• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Mysteries of Siena

Renaissance Siena: Art for a City

an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, October 24, 2007–January 13, 2008
Catalog of the exhibition by Luke Syson, Alessandro Angelini, Philippa Jackson, Fabrizio Nevola, and Carol Plazzotta, with contributions from Hugo Chapman, Simona di Nepi, Gabriele Fattorini, Xavier F. Salomon, and Jennifer Sliwka. London: National Gallery, 372 pp., $65.00 (distributed in the US by Yale University Press)

Although it ranks as a World Heritage site, the Tuscan city of Siena retains an air of obstinate mystery. Unlike its near neighbor and inveterate rival Florence, the city is shaped by the land, from the curves of the three hills on which it sits to the strange volcanic pinnacles and underground springs that mark its territory. The most profound mystery enveloping Siena, then, is the very mystery of our human relation to nature. No countryside seems more harmonious, and more natural, than the rounded slopes that roll outward from the city’s shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, and yet the very gentleness of those slopes gives away the fact that this is one of the most worked-over landscapes in the world.

Long familiarity has brought human and natural rhythms into so complete a balance that sometimes the trees truly do seem, like the trees of the Psalms, to clap their hands in exultation. Yet among these forests of exultant trees there are stretches of terrain where bare chalk crags rear up as sere as a hermit’s roost. A band of local monks built one of their most beautiful monasteries in the midst of one craggy Sienese chalk bed and called it the Mount of Olives, Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The grapes fortunate enough to grow in the region’s chalky soil produce red wines of rare quality, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (all created by methods going back to the Etruscans). The same terrain hosts underground deposits of alum, natural gas, and alabaster, as well as artesian springs gushing forth hot and cold, the remnants of ancient volcanoes.

Looking south from Siena’s city hall, the Palazzo Pubblico, it is never clear even today what or who may suddenly heave into sight: across this same valley (itself now a World Heritage site) have moved the Etruscan warlord Lars Porsenna, swarming forth from his stronghold of Chiusi in 510 BC, and the traitor Lucius Sergius Catilina, fleeing for his life after a failed attempt to assassinate Cicero in 63 BC. In the thirteenth century, it was the bandit Ghino di Tacco, perched on his volcanic pinnacle at nearby Radicofani, gouging travelers like a rural policeman poised at a speed trap. In 1503, it was Cesare Borgia coming north from Rome, threatening the Sienese with total destruction if they failed to run out of town the city’s ruler, Pandolfo Petrucci (he went, but only briefly, and handily outlived Cesare Borgia). Galileo spent the first six months of his condemnation to life imprisonment for heresy far from Siena in the wayside stop of San Quirico d’Orcia in 1633, but his conditions were considered too luxurious—not without reason—and the sentence was commuted in 1634 to house arrest outside Florence. In the nineteenth century, on the same road and the same slopes of Monte Amiata, the self-proclaimed messiah Davide Lazzaretti of Arcidosso called down destruction on sinners until the carabinieri called down destruction on him.

Down this same corridor, the first Etruscans may have wandered from Asia Minor, walking at the placid pace of their droves of longhorn cattle. Later, gangs of Roman slaves marched in clanking leg irons and Roman veterans marched in their bronze armor, followed centuries later by Lombards in barbarian splendor, then by Christian pilgrims to Rome, and, millennia later, by convoys of Nazis moving northward in their jeeps, pursued by the Allies. Before the days of the auto designer Enzo Ferrari and the champion driver Tazio Nuvolari, speed meant the swift horses of the sixteenth century’s most famous banker, the Sienese Agostino Chigi, whose traveling companions included Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli, and two popes, the papa terribile Julius II and the “timid rabbit” Leo X, all making their way up and down this same breathtaking road to Siena.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Sienese men were widely thought to be insane, just as Sienese women were known to be the most beautiful in Italy. The men were certainly eccentric. Even a figure as sober as the Sienese Pope Pius II salved his arthritis with a poultice of boiled weasel, dotted with bits of ostrich meat. And when a Renaissance painter from practical Piedmont, Giovanni Bazzi, reached Siena, he began to dress in colored silks, keep a zoo, and engage in the behavior that earned him the nickname Sodoma. His talents would earn him honorary citizenship in Siena, a good marriage, and the status of landowner.

Another sixteenth-century Sienese went off to Alexandria, Egypt, to seek his fortune, and in time converted to Islam. Thirty years overlooking the Mediterranean only made him long for home; sadly, the two young men who escorted him back to Siena decided to kill him and rob him of his earnings before he could tell his life story to the city’s official chronicler, a red-haired priest, historian, and gossip extraordinary whose real name was Sigismondo Ticci, but who is known today as Sigismondo Tizio—the Italian word for “guy.” Sigismondo hoped to write three histories in all: a history of Church councils, a Historia Barbarica, and a history of Siena from its foundation by the Etruscans to his own time. He died in 1528 at the age of seventy, still writing. Of these three projects, only the history of Siena survives, all five thousand pages of it, preserved in the Vatican Library thanks to the efforts of a Sienese Pope, Alexander VII Chigi.

The beauty of Sienese women has been commemorated in literature and art, not to mention Sigismondo’s chronicle—he took holy orders after a disastrous love affair. Paintings and sculpture celebrate a distinctive physical type: women with long almond eyes and luminous complexions, many of them with hair dyed an improbable blond (in the days before hydrogen peroxide, they bleached their hair by spreading it over the broad brims of specially designed crownless straw hats, squirting their tresses with lemon juice, and sitting out in the sun, thus exposing their hair, but not their fair skin, to its rays). Those same almond eyes and the same tinted hair show up already in Etruscan temples and tombs. So do elaborate dresses, refined dances, and dazzlingly stylish shoes. The sinuous lines of Sienese women and their dances echo the graceful curves of the landscape, and the gently curving streets of a city laid out to follow the crests of hills.

And yet this landscape, apparently millennial, is constantly changing. What we see today of the countryside is drastically deforested, some surprisingly recently. Sigismondo Tizio describes the city’s sale of a forested area in 1508 and carefully notes the area’s subsequent clearing, erosion, and crop failure. During the past thirty years, changes in farm machinery have changed the shape of the hay bales that dot the fields: in the 1970s these were small box-shaped bundles, bound with wire; now they are huge rolls bound by plastic ropes or swathed in plastic sheeting. Changing agricultural machinery has also changed the shapes of furrows and the lives of farmers; the abolition of sharecropping and the drive toward universal literacy have done the rest.

The people who work the Sienese countryside have never been so prosperous, because they are no longer turning over half of what they produce to the local feudal baron, and they are able to produce much more with their own tractors than they ever could with spade and hoe. They are no longer contadini, peasants, but sophisticated farmers using some of the same methods as their German, American, and Canadian counterparts; the word used of them now, agricoltori, reflects this basic change in the nature of their work.

The agricoltori of rural Siena no longer slaughter a single pig at Christmas, but dine on prosciutto, sausage, and the liver dish called fegatelli all year round. Neither do peasant families separate for months in the ancient ritual of transhumance, when men and boys would spend much of the year following great herds of sheep across the Italian peninsula, leaving their wives, daughters, and youngest sons behind. Transhumance thirty years ago was already delegated to Sardinians (a few of whom rounded out their incomes by kidnapping for ransom); now the shepherds are more likely to come from the Balkans—Albania or Macedonia.

Siena is also famous today for an ongoing Renaissance pageant with solid Etruscan roots, the twice-yearly race called the Palio, named after its prize: a banner in honor of the Virgin Mary, Siena’s most important patron saint. There is no question, however, when the Palio makes its appearance, in a cart driven by white long-horned oxen, that the ritual must go back at the very latest to the Iron Age, when Uni, the Etruscan Juno, was the ox-eyed, white-armed queen of heaven. After a two-hour parade of dignitaries and flag-twirlers, ten horses race three times around the Piazza del Campo, padded with earth carried in from each of the city’s seventeen districts, or contrade. The shell-shaped space itself is stuffed with some 70,000 Sienese and visitors; the three-minute race is supremely exciting, with its jockeys riding bareback, each armed with a whip made of a desiccated bull’s penis. A horse that comes in without a jockey can still win.

But attitudes toward the Palio are changing. Too many horses have broken their ankles in pounding around the tight track, especially fine-boned thoroughbreds. Protests became still more insistent when, two years ago, a splendid thoroughbred named Amoroso brained himself on a travertine stanchion along the course and died on the spot (previously, injured horses were discreetly moved to side streets and then put down). In recent years, the race has been deliberately slowed and the racehorses selected from sturdier breeds, but if ultimately the Palio, too, should change its seemingly timeless choreography, it will hardly be for the first time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, horse races used to be run outside the city, on the flat terrain known as La Lizza or outside Siena’s northern gate, the Porta Camollìa; these seem to have been racetracks in Etruscan times as well.

Another Renaissance holdover is the Monte dei Paschi, once Siena’s city-run pawnshop and now the oldest continuously functioning bank in the world. Founded in 1472, the Monte dei Paschi stands as a reminder that Siena has been a banking town at least since the Middle Ages; it testifies to the cleverness of people whose city has no notable natural resources, and, unlike most Italian cities, no good access to water. Instead, Siena stands as a tribute to human ingenuity, one of the only places in the world where a space designed by committee, the Piazza del Campo, has proven one of the triumphant successes of architecture.

Today Siena has enjoyed a resurgence of prosperity, thanks in large measure to the Monte dei Paschi and two first-rate universities, the University of Siena, founded in the Middle Ages, and the much more recent University for Foreigners. The Monte dei Paschi, for example, helped sponsor a spectacular show of Sienese art recently mounted at the National Gallery in London, but it also stands behind many of the new publications that have emerged in recent years on various aspects of civic life. The city’s extensive archives, meticulously kept in a fifteenth-century palazzo, go back well into the Middle Ages, and then there are the eclectic pages of Sigismondo Tizio’s chronicle to fill in the details. Although the Sienese are famous for their closed society, they are anything but inhospitable. An inscription on the city’s northern gate declares COR MAGIS TIBI SENA PANDIT—“Siena opens its heart wide to you”—and it is true. Siena does open its heart. It is impossible not to respond in kind.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print