In the afternoon of our second day in Italy we drove to Siena. I was not adequately prepared for the sights I would see there.
Siena and Florence were rivals politically and economically in medieval times, both being major trade centers and military powers. The Black Death of 1348, which reduced Siena’s population by a third, and being conquered by Florence with the help of Philip II’s Spanish army in the 1550s, brought an end to the rivalry. Siena never recovered. Today Siena rivals Florence for the tourist trade.
We had only one afternoon and evening to see Siena’s sights. We began with San Domenico church which contains a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, the patron saint. I was not prepared for the chilling artifacts on display in this church, and found them to be shocking. A chapel was built in 1460 to store St. Catherine’s preserved head where it is now displayed in a gilded marble tabernacle on the altar. At first, and from a distance, I thought I was looking at a reproduction or statue of St. Catherine. Upon closer investigation it became apparent that it was in fact her real head, or at least someone’s real head. I don’t mean to bring down the wrath of God or belittle some folks’ ideas of the sacred, but I personally found it disconcerting that St. Catherine’s corpse had been abused in this way. The church also displayed a small glass case containing her thumb, and a reliquary that holds the chain she used to scourge herself. May she rest in peace.
These artifacts went a long way towards establishing, in my mind, not only the age of the buildings and the city, but the mindset of the society who trod the same walkways roughly six centuries ago .
I was no better prepared for the opulence and extravagance of Siena’s Duomo, than I was for the chilling artifacts of San Domenico. This is one elaborate, decorative structure that was in part born from the rivalry between Florence and Siena. The variety of color in the stones alone is a sight to behold. No photo can possibly do this justice.
When Florence began it’s cathedral in 1296, Sienna planned to build a bigger and better one which went under construction in the 1330s, or a mere eighteen years before the Black Death struck. After the first part was completed, the Sienese planned to build a new nave to make the cathedral the largest in Christendom. Siena’s vision for the cathedral was grand, but the planners underestimated the complexity of constructing such a monstrosity without enough land in hilly Siena for it to sit upon . The city abandoned the project. The planned and partially constructed addition remains as a skeleton structure.
The interior of Siena’s Duomo is equal to the spectacular exterior. Black and white stone columns stretch to a domed ceiling.
The massive and ornate pulpit designed by Nicola Pisano and elaborately carved from wood, rests on the backs of carved lions, symbols of Christianity triumphant.
For almost two centuries, 40 artists used marble to recreate scenes, including some from the Bible, covering the floor of the Duomo. The Slaughter of the Innocents is believed to be the work of Matteo di Giovanni. These scenes are so stunning in their rich color and painstaking detail that it is difficult to imagine ever walking on them.
You don’t want to miss the Piccolomini Library inside the Duomo, where vivid, never-restored frescoes covering the walls tell the story of Aenes Piccolomini who became Pope Pius II. The library also contains decorated, illuminated music scores and a statue of the Three Graces. The church contains sculptures by Bernini, Donatello and Michelangelo. It is a challenge, if not impossible, to take in this feast of artwork by the some of world’s greatest creators.
Outside the Duomo, you can climb stairs to the top of the unfinished nave for tremendous views of Siena. The towered building is the Palazzo Pubblico which serves as the town hall. It’s tower is Italy’s tallest secular tower.
We ended the day with a delicious dinner at a Trattorio on the Piazza del Campo. I had either gnocchi or ravioli, two of my favorites. We did not want for a good meal in Tuscany, where I enjoyed some of the most delicious food in my life. After that it was just finding our way out of the maze of streets in Siena, hoofing it back to our car, driving the 25 miles to our home-away-from-home in San Gimignano and collapsing onto our beds.
Photos by Christine M. Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote
See more links to posts about Italy on my “Places I’ve Been” page.
DK Eyewitness travel — Florence & Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2007
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides, Top 10 Tuscany, DK Publishing, NY, 2005
Frommer’s Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, 6th ed., by John Moretti, Wiley Publishing,NJ, 2008
Rick Steves’ Florence & Tuscany 2009