Italy has enormous variety, from the seaside of Levanto to the crowds and canals of Venice, to the quieter, and steeper, hills of Siena. Siena is another city trapped in time, it’s like stepping back into the 13th or 14th Century, the Middle Ages, just before the Renaissance. The roads are rough cobblestones that challenge your balance, the buildings are ancient, the streets are so narrow they seem like alleys, they all go up or down, nothing is level. Everything is stone and the people are friendly and always willing to lend a hand. And, the soil as well as the stones, are the color of Crayola’s burnt sienna – the color is everywhere.
Siena is probably best known for this piazza, Il Campo, right in the heart of the city. The square was first laid out in the 12th Century, it attracts tourists and locals to soak up the sun, visit the Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) or eat at one of the many nice restaurants. Originally, it was just a field (campo) outside the city walls, but as the city expanded, in the 1200’s, the walls were torn down and it became the town’s marketplace and the conjunction where the 17 contrade (neighborhood districts) converge.
City Hall adorns the other side of Il Campo, its monumental clock tower, at 330 feet, is one of Italy’s tallest towers. The chapel at the base of the clock tower was built in 1348 to give thanks to God for ending the black plague.
The Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) the fountain is named for the great celebration in Siena when the residents saw water gushing out for the first time.
Each contrade (neighborhood district) has an insignia, mascot, color, fountain and church, the walls of the district are marked with that district’s insignia.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what they mean.
The neighborhood rivalry is set in full motion twice a year, on July 2 and August 16 when they have the Palio di Siena; a world renowned horse race in which 10 of the 17 neighborhoods compete at Il Campo. The horses are taken to the contrade church to be blessed, “Go and be victorious”, says the priest; it is considered good luck if the horse leaves droppings in the church.
From Rick Steves: “While the race itself lasts just 90 seconds, festivities go on for days. As Palio day approaches, processions break out across the city, including one in which the famed and treasured banner — featuring the Virgin Mary, to whom the race is dedicated — is held high as it is paraded to the cathedral. Locals belt out passionate good-luck choruses. With the waving flags and pounding drums, it all harkens back to medieval times, when these rituals boosted morale before battle.”
“The race! Once the rope drops, there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. The jockeys race bareback like crazy while spectators go berserk. In Siena, life stops for these frantic three laps. Up in the apartment, Roberto and Franco held their breath. And then, the winner: Lupa, the she-wolf district.
We zipped out into the street to join the ecstatic mobs coursing toward the cathedral. The happy “Lupa-Lupa-Lupa!” horde thundered through town, weeping with joy. At the cathedral, the crowd packed in, and the winning contrada received the beloved banner. Champions — until the next race.”
Read Rick Steves’ complete article here: http://www.miamiherald.com/living/travel/article161218243.html
I wasn’t there for the Palio, but there were signs of it everywhere.
A mark on a wall in a narrow street (yes, the stone walls are this color)
In a store window
I was drawn to Siena by the stunning pictures I’ve seen of the striped cathedral, so that was one of my first stops, it’s just around the corner from Il Campo.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption) Also known as the Siena Duomo
It did not disappoint, located at the top of a hill in the small city, it overshadowed everything near it.
Romulus and Remus
The Focciatone. The cathedral was built to rival the Duomo of Florence but the black plague destroyed the city’s will to complete their plans; here you see the wall that would have been part of the cathedral if the original plans had been followed. Following the black plague, Siena withdrew from the world stage and thus preserved this gem of a city and now, we can experience a trip back 700 years into the past.
The Last Supper
A heavenly organ!
A museum displays huge ornate music books that were used in times when churches couldn’t afford a separate book for each person, so the books were printed with large text so the book could be displayed from the front of the church and those of the congregation who were able could read it.
The Duomo Museum
A window dedicated to the Virgin Mary
Bottom – burial of the Virgin Mary — Middle – assumption of the Virgin Mary; — Top – crowning the Virgin Mary Queen of Heaven
Some of the original 12 Disciples statues that were removed from the Duomo to protect them
The Transfiguration by Girolamo Genga
After my visit to the museum, I visited the Facciatone; the top of the uncompleted wall attached to the Duomo.
I didn’t understand (it would have been so much better to learn Italian before I came here) that my ticket included a climb to the top of this wall, the Facciatone, I thought I was climbing the bell tower so I was not prepared for how steep and narrow the steps were. The steps were barely wide enough for my shoe, the stairway was circular and so narrow, there was room for only one person; the tour was planned so that a group went up and then the group at the top went down; there was no passing. The stairway was dim so it was hard to see and there was barely enough room to look down. I wasn’t worried when we started, but as we climbed and climbed with no end in sight, I became more and more anxious. Remember, the tour started in the museum, I didn’t even know I was outside climbing to the top of a wall. There were feet at the top of my head and someone’s head just below my feet, there was no going back and going forward was painfully slow. This was the hardest time of my entire trip; I felt so claustrophobic and trapped I had to repeatedly swallow down the creeping panic. When we emerged at the top where there were incomparably beautiful panoramic views, all I could think of was that I’d never make it down; what if my foot slipped? I’d land on someone and the one before him and the one before him and we’d all go tumbling down like something from a Lewis Carrol story. I looked around and saw a strong looking, kind looking younger man and approached him to see if I could follow him down. He kindly said yes, but his companion had a lot of questions; I must have passed because she smiled and agreed that the three of us could go down together. “He’s not very strong, you know” she said, “I don’t plan to fall on him, I just don’t want to go down alone” was my reply that seemed to convince her. With those arrangements made, I was finally able to enjoy the magnificent view.
The best viewing spot in Siena.
Look at the blue sky and the purple hills
It was hard for me to climb that stairway, but it was worth it…what a view! What a city!
In August and October of 2016, there were devastating earthquakes in Norcia, Italy; the historic Basilica of St. Benedict and the Cathedral of Santa Maria Argentea were severely damaged; many of the treasures recovered from there were sent to nearby Siena for restoration and safety. They can be found in the crypt under the Duomo, there are videos and photographs of the rescue operation; I was touched by how careful the rescue workers were with the ancient and holy articles they retrieved.
Restoration in Norcia goes on, the people are hopeful they will be able to restore the damaged buildings and retrieve the precious items from Siena.
Across from the Duomo is the Santa Maria della Scala museum which was once a hospital dedicated to caring for abandoned children, the poor and the sick; today it is a museum lined with frescoes illustrating the work that was done there.
The more time I spend it Italy, the more I admire the beauty of frescoes; these are from the 1330’s and they’ve never been restored – look how fresh they are!
On my last morning in Siena, I planned to go to Mass at the Duomo, so I headed out, past the Santuario di Santa Caterina,
Up and down the narrow cobblestone streets of the city
My home parish is St. Teresa of Calcutta, so this touched me.
And up to the Duomo Piazza; the guard told me I was early and I should come back in half an hour when he’d let me in. I wandered about looking at souvenir shops. After half an hour when I went back, the guard very abruptly told me there would be no Mass and I should go to St. Agostino’s; where is that Do I have time?? A gentleman was just being turned away and headed to St. Agostino’s so I asked if I could tag along. St. Agostino’s was celebrating the feast day of St. Rita; they were selling roses and candles to place near the St. Rita statue and they were also selling “blessed bread”; I had never heard of blessed bread.
St. Rita: At the age of 12, against her wishes, Rita was married to a violent, cruel and unfaithful man; Rita bore his treatment with meekness and love that eventually had a calming influence on her husband, even to the point of renouncing a feud; unfortunately, his enemies betrayed him and killed him anyway. Rita forgave the killers and publicly pardoned them, a year later, both her sons contracted dysentery and died. Rita later joined a monastery when she was 36. When she was 60, she prayed “Please let me suffer like you, divine Savior” and received a wound on her forehead as if a thorn from Christ’s crown had pierced her. It never healed and she suffered from it until she died. She contracted tuberculosis and while she was bedridden, she asked a cousin to bring her a rose from the garden; her cousin didn’t think it was possible to find a rose in January, but there was one single bloom which her cousin brought back to her. She passed away four months later. She is the patron saint of the impossible.
Blessed bread: bread that is blessed during Mass and distributed to the congregation as a token of union and love.
The church was overflowing with roses.
The statue of St. Rita surrounded by roses
It was a lovely Mass; the church was filled to capacity and everyone got into the spirit of raising funds for the church and celebrating St. Rita. I bought a small roll of blessed bread and ate it, it was very good.
Later that day, I went back up to the Duomo Piazza to see the Baptistery; when I arrived at the piazza, there were police cars and crowds surrounding them, I hesitated to go forward, but curiosity won and I continued to the Duomo.
Oh, why didn’t I learn Italian??
I began to hear “Obama” and then “Obama!!!” I looked all around at the intense security presence and limousines, finally I couldn’t take it anymore so I walked over to the guard who suddenly changed his mind and didn’t let me go into Mass this morning, surely he would know what’s going on. He told me former president and first lady, Barak and Michelle Obama, were coming to tour the cathedral. I had seen newspaper headlines that they were in town but I did not expect to find them.
I walked around the Duomo to go to the Baptistery, but all avenues were blocked, I wasn’t allowed to proceed near the building, so I returned to the front of the cathedral.
As I got back to the front of the Duomo, I saw everyone looking up and pointing at the Facciatone (the wall I had climbed earlier), so I went back up the Duomo stairs and looked where everyone was pointing and there, indeed, was someone who might be President Obama. I used the zoom on my camera and snapped a few shots of the former president, I thought the woman with him was the former first lady, I couldn’t tell it was not until I got home and took a closer look at my pictures. People were chanting “Obama, Obama” there was a festive atmosphere; people all around me seemed to be very excited. It was obvious that this crowd adored the former president; the excitement reminded me of being at a rock concert.
That’s Eric Holder in the blue shirt to the left center.
I decided to walk to the next block and come up to the baptistery from the back.
It was a little climb
The Baptistery had just closed!! ☹
When I got back to the Duomo, I learned that the former president and first lady had walked by on their way in to tour the cathedral and apparently the first lady scandalized all of Siena by wearing an ugly and inappropriate blouse, but I didn’t see it. (In Italy, no one is allowed to enter Catholic churches unless their shoulders are covered and their legs are covered to below the knee. Michelle Obama’s blouse did not cover her shoulders and appeared to hang down almost to her waist.)
Photo from a news report
So ended my journey to Siena – what a beautiful and relaxing place to visit. On my way to the train station, I ran across this newspaper stand. What are the chances I’d cross paths with them?
The Obama Enchanted by Siena
Tragic crash kills young father
So, I leave Siena and Tuscany to go to Assisi in the neighboring region of Umbria. But, my next post is about Catherine of Siena; the person most intimately associated with this beautiful hill town.