Monday, November 2, 2015


We arrived in Siena about 10:00 in the morning on a day trip to see this fabulous city. As so often happens when one only gives one day to visit any place of consequence, mostly what you learn is what you need to do next time. Then you hope there is a next time. We had hoped to have time to see the Duomo and Il Campo, the main city square with a little time left over to wander the streets. What we managed to do was visit the Duomo and its museum and take a cursory look at Il Campo. We did do some wandering because, like most Italian cities, you can’t park close to the city center unless you are a resident. While this is a good thing for pedestrians, it also means that no matter what you want to do, you will spend time walking the streets discovering things you did not expect.

Can you see the snail?
Here it is

We found a parking garage near Porta San Marco, one of the several remaining city gates. As we walked towards the Duomo, one of our first views looked like a church façade with a mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus on the façade. It turned out to be the headquarters of the Snails, one of the 17 contrada (neighborhoods) that make up the town. Somewhat like boroughs in major American cities, these contrada also compete fiercely in the Palio, a spectacular horse race around Il Campo twice each year. Only ten horses race each time, so this allows all the contrada to have an opportunity to race each year. One of the stores had a video of the race. Riding bareback, the jockeys do literally risk their lives to win this race around the short track on dirt brought in just for the occasion. To prepare the horses, they are brought into the contrada church where they are blessed while the residents hope to see it defecate as that means good luck.

St. Niccolo al Carmine
The panther Contrade
We did see the Church of St. Niccolo al Carmine a few steps later followed by the headquarters of the Panther contrada. Then it was on to the Duomo in all of its glory. Begun in 1215, the front is of the Romanesque style with its round arches. These were superseded by the upper story’s pointed Gothic arches added one century later. These massive buildings often took more than 100 years to build giving later architects the opportunity to change plans from the original. As massive as this church is, at one time the Sienese planned to make it even larger actually turning the present church into one of transepts of the new cathedral. Designed to outdo Florence’s Duomo begun in 1296, Seina began construction in 1335. After building one wall, the project was abandoned with the onset of the Black Plague and its concomitant recession. Today, we can get an idea of the intended size and even climb to the top of the wall for a great view of the existing cathedral, Il Campo, and the countryside surrounding the city.
A reminder to have fun in front of the Duomo
This is the wall of the unfinished addition. We did climb to the top.
Inside the cathedral, we were treated to a climb up to the dome level of the church where we were led on a walk around the inside and outside of the church providing some amazing views of the interior and exterior from a close perspective. 

While the art inside includes pieces by Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini, I was most interested in the scenes created by 40 different artists to pave the sanctuary floor. Today, these are roped off and we were told they are covered for most of the year to protect them. 

John the Baptist by Donatello
For me the other great room was the Piccolomini Library brilliantly frescoed painted by Pinturicchio to celebrate the life of Sienese native Aeneas Piccolomini who became Pope Pius III. Because there is so much natural light in this room, the frescoes never accumulated the candle soot that sullied so many frescoes in other settings. Therefore, these frescoes have never needed restoration and are as vibrant as they were when they were created 550 years ago.

There are busts of 172 popes lining the ledges on either side of the sanctuary.   We don’t know who did them, but whoever it was only used four faces.  So every fifth bust repeats the first face. Not exactly an accurate portrayal of the popes.

We see some very interesting Baby Jesus in the many Madonna and Child portraits. Here the only one where he is feeding and one where he looks like an old man already balding.

The real rose window from the Duomo. The one in the church is a copy.
After spending a couple of hours in this building and the Duomo Museum next door, we had enough time to walk down the hill to Il Campo where we took a quick look around at the people lounging on the pavement and examined the Fountain of Joy erected to celebrate the free distribution of water to all. There is so much more to see here, we will plan to spend a few nights in Siena on our next trip. 

A view of the square, Il Campo
The fountain
Treating Il Campo like a day at the beach
Who would have expected to see an Oregon Duck poster in Siena?

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