Duomo, I would definitely pick the Opera.
But getting back to Siena – I highly recommend its Opera del Duomo, but if I had to make the same choice, the Duomo would win. From the outside, it’s very reminiscent of Orvieto’s Duomo, and they obviously had many architectural influences in common. When you first walk into Orvieto’s, its stark gray and cream striped walls present a scene of calm after the dazzle of the façade. In Siena, the dazzle not only continues – it intensifies. It seems that every inch of internal surface is covered with something worthy of examination. It’s almost impossible for your eyes to transmit all those images to your brain without your brain sounding an art overload alarm.
The other Senese museum I’ve visited is the Palazzo Pubblico, and it, too, is filled with incredible treasurers. It sits prominently on Il Campo (meaning “the field”) – the famous shell-shaped main piazza of town. Building began in 1297, and the fact that so much effort and money were put into such a prominent non-religious building at that time shows, to my mind, a government with a very high sense of public responsibility.
Whenever anyone ever talks about Siena and the Campo, the Palio is always mentioned. (If you don’t know anything about the Palio and are so inclined, you can go back and read my 11/23/11 blog called “Siena: Palio Participation”.) Plenty of my friends have witnessed this horse racing spectacle that takes place twice a year within the Campo, but since I never go to Munich during Octoberfest nor New Orleans during Mardi Gras, I’ve never joined the thousands who cram into the piazza each year to see the Palio. Lou’s son John spent 6 months going to a good Italian school in Siena, just after college. This was before the days of rampant tourism, and Siena was so manageable that he easily got a reasonably priced apartment with wonderful windows overlooking the Campo. He figured he’d have a front row seat for the Palio, and he wouldn’t have to get out of his pajamas to watch. But even back in those less tourist-intensive days, the Palio produced an almost religious fervor, and it turned out John hadn’t read the fine print on his lease. The reality was that he rented the apartment EXCEPT for the days of the Palio, at which time the landlord sold seats for his window space, meaning strangers were milling around his apartment and he wasn’t allowed in without a ticket.
Today the Campo is filled with both tourists and locals all year, and it really is a wonderful place for people watching. I’m sure that now, bad seats for the Palio cost as much as John paid each month for his apartment back then, and the current monthly rent is probably more than the cost of his first car.
The most famous person from Siena is St. Catherine. She and St. Francis of Assisi are the 2 patron saints of Italy, and though she was young when she died, she is attributed with bringing the papacy back to Italy from France during the late 1300’s. I was intrigued when I heard her head and thumb were somewhere in Siena. It turned out that their resting place was just down from our school in the Basilica of San Domenico. This was the year before I saw the monks’ bones artistically displayed at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome (2/8/12 blog, if you’re interested), so the idea of randomly placed body parts was strange enough that I had to go take a look. I’m afraid San Domenico is a really uninspiring church – deadly dull if you don’t count the head and thumb. The following year when I was in Rome for the first time, I stumbled into Santa Maria Sopra Minerva near the Pantheon, which just happens to be THE most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. And who should be under the altar? You guessed it: St. Catherine’s body! I’m always amazed at how people traveled from place to place back in those harsh days, but perhaps even more amazing is how body parts traveled around – a saint’s leg bone in Italy, the hand in France. As for poor St. Catherine – I was glad to see at least part of her had a decent resting place.
I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice: Park in one of Siena’s parking garages; do not park on the street. You might think you’re in a legal parking spot, but you’re probably wrong. We found out the hard way – at midnight, after a large dinner, in a drizzle, with friends who had a cranky 17-month old child. Parking garage. Trust me on this one……
I want to wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving……even those of you who aren’t Americans. It’s our nicest holiday and I think it translates well into any culture because its only job is to remind us of how very lucky we are, and how thankful we should be for that luck.
The time between Thanksgiving and New Years is always hectic, so I will be putting out pieces every other week rather than weekly. I know your alternate Wednesdays just won’t be the same, but I hope you’ll use that extra 5 to do something useful — like get 5 minutes more sleep. Live it up!!