Wednesday, April 25, 2007

March 2007 - Siena, Italy - Florence's Arch Rival

We took a daytrip from Florence to Siena, the medieval city of brick. From a vantage point such as the Palazzo Pubblico's Torre del Mangia, it's a sea of orange roof tiles and a maze of steep, twisting stone alleys. This city houses dozens of Gothic palaces and pastry shops galore, unseen neighborhood rivalries, and altarpieces of unsurpassed beauty. The Sienese are very proud of their past and of their rivalry with Florence which dates back to the 12th century. It is because of this rivalry that Siena is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy. Siena was so busy defending its liberty against Florence and, in particular, Cosimo I de Medici, it had little time or energy to develop as a city. As a result, it has remained one of the largest Tuscan cities to retain a distinctively medieval air. We loved the look of the Palazzo Pubblico's orange and white Torre against the bright blue sky.
At the entrance to the Palazzo Pubblico is the white marble Chapel of the Virgin, or Chapel of the Square, constructed and voted for by the Sienese, after the end of the terrible plague of 1348. And surrounding the chapel are the elegant fa├žades of the Palazzi Signorili, belonging to the wealthiest of families: the Sansedoni, the Piccolomini, and the Saracini.Behind us is Il Campo, Siena's main square, famous for it's half moon shape and for the Palio. A death defying horse race that takes place around the perimeter of Il Campo every July. The Palio is a competition among the different neighborhoods that make-up Siena. For this reason, the jockeys are chosen by neighborhood leaders (based on family name, neighborhood of birth and riding talent). The jockeys each representing their neighborhood come out and attempt to win bragging rights for a year for themselves and their neighbors. The Sienese all come out to Il Campo waiving their respective neighborhoods' flags (these flags were designed during the Middle Ages to distinguish the rivaling pockets of Siena).
We stepped into the medieval courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico which houses Siena's government as well as a museum of Siena's history dating back to Etruscan times.
At the opposite end of Il Campo is the white marble Fonte Gaia which stands out on the red brick paving. The Fonte is the masterpiece of Jacopo della Quercia built in 1419 (a copy sits in place of the original).

We had a wonderfully creative Tuscan lunch at Le Campane. We were excited to be able to enjoy the best of Siena's cuisine at lunch time and we were thrilled to get away from the tourists.
After lunch, we took a walk through Siena's winding streets and we came upon . . .

the world's first bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

We also came upon amazingly preserved medieval churches all built in a striking Siena-colored brick.

The Duomo's baptistery was built in the 14th century beneath the cathedral's choir and supports a Gothic facade left unfinished by Domenico di Agostino (1355). The upper walls and vaulted ceilings inside were frescoed by Vecchietta and his school in the late 1440s.

The main attraction inside the Baptistery is the baptismal font (1417-30). The frames are basically Gothic, but the gilded brass panels were cast by the foremost Sienese and Florentine sculptors of the early Renaissance. Starting on the side facing the altar, Siena's master Jacopo della Quercia did the Annunciation to Zacharias. Giovanni di Turino did the next two, the Birth of the Baptist and the Preaching of the Baptist. The Baptism of Christ is by the author of the Baptistery doors in Florence, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who collaborated with Giuliano di Ser Andrea on the Arrest of St. John. The final panel is perhaps the greatest, Donatello's masterful early study of precise perspective and profound depth in the Feast of Herod.

We went from the Baptistery to the Duomo. We both agree that this is the prettiest church we have toured in Italy. Although much smaller than St. Peter's, it is equally magnificent and filled with wonderful paintings, mosaics, sculpture and stained glass.

The black and white striped columns of the nave give the sensation of being in a fun house not in a church.

We were very fortunate to arrive during the one month that the floor mosaics are uncovered. These medieval mosaics were intended to show off Siena not the church hence many of them contain Roman and zodiac symbols. This one in particular displays the Roman she-wolf which became the symbol of Siena during Roman rule over this province.The Duomo also contains stained glass windows which add yet more color to this dramatically colorful and uncharacteristically bright gothic church.

The stained-glass round window in the choir was made in 1288 to the designs of Duccio is the most famous piece of stained glass in Siena and maybe in Italy. It is one of the earliest remaining examples of Italian stained glass. The round stained-glass window in the facade dates from 1549 and represents the Last Supper. It is the craftmanship of Pastorino de’ Pastorini.

Nicola Pisano's masterpiece pulpit (1265-68), on which he was assisted by his son, Giovanni, and Arnolfo di Cambio. The elegantly Gothic panels depict, as do the Pisanos' other great pulpits in Pisa and Pistoia, the life of Christ in crowded, detailed turmoil, divided by figures in flowing robes. The columns are supported on the backs of lions with their prey and cubs, and the base of the central column is a seated congregation of philosophers and figures representing the liberal arts.

Very small yet very significant is the octagonal Cappella Chigi designed by Roman baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1659. It houses the Madonna del Voto, a fragmentary late-13th-century painting by a follower of Guido da Siena. The work fulfilled a vow the Sienese made on the eve of the Montaperti battle that they would devote their city to the Madonna should they win the fight against Florence (they did). Five times since, in times of dire need, the Sienese have placed the keys to the city in front of the miraculous Madonna and prayed for deliverance, most recently in June 1944 during Nazi occupation. Two weeks later, the city was liberated. The St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene statues shown below are also by Bernini, who did the organ outside the chapel as well.

This is the ceiling of the Libreria Piccolomini - by far the most amazing room we have ever been in.

Umbrian master Pinturicchio is the star in the Libreria Piccolomini, built in 1485 by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III -- for all of 18 days before he died in office) to house the library of his famous uncle, Pope Pius II. The marble entrance was carved by Marrina in 1497, above which Pinturicchio was commissioned to paint a large fresco of the Coronation of Pius III (1504). In the center of the room is a Roman copy of the Greek Praxiteles' Three Graces, which Pinturicchio, Raphael, and Canova studied as a model. Pinturicchio and assistants covered the ceiling and walls with 10 giant frescoes (1507) displaying Pinturicchio's rich colors, delicate modeling, limpid light, and fascination with mathematically precise, but somewhat cold, architectural space. The frescoes celebrate the life of Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, better known as the humanist Pope Pius II. The next-to-last scene on the left wall records the act Siena most remembers the pope for, canonizing local girl Catherine as a saint in 1461.

In the center of the Libreria is a Roman statute of the 3 Graces.
After touring the Duomo, we headed to the top of its museum for a Panoramic view of Siena. There is the Palazzo Pubblico's tower with the orange colored city and green hills in the background.
This is the tower and the dome of the Duomo behind us.Our favorite aspect of the panorama is the shades of green of the countryside dotted with colorful villas and churches in the distance.
From this side of the museum's tower we can see into Il Campo and appreciate its half-moon shape and colorful pavers.We found that Siena's old world charm and gothic architecture are beautifully captured in sepia. Here is a photo we feel really shows off Siena as a picturesque Tuscan hill town.

While, Florence clearly won the power struggle and became the capital of Tuscany, Siena succeeded at preserving itself as a beautiful, quaint, Tuscan hill town that transports you back to the Middle Ages.

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