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…

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