Civitella Maritima, south of Siena.
We got off to a later start than we’d hoped the next day, despite warnings that our goal, the town of Siena, pretty much shuts down in the afternoon, especially perhaps during Easter week.
The day was sunny and the drive was beautiful, especially as we turned inland from Grossetto and headed north. For a shot out the open window of a moving car, the one on the right isn’t half bad, I think; if only I knew which town it was …Pari? Leccio? Campagnatico?
We arrived around noon, but lucky for us, things were not as shut down as we feared. Parking in one of the garages on the edge of the old town inside the walls — like Florence, no nonresident traffic is allowed within the old town — we set out to see what we could of the city and its treasures.
Siena rooftops from Opera della Metropolitana,
Duomo di Siena.
Siena has been under development restrictions for some time — for centuries, in fact. At one time it was a wealthy Ghibelline (imperial) rival to Guelph (papal) Florence, and even administered a crushing defeat to that city’s armed forces in 1260. But then came the Black Death, which apparently hit Siena harder than it did Florence. Another battle with the Florentines ended in Sienese defeat — and terms that no further building would occur.
The potted history is intended only to explain why Siena is both a exceptionally well-preserved medieval/Renaissance Italian city, and one that was once powerful enough to command the talents of the greatest master builders and artists and develop a distinctive style of its own.
Our first goal was a painting that Cricket has always wanted to see: Duccio’s Maesta (Virgin in Majesty), in the Opera della Metropolitana, a museum housing art works of the Siena Duomo. The museum is actually housed in what would have been the nave of an even vaster Sienese cathedral than the present-day Duomo, which was originally intended to be only the sanctuary and transepts (the “head and hands”) of the larger planned structure.
The “Opera” houses many other great works as well. One I liked was Tondo of the Virgin and Child by Donatello (1457), a kind of large stone medallion (maybe a yard wide). At first the otherwise beautiful Mary seems to have really overly large hands — until you realized the piece was designed to be seen from nearby and below.
But the Maesta was by itself in a specially climate-controlled room, and it really is spectacular — a 7 by 14 foot or so wooden panel, painted in a style that seems to have just begun a breakout from medieval conventions (distinct, recognizable faces, the artist’s signature) with lavish use of golds, scarlet red, and dark blue. The painting was unveiled on what was declared a public holiday in 1311. From a contemporary account:
…and on the day that (it) was carried to the Cathedral, the shops were closed and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Comune, and all the people, and in order all the most distinguished were close behind the picture with lighted candles in their hands; and the women and children were following with great devotion: and they all accompanied the picture as far as the Cathedral, going round the Campo in procession, and according to custom, the bells rang in glory and in veneration of such a noble picture as this, . . . and all that day was spent in worship and alms-giving to the poor, praying to the Mother of God, our protectress, to defend us by her infinite mercy from all adversity, and to guard us against the hand of traitors and enemies of Siena.
Quite a difference from the hushed room the Maesta is in now! Commissioning the painting was quite expensive for its time — lots of gold, an artist paid a substantial daily wage for 3 years; together with the rapturous reception, I think it illustrates a “conspicuous pious consumption” principle that seemed to inspire and subsidize most art in those days. But whatever pleasure the Mother of God took from the painting, prayers, and alms-giving, Siena’s protection was at best short-lived — the Black Death (1347-1351) lay only a few years ahead.
A reverse panel was visible to the clergy as the image above was to worshipers. It now hangs across the room from the Virgin in Majesty, and shows Stories of the Passion in a series of 12 panels. I tried to identify what was going on for Maddie, who demanded to be told what exactly was going on in every panel. Family of heathens that we are, this was her first detailed exposure to the story. Subsequent reading confirmed my befuddled guess that Duccio was an early blogger — in that the all the earlier Passion stories are in the 6 panels of the bottom row, with later stories left to right along the top row.
Almost unbelievably, Duccio’s masterpiece was sawn apart in the late 1700s; two of the resulting fragments are now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. One, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, is Cricket’s favorite NGA piece. That connection was what prompted our visit to the Maesta — and a palpable step back in time.
Duomo, Piazza del Campo
We climbed to a gangway atop the Opera, above what would have been the entrance to the larger Duomo, and looked across to the Duomo in one direction, towards the Palazzo Publico and its tower, the immense Torre del Mangia in another. After exploring the museum a little more, we headed over to the Duomo for a look inside. In the war of all against all that was also the Renaissance, I’m guessing that impressing rubes and visiting dignitaries was cheap compared to fighting them — so up and coming cities like Siena spent a lot on impressive buildings.
Like Florence, the Sienese Duomo seems designed to show city pride nearly as much as veneration for the Holy Trinity and its church. Siena’s colors are black and white, and the cathedral walls and columns are built with evenly alternating black and white marble layers. The effect is both attractive and showy, and clearly says “spare no expense.” Something I also don’t recall seeing before, at least to the level of the Duomo di Siena, was very advanced marble-inlay flooring; artisans were able to use to compose quite intricate and naturalistic “marble jigsaw” (more accurately intarsia) pictures. The technique was apparently first developed by Sienese woodcarvers.
Torre del Mangia.
Leaving the Duomo, we headed for the centerpiece of Siena, the Piazza del Campo and its huge bell and watch tower, the Torre del Mangia. As you walk through Siena, you notice that different neighborhoods have their own insignia underneath the street signs. The symbols of each neighborhood, or contrada, are often whimsical or exotic; there were Rhinoceros, Unicorn, Caterpillar, and Snail contrade, among the 17 comprising Siena.
Coming up on the Piazza and seeing up close how big the ancient Torre is (330 feet, finished in 1348 just as the bubonic plague hit) was unforgettable. The Piazza del Campo is justly renowned as well. The plaza is a huge semicircle, that slope down towards the Palazzo Publico and the Torre in 9 distinct “pizza slices”brepresenting the nine elders (signori, see above) who ruled the city. Off limits to traffic, it has the feel of a kind of medieval urban beach, surrounded by cafes, storefronts, and of course the imposing Palazzo and Torre.
In addition to its layout, the Piazza is famous for being the site of biannual horse race, the Palio di Siena, a three-circuit race around the edge of the Piazza, pitting horses and riders sponsored by each of the Sienese contrade against eachother. My brother-in-law once actually saw one of these races, and achieved a measure of newspaper photograph fame for trying to help pull a fallen rider out of the way of an equally terrified horse careening towards them.
Leaving Siena, we drove north and then west to San Gimignano, famous for its medieval skyline of family towers, ranging around 150 feet high. We walked towards the center of town and back, just taking in the sights and not really even checking our guide book for information; we were all a little tired. After a quick supper, we headed back to the car parking lot outside the city wall.
It was getting dark, and our not-so-early start now took its revenge in an occasionally hair-raising drive back “home” to Baratti. The road west from San Gimignano towards Volterra is long, winding, and mountainous, most other drivers wanted to go faster than we did, and turnouts were generally on the “precipice” side of the road rather than the hill side. This resulted in our car leading several long processions through the nighttime hills of Italy, more than a few exasperated Italian drivers, but nothing worse.
Easter weekend and leaving Italy, April 15-17
On Saturday and Sunday we undertook no major excursions, preferring to relax in Baratti with our relatives and new friends. We helped a bit with a sweet Easter egg hunt (no colored eggs, just the good stuff: candy and chocolate), which some of the host’s Italian friends’ children participated in.
On Sunday, we attended a Easter service at the house of one of our host’s sisters. It was nontraditional for not being in a church, and featuring folk songs, but a Catholic priest who was a friend of the family presided over the event, preaching in Italian. (I wasn’t sure whether Catholic services in Italy are held in Italian or Latin, and I suppose I still don’t know what happens generally.)
Our trip drew to a close on Monday, with a morning dash down the Italian coast back to Rome and the Fiumicino Airport. Stopping at a small gas station along the autostrada to top off the tank and get a bite to eat, we found a full service cafe, with espresso, freshly made prosciutto and mozzarella and artichoke sandwiches, and all the other paraphernalia and offerings of a good Italian sidewalk cafe. I can’t say I was really surprised by then — I’d say one part of the Italian lifestyle is “life’s too short to eat bad food,” and we were just seeing the same principle at work along an Italian highway.
I’ll add a few miscellaneous notes separately, but that’s pretty much it for this travelogue. It’s mainly for my own use and that of my family, but I hope it proves interesting and useful to others as well.
Yours truly, Piazza del Campo, Siena.
[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 5/4]
FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Duomo di Siena: Official museum site Opera della Metropolitana.
Palazzo Publico, Torre del Mangia: official Palazzo Publico e Museo Civico site.
Piazza del Campo, Palio di Siena: The Piazza is listed on the Great Buildings site. There are both official and unofficial English language sites devoted to recording the history and organization of the Palio di Siena races and explaining them to outsiders. The unofficial one – La Voce della Piazza — is clearly by fans, for fans. From “75 seconds to victory“: “…Finally a silence filled with anxiousness comes over the Piazza. Sunto has stopped ringing; the Sienese hold their collective breaths and the last formalities seem an eternity. And suddenly horses and jockeys in the stupendous colors of their Contrade exit from the Cortile of the Podestà. The Campo is a palette, a caleidoscope; everyone looks in the same direction while the race horses go slowly to the ropes…”
Duccio: A profusely illustrated book — Duccio: The Maesta — by Sienese art historian Luciano Bellosi looks to be a painstaking effort. The Web Gallery of Art offers a “guided tour” of Duccio’s work, as well as of Sienese painters in general. See also this SUNY Oneonta student web site. As mentioned above, The National Gallery has two fragments of the original Maesta. A 2005 New Yorker article, “The missing Madonna,” tells the story behind the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most expensive acquisition, Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” — “Finally, the Met has its ‘Mona Lisa.”
Donatello: This Opera della Metropolitana document confirmed that Donatello intended a “foreshortening” effect for the Tondo.
Siena: Official web site for tourists.
San Gimignano: Official web site. In an economics- and mathematics-laden analysis titled Household Saving, Competitive Conspicuous Consumption and Income Inequality, Herbert Walther calls the San Gimignano towers a “nice example of wasteful competition between various families of the upper class in a medieval society” but asks whether they made a certain kind of sense after all: “Or was it rather a conscious signal of prosperity and wealth (like many other monuments), offering prospective coalition partners a clear hint, whom they should trust and associate with in the future? Such signals may have been particularly important at a time, when property rights were insecure and coalition partners were needed for support…”
* From the Web Gallery of Art history of the painting.
EDIT, 2007: Gloria of Casina di Rosa has identified the town in the picture as her town of Civitella Maritima; thanks very much! We seem to have been heading south for some reason, I’d forgotten that part — maybe it was to take this picture.