SIENA – IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GHOSTS

Quite recently I read a book on Michelangelo by Irving Stone called ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ that brought the man, his art, his times and his contemporaries remarkably to life.  Evidently Stone spent years in Italy researching his subject, working in a marble quarry, as an apprentice sculptor, and reading Michelangelo’s 495 letters which he had translated for him.   It was this book which came to mind as I continued my journey across Umbria and Tuscany where I felt as if I was following in the footsteps of the incredible artists of that time.   

Perugia : main piazza & Palazzo dei Priori

Perugia : main piazza & Palazzo dei Priori

After a well-earned, sun-lounging rest by Lake Trasimeno watching busy beavers in the nearby water, I visited Perugia and then enjoyed an extended stay in Siena.  In Perugia the echoes of father and son artisans Nicola and Giovanni Pisano whisper around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre, which is dominated by their magnificent Fontana Maggiore.  The square is a meeting point for numerous people who sit on the steps of either the main cathedral or the Palazzo dei Priori opposite, contemplating the large fountain in the centre.

Fontana Maggiore

The Fontana Maggiore

Sculpted of pink and white marble, the fountain is covered with biblical and zodiac images, and symbols such as the Gryphon of Perugia.   I highly recommend a visit to the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in the Palazzo, one of Umbria’s principle art galleries, where I wandered in a state of awe before its Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance collection.    

It was in the dingy, narrow streets of Siena, however, seemingly unchanged for hundreds of years, where I most felt the presence of the artist ghosts.  I could picture Michelangelo, the Pisano’s, Bernini and others walking through these streets to and from their workshops, sitting in a bar, or standing looking up at their handiwork on and within the breath-taking Duomo.    

Siena's Duomo

Siena’s Duomo

Wandering around Siena frees your imagination to see through the window of time so that you can walk alongside its long-gone inhabitants. 

Piazza del Campo seen from the Panorama del Facciatone

Piazza del Campo seen from the Panorama del Facciatone

Another place which has been untouched in centuries is the famous Piazza del Campo, the sloping, circular plaza in which the Palio horse race has been run since 1656.  Though the race lasts for about one minute the Palio has a huge build up and is still fiercely competitive. 

Siena is divided into seventeen quarters, ‘contrades’, each with its own colours and civic pride. Ten horses are allowed to race, ridden bareback by jockeys in the colourful costumes of their district. The winner of the no-holds-barred race gains the ‘Palio’ silk banner and becomes a hero to their compatriots.  The race was due to be run shortly after my visit so I saw a lot of preparation with banners flying, people in traditional dress, and young men practicing their flag-tossing technique for the ceremonies and parades which are all a part of this event.

The colourful banners of the 17 'contrades' in Piazza del Campo

The colourful district banners for sale in Piazza del Campo before the Fonte Gaia – the happy fountain

You can watch the race for free from a central paddock with 28,000 other people if you get there very early and are prepared to wait for hours, otherwise ringside seats in cafés and stalls can cost hundreds of euros for this jubilant, frenzied spectacle. 

duomo-west

There are not superlatives enough for Siena’s Duomo, the Liquorice All Sorts cathedral which is spectacular both inside and out.   When you first catch sight of the building you are struck by the whole image of its green-black and white stripes on a white marble background – these are the symbolic colours on Siena’s coat of arms.    Then you see the exquisite western façade, dominated by Giovanno Pisano’s sculptures and its golden triangular pinnacle topped by a triumphant angel.  Understandably there is always a crowd sitting on the opposite wall, just gazing in pure pleasure.

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Inside, the striped colour scheme continues on the columns and walls, and is joined by the most remarkable floor space for the cathedral is completely covered by 59 large inlaid mosaics which took around 200 years to complete.  I was fortunate to see them all as the entire floor is only uncovered for a few weeks a year.  I was later fascinated to see the original drawings for the design of the floor in perfect miniature, called ‘cartoons’, in the cathedral museum.   The centrepiece of the Duomo is Nicolo Pisano’s masterpiece, his intricately carved marble altar on pillars which stand on the backs of beasts.

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The cathedral is home to sculptures and paintings by several masters including Donatello and Bernini and four sculptures by Michelangelo placed in the niches of a side altar built for Cardinal Piccolomini – who briefly became Pope.  Michelangelo was contracted to sculpt fifteen but never completed the commission, getting side tracked by The David and The Sistine Chapel for which we can forgive him – though the Cardinal never did.    In a side room is the stunning Piccolomini Library, dedicated to his life, which has a brightly and multi-coloured frescoed ceiling arched above three classical lady statues.

The Piccolomini Library

The Piccolomini Library

When you visit Siena’s Duomo don’t miss the frescoed Baptistery and the crypt which is tucked behind the main building.  For hundreds of years this space was full of rubbish until it was rediscovered as recently as 1999 and its beautiful 13th century frescoes uncovered.  These ‘dry paintings’ originally made on wet plaster are particularly long-lasting and their beautiful colours and images have been well preserved, though oddly surrounded by pipes, ducts and brick walls.  

Detail from a ‘dry painting’ in the crypt

Detail from a ‘dry painting’ in the crypt

Many of the cathedral’s artworks were at some point moved into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo for protection – ‘opera’ here meaning ‘works’.  This museum was my favourite experience in Siena.  Not only does it contain numerous beautiful masterpieces of every kind, but from there one can climb up an old circular stairway to the most amazing view of the city and surrounding Tuscany from the Panorama del Facciatone.  The paintings, statuary and relics on display are quite wonderful but nothing can prepare you for the sight of the 6 metre wide stained glass window executed by Duccio di Buoninsegna with its carved sentinels standing to either side.  What a display.

window-alone

The window was made for the cathedral in the 13th century and dismantled for protection in 1943.  My words cannot compete with the museum’s own description of its colours : “The dazzling palette is characteristic of Duccio’s artistic language : the intense blue of the backgrounds, golden yellow, ruby red, amethyst purple and emerald green of the clothes, along with the delicate pink used for the flesh tones, glow in a radiant display of colours.  But the true innovation here is the use of grisaille : Duccio has personally intervened, paintbrush in hand, to trace the details of the faces, draperies, and wings of the angels with thin filaments of paint.”

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Detail showing some of the ‘grisaille’ hand painting on the stained glass

One cannot recount a stay in Siena without mentioning the Tuscany landscape of course.  Again, I was lucky to find a well-priced self-catering studio just outside town, in an attractive old villa complete with frescoes, its only downside the 38 steps I had to climb in the humid, nearly 40 degrees, but with a window looking out over the Tuscan hills within hearing of the local church bells.   My time in Siena may not have been as ‘soulful’ as my experiences in Assisi, but it was joyful, and once more I was finding that I was perfectly happy being a lone traveller in no one’s company but my own.    

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Comments
One Response to “SIENA – IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GHOSTS”
  1. Joannie says:

    I can but wonder at the way you bring experience to life. Thanks again.

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