Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Onward and Upward

I’m sure those of you who were following my Italian saga with some interest, at least, gave up hope long ago that I would continue.  This failure to get on with it, to finish a writing project, has long been a problem for me.  I admit to lacking the expertise to explain this phenomenon, unless it is that I am just plain lazy.

At any rate, to “get on with it” at last: I would have to say that Siena is a must-see, if you’re going to Italy.  It is genuinely old, and looks it.  You feel as though you’ve stepped back into a medieval city...and in fact you have.  Following their defeat by the Florentines, backed up by the King of Spain, in 1555, the Sienese were forbidden further commercial development, with the result that the city became something of a backwater, frozen in time.  You walk up and down hills on narrow, brick streets, lined mainly with brown stone buildings, cheek by jowl, generally about four stories high.  Indeed, many of them look like the Palazzo Davanzati, that we visited in Florence.  There was one excellent viewing place where we paused and looked out at a blanket of reddish-brown terra cotta roofs.

Of course we saw churches, two of them.  And  I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re all tired of visiting churches, but that seems to be the main thing tour companies are concerned with showing you.  At least that’s the case with Perillo Tours.   The first, San Dominico, is dedicated to Saint Catherine, the patron saint of Siena (who “took the veil at age 8!”); and as with other churches I saw in Italy, I was not much impressed.  Not only was the interior the usual big, dim, bare, and plain, but the outside was of a dull red brick, looking almost like a fortress, rather than a church.  The most noteworthy thing about it is that is houses the head (!) of the saint, in a gilded marble tabernacle on the altar.  Really, this veneration of saints’ body parts can be taken too far.

We wound our way up hill to the main church of the town, or the Duomo.  Now this is an impressive church.  The exterior is similar to the Basilica di Santa Croce, in Florence, (See Note of Sept. 14, 2013) well worth a picture or two.  But the interior dazzled me.  Striped columns!  The result of alternating black marble with white.   And the floors were gorgeous, with religious scenes or large medallions of inlaid marble the length of the nave, and on the floors of the transept; as well as black and white checked frames around mosaics of the Sibyls (i.e., prophetesses of the ancient world), along the side aisles.  Under the dome -- which is encircled partway up by religious folk carved into little niches – the striping continues above the pillars and arches, which gives the dome area an exotic look, especially with the large gold gilt statues that stand atop a striped pillar in each corner.  And the dome itself, instead of being a swirl of figures depicting scenes from Christ’s life, as in the dome of Florence’s Duomo (if you’ll recall, the most noteworthy thing I saw inside that huge church), is an aqua “sky” full of silver squares framing gold stars.  And way, way up there, an “eye” of gold, beyond which are small windows and a golden sunburst.  An invitation to vertigo, if there ever was one.

Siena Cathedral - Professional Photo
All of this “busy-ness” throughout the church gives a kind of mid-eastern look to the place.  Persian?  Maybe even Egyptian?  Most definitely not your typical Italian church.

Our group squeezed into the exquisite, but very small, Piccolomini Library, off one of the side aisles.  Another stunningly beautiful place.  Vividly painted frescos all over the walls, and the ceiling, and for once you could see them clearly.  The room was very light. We were informed that the paintings – most of which date from 1502-1507 – had never been retouched, or even cleaned; but it looked as though the artists had finished painting them yesterday.  They depict scenes from the life of Pope Pius II, but what I loved about them was 1) the obvious joy of the artist in fully utilizing the concept of perspective and 2) the view they gave you of how people looked and dressed in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

All around the room, on the lower part of the walls beneath the paintings, were opened illustrated manuscripts, with all that elaborate lettering and colorful, carefully executed scenes at the beginning of each page.  The only other books I saw were a few historical books in a display case in the middle of the room (which crowded us even more than might otherwise have been the case).  But for all the lack of books, it’s a humdinger of a library.

I was so impressed with this church I knew I had to get a colored guide book.  The group was on the way out, but I dashed into the little gift shop, sure that someone had seen me go.  It took an unusually long time to buy my book, because there was a woman ahead of me who went on chatting and chatting with the person behind the counter.  But the book was mine at last, and I dashed outside only to find…no group.  I looked and looked, first from the height of the steps leading up to the church, then up close and personal as I wandered through the crowds in the piazza, searching for a familiar face.  And the worst thing was, I couldn’t hear anything on my little headset.  Oh, my goodness, they’d gone and left me!

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