Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Tuscany in the off-season

Arezzo and the neighborhood in February and early March, 2015


You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Arezzo was at the top of our list when we based ourselves in Lucca a few months ago, but we never made it this far south. So here we are now, based in Arezzo this time, with lots to see roundabout.

Siena: scenes of the Cathedral and the Campo (I)

Rain in the Piazza Grande, Arezzo. We're on our way to see Siena, an hour's drive to the west, 2 March 2015.

It turns out that Siena is vertical, so here we go.

Up, and more up. Siena began life as a characteristic Etruscan hill fort, and here's the hill!

Level ground at last. With a population of not much more than 50,000 (about the same as it was before the Black Death of 1348 set things back a lot), Siena's historic centre was accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage cultural property in 1995, and it's said to have been the first European city to banish automobiles from the Centro Storico, in 1966.

The Romans founded a town on the site, Colonia Saena Julia, in Augustan times, but, isolated from the main imperial military roads, it didn't amount to much until the Lombards arrived in the late 6th century. With the malarial swampification of the Via Aurelia along the coast and the susceptibility of the other Roman roads to Byzantine raiding, the Lombards developed a better connection, through Siena, between their homeland cities in Lombardy (of course) and their duchies in the south.

We've come up to the Piazza Matteotii (behind us) and, without a city plan, we're striking off full of hope that we've guessed the right way to the Good Stuff.

The Palazzo Salimbeni, and the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank, founded in 1472, which helped bring financial prosperity to the city and is still a local employment powerhouse. Here, in their 14th century original headquarters, they had an afternoon exhibition of fabulous paintings from their collection, but on our way back we filed into the lobby seconds after closing and were generously given 45 seconds to dash around it.

Especially following Charlemagne's advent on the northern Italian scene in 774, the growth of Rome's pilgrimage traffic along what was becoming the Via Francigena pilgrim route from all over northern Europe brought welcome new business opportunities.

As in many northern Italian city-states, when the 12th century brought in an era of republican, oligarchic, more or less independent governments, Siena threw off its bishop's stranglehold in 1167 and was confirmed in its right to a republican administration by the Emperor Frederick I in 1186. A century later, this had led to the "Noveschi" government, comprising the Nine (and later more) richest families, which may not have been terribly democratic but saw the city through its golden age. [cf. W M Bowsky, 'The anatomy of rebellion in 14th-century Siena: from commune to signory', Violence and civil disorder in Italian cities, 1200-1500 (California UP, 1972)]

Along the Via di Città

School's out for lunch, and gaggles of exuberant youngsters are streaming through the city.

Prospering, and making an enviable reputation for itself as an artistic and architectural cynosure, through the 13th and early 14th centuries Siena was at the top of its game. In 1260, outnumbered Ghibelline Siena even defeated her chief rival, the Guelph flag-waving powerhouse of Florence, at the Battle of Montaperti, chiefly (it's said) because they dedicated the city to the Virgin Mary just before the battle began, and it worked so well that they tried again in 1944 to protect themselves from our Allied bombers.

Siena suffered horribly in the Black Death of 1348 and subsequent plagues, and the ensuing political chaos in city government finally induced the governors to invite Gian Galeazzo Visconti to come on down from Milan and help them to keep the Florentines from the door.

A glance down at the Piazza del Campo from the Via di Città above -- we'll be back; the Duomo comes first.

The oligarchs returned, subsequently, and evolved into a signori rule under the Petrucci family from the late 15th century to 1525, when various unfortunate incidents put the city under the control of the Spanish until 1552, then the French, then the Spanish again (after a two-year siege in 1555), who formally ended the Republic but shortly afterward sold the city to the Grand Duke of Tuscany (i.e., Florence). Siena thereafter marched through history with the Grand Duchy until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.

The Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, the 12th century home of a leading Sienese family, now since 1932 the home of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana.

The Chigiana courtyard -- an elegant venue for trying to learn to play the violin

It's Duomo time, and we're thoughtfully proceeded by a police car.

We're passing through a sort of gate

The Piazza Jacopo della Quercia, with the belltower and dome in front and some very strange architecture all around. (Bernini designed the lantern structure on the dome.)

Looking back, our gate, on the right, turns out to be part of what was originally planned to be the east wall of the largest basilica in the world, but the Black Death intervened and everybody lost confidence in the project, and only the east wall remains.

The Piazza del Duomo, looking at the National Archaeological Museum of Siena

The belltower, with six bells, the oldest of which dates from 1149

At the highest point in Siena, there was probably a religious structure here since forever, but the present building was begun in about 1196 and consecrated in about 1215, with work continuing through the 1260s. In 1339 work was begun that would have doubled the size of the place, but never got past that lonely eastern wall.

A side view of the glorious façade

The backstory: Way back in the day, two fellows, the brothers Senius and Aschius (the sons of Remus, whose brother Romulus, with whom he'd been saved and suckled by a wolf in their earliest days, murdered Remus as they were arguing about founding the city of Rome) arrived here in flight and straightaway founded Siena. Happily, they'd thought to take with them the statue of Romulus and their dad Remus and the benevolent wolf which they'd stolen off the Temple of Apollo in Rome. And here it is.

The glorious Romanesque (lower) and Gothic (upper) façade was completed in 1380, facing southwest instead of east, as normally expected, because this was originally intended to be the transept and had to be prettied up at the last moment.

Kristin at the Gates. The common Tuscan design of alternating green and black marble stripes has been joined here by a lot of red marble as well, to designs by Nicola Pisano's son Giovanni, who directed the work from 1284 to 1296.

The original front door was wooden and presumably aging badly, so this impressive bronze door was made in 1946, showing scenes of the glorification of the Virgin.

Very impressive. The Duomo di Siena is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, or Our Lady of the Assumption. That's the coronation of the Virgin up in the central gable, late 19th century.

I'm not able to stop taking photos of the façade and . . .

. . . Kristin's probably getting impatient.

Interesting sculptures on the façade mostly by Giovanni Pisano and friends, but these are mostly replicas; the originals can be found in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo near where we came in.

The nave with two aisles, and down all three an incredible series of mosaics, developed through the 14th to 16th centuries, more than 50 panels in all.

The 'Wheel of Fortune' is said to have been the first of them, laid in 1372, and . . .

. . . the 'She-Wolf of Siena', with due mention and emblems of other nearby cities (like Lucca, Pisa, Viterbo, Orvieto, Florence) is said to date from 1373.

Hermes Trismegistus

Evidently we're lucky (or blessed) in our visit, because according to Wikipedia most of these are covered for most of the year, and only a few can be seen.

The round stained glass window in the choir (trust me, that's really stained glass and not a huge flashlight), called the oculus, was designed by Duccio, Siena's first of a long line of celebrity painters, in 1288.

Perhaps the most interesting mosaics are part of a series of ten panels representing the Sibyls, the oracular prophetesses from ancient lore, executed by various masters in 1481-83. This is the Hellespontine Sibyl, by the then-locally well known Neroccio.

Probably the most famous of the Sibyls, besides the one at Delphi, is the Cumaean Sibyl from Naples, with whom Aeneas conversed before visiting hell, and who may or may not have predicted the coming of Christ (or the Emperor Augustus] -- cf. Virgil's Eclogue 4. (This is by Vito di Marco. Who?)

Another Sibyl

The presbytery and choir, with 16th century frescoes about Saints, Paradise, etc.

Frescoes in the chapel by Ventura di Archangelo Salimbeni, ca. 1610

The hexagonal dome with Bernini's lantern representing the sun, and lots of stars added later.

The Madonna del Voto Chapel, or Chigi Chapel, from the mid-17th century

Bernini made sculptures of St Jerome and Mary Magdalene for the chapel, not shown here, but these are figures of St Bernardino from 1662 and St Catherine of Siena, from the same year.

Another dome chapel in the transept

Part of the mosaic of the Slaughter of the Innocents, 1481, in the transept

The Crucifixion Altar on the monument to Pope Pius III in the left transept; the monument and foreground sculptures of mourners date from the early 18th century, the crucifixion itself from the mid-14th.

A little baptismal font

St John the Baptist by Donatello, 1457, in the chapel of the same name, built to house the right arm of St John the Baptist, generously donated to the cathedral by Pope Pius II in 1464. It was presented to him by the Despot of Morea in the Peloponnese for his aid to mounting a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks, which in the end did not take place.

A statue of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (a.k.a. Pope Pius II, r.1458-64), the Holy Roman Emperor's poet laureate, erotic novelist, scholar and diplomat, later Bishop of Siena, eventually pope and would-be Crusader against the Turks, which finished him off.

The Piccolomini Altar, by Andrea Bregno in 1483. The four sculptures in the side niches are supposedly by Michaelangelo as a wee lad.

The entrance to the Piccolomini Library, with the Piccolomini Altar on the left.

The Piccolomini Library is a fantastic collection of ten frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Aeneas Sylvius, Pope Pius II, painted by Pinturicchio in the years 1502-1508. The library and the frescoes were commissioned by Francesco Todeschini (later also Piccolomini), the pope's nephew, whom the pope elevated to the rank of Cardinal in the church when he was only 21 and who later was elected pope himself, in 1503, as Pope Pius III. In the lower right is a display of psalters from the cathedral's sacristy.

A few shaky vacation-snaps will give a flavor of what's on offer here.

In the centre, Aeneas Sylvius during his diplomatic mission in 1435 to the court of James I of Scotland

In the centre, the Emperor Frederick III crowning Aeneas Silvius with a poet's laurel wreath in 1442.

In the centre, Aeneas Sylvius as Pope Pius II at the Congress of Mantova, which he summoned in 1459 in hopes of inspiring a new Crusade against the Turks

In the centre, Pope Pius II canonizing Catherine of Siena in 1461

A 15th century psalter

The ceiling decorations

We're still wandering around in the Duomo di Siena and haven't even seen the Pulpit yet, or the Baptistry down in the basement, and then we've still got the Piazza. More Siena here.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 18 April 2015.


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