Antipasti, Architecture, Biscotti, Black Plague, Cake, Campo, Castellina, Cathedral, Cheese, Church of St. Catherine, Duomo, Exorcisms, Horse Race, Il Fondaccio, Il Magnifico, Italy, Jockey, Marble, Market, Middle Ages, Mosaic, Palio, Pizza, Pope Pius III, Siena, Sky Fall, Tuscany
Day 5 – Siena
Today we explored nearby Siena. A much more touristy town than the others we have visited so far, it was an interesting change of pace. I had forgotten how nice it was to be away from the tourists and worries of pick pocketing. I also get anxious in crowds, and because of the Wednesday market, passing through some alleyways was like pushing your way through a can of sardines. Regardless of the crowd, Katey and I decided to come back to the market during some free time since it looked like there was good deals on clothes. Don’t be tricked! Though all the tags say “Made in Italy,” the inside tag says otherwise.
Siena is an amazing place. As Florence is known for the Renaissance, Siena is known for its Middle Ages. The original walls and buildings still stand, with a wall surrounding the city, and the added on Campo where they hold the bi-annual Palio (July 2 and August 16, in honor of the Madonna). The Palio is the historic horse race they hold in the city center, with a horse representing each neighborhood, or “contrade.” You may recognize a representation of the Palio from the beginning of Sky Fall. We learned there is a lot of bribery in these races—people paid to lose, or work in a way that will help another win. Also, the jockeys ride bareback, and even if the jockey falls off the horse (common on one of the treacherous turns), but his horse wins, then the horse’s neighborhood wins! The jockey who wins rides his horse to the Duomo, where they both enter and thank the Madonna.
With some free time, Katey and I explored the maze of streets, wondered at the lifestyle here, and sat down for some pizza to rest our feet. We people watched for awhile before rejoining the group in Il Campo. Here we were met by another local guide, who walked us to the Public Center, which paired as the waiting area for the horses in the Palio. We then entered the square where our guide told us about the architecture of the area, and how Siena was at the height of its beauty and success just as the black plague hit in 1348, killing 3/5 of their population. A few short years later Florence took over the city.
We continued to the Duomo, which was absolutely stunning, and I think the most beautiful cathedral I have ever been inside. Its façade is decorated with black and white striped marble, it’s floors in marble mosaic placed through the 14th to 16th centuries, which are usually covered, only uncovered for a few months each year. We got lucky.
Looking up was the intricate detail that took centuries to complete. Stars covered the dome ceilings, followed by sculptures of Popes and emperors. Just as we thought we had seen it all, our guide showed us the library, founded by Pope Pius the III. We walked inside and were stunned at the frescoes by Bernardino di Betto that were bright enough to have been painted yesterday. Books from Siena, written by monks, surrounded the lower half of the room, and a Roman imitation of the Greek Three Graces stands in the middle. The whole experience of Siena’s duomo was awe-inspiring, and in my opinion, much more beautiful than the Duomo in Florence. They were of course competing with Florence, and before the plague had plans of expanding the cathedral in an attempt to compare in size.
We stopped at a local bakery, Il Magnifico, on the way to the Church of St. Catherine. Another passionate Italian artisan was so excited to share with us his product that he didn’t even pause for our guide to translate, and had to be reminded that the guide would forget all the detail he was describing! He let us try historic breads that are a favorite of the Sienese, dating back to the Renaissance. The cakes and biscotti were rich with nuts. He also presented a ricotta pie with chocolate chips. Since when did cheese also become a dessert? I’m adapting quickly to this lifestyle.
Our last stop was the Church of St. Catherine. St. Catherine was a local peasant girl who had an incredible vocation. She had many followers, and was also said to have the power to exorcise someone of demons. In fact, our local guide told us that she had performed exorcisms in the exact place we were standing in the church! The church has her head as a relic. She passed away in Rome at the age of 33, like Christ, and experienced the stigmata in death. A friar came to retrieve the body, but could only take a part of her back to Siena. He decided to take her head. It is said that when he was taking her head back, he was stopped by the police, they checked the basket, but when they looked it was full of flowers. When the friar got into Siena, he looked in the basket, and it was again her head. And there her head was, right in front of us, surrounded by ornaments and frescoes in tribute to her greatness. She is now one of the two patron saints of Italy, the second being St. Francis of Assisi.
We departed from Siena for another pizza place in Castellina called Il Fondaccio. Even though Katey and I had Mediterranean pizza for lunch (pizza with only cheese), we had many other flavors with ham, artichoke, capers, sundried tomatoes, and even anchovies. It was all so tasty!