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A One-Day Tour of Siena
Gail Spilsbury from California, Spring 2008
On a spring trip we had only two days to see Bologna and Siena, two remarkable Italian cities dating to antiquity and full of rare art and cultural treasures. We felt overwhelming satisfaction with our sightseeing, even though we only grazed the riches of each town. We hope these highlights will help other travelers to Florence plan a side trip to Bologna and Siena. Click here for information about our day in Bologna.
Siena, like Bologna, deserves several days of touring instead of one, but two major gems can be visited in a single day — the Palazzo Pubblico and the Duomo — in addition to walking the town for overall architectural ambiance, enjoying a meal, and visiting a final museum of choice (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo recommended). With a farewell gelato at six pm, travelers can embark on their next destination.
Renowned throughout the world, Siena’s redbrick Piazza del Campo can be experienced only in person. Its dynamism pulses from nine fanning sections that compose its gently concave shell-shape. The sections symbolize the contrade, or communes, that made up the Sienese government.
At the base of this spellbinding brick expanse lies the stately Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall, which itself has a subtle curve to it, as do other palazzi ringing the medieval square. The historical Palio race and festivities take place here every summer; contestants represent their contrade (out of seventeen remaining, only ten participate). The campo’s sloping topography reflects the natural landscape, for Siena’s three hills converge in this spot.
Built from 1288 to 1309, the Gothic town hall with a crenellated rooftop, dozens of ogival windows, and a high tower form an architectural masterpiece. The museum ticket begins with the Mangia tower, a climb up of about one hundred meters with two upper-story platforms for views of the city and surrounding countryside. The tower’s first watchman who struck the hours was nicknamed Mangiaguadagni, or Mangia for short, and so the tower got its name.
The interior of the Palazzo Pubblico is a rare treat, with the medieval walls covered in historic paintings, frescoes, monochromes, and sculpture. Here, and throughout the town, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus appears, symbol of Siena. According to legend, Senius and Ascius, sons of Remus, founded the town during their escape from a wrathful Romulus. Senius rode a white horse and Ascius a black one, so that these two colors also became symbols of the town.
School of Painting
Siena is well known for its school of painting, fathered by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260–1319), and encompassing hundreds of other artists from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Early Sienese art reveals both Romanesque and Byzantium influences, while later works follow the more Gothic style of Simone Martini (c. 1284–1344). Extraordinary paintings by Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers can be viewed in the palazzo, in particular, Martini’s Guido Riccio da Fogliano (c. 1328) and Maestà (1315).
It’s impossible not to feel like bowing down in homage when facing the intricately sculptured and turreted façade of Siena’s Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. According to a city guidebook the church is “a luminous poetical hymn in praise of God expressed in marble.” Coating the lower front structure are sculptures of prophets, apostles, and philosophers by Giovanni Pisano and his students (1284–96), although most are copies, with the originals housed in the adjacent Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The lower façade’s three, arched entrances support the uppermost arch, rose window, and gold-gleaming mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin. All of the columns, friezes, and niches must be studied for their carved ornamentation that includes spirals, flowers, animals, and cherubs. The sides of the massive church show alternating black and white stripes (city colors), easily discerned from a distance.
Inside, many treasures await, the best of them the floors. So precious are these inlaid marble and graffiti images that the rarest ones are uncovered for viewing only in September. From 1372 to 1562, more than forty artists contributed to the fifty-six floor panels, which depict sibyls, biblical stories, and allegories. Artists used a graffiti technique for the earliest scenes, which consisted of drilling tiny holes into the marble to make the drawing. Later panels used colorful marble inlay. Besides the numerous panels with sibyls, some panels depict larger stories, such as the Slaughter of the Innocents. One of Siena’s most famous artists, Domenico Beccafumi, worked on the floors for thirty years, with his final contribution the Sacrifice of Isaac in front of the main altar (1547).
Following a slow parade of people circling the rectangular Piccolomini Library off the church’s left aisle, visitors find another rare treat of the cathedral. Bright frescoes cover the vaulted room and are probably based on designs by Rafaello. Beautiful, illuminated choir books by Liberale da Verona and Girolamo da Cremona from 1466 to 1478 are also on display. No photographs in books can depict these real-life treasures, their color and artistic achievement.
With one or two days to spare on trip through Italy, both Bologna and Siena amply reward the history and art-seeking traveler, who will vow to return.
Gail Spilsbury is the author of two books, Rock Creek Park (Johns Hopkins University Press 2002) and The Washington Sketchbook (Library of Congress, in press) and has lived in Italy on and off for seven years. Gail works with Mangiare Bene, cooking classes and tours in the Sabina Hills.
© Gail Spilsbury, 2008
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