Today’s adventures will take us to Siena, a city I have not seen for thirty years (!), having previously visited aged three. After taking our sweet, sweet time getting ready in the morning, which includes the now ritual trip to the bakery (I have a most glorious chocolate-ganache-filled choux thing), we set off in my parents’ car which is decidedly doing some overtime this week. On the way stands the amply frescoed abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, and the parentals laud it so much from having seen photos of it, that we take a detour.
The road itself is a beauty, we are cresting beautiful hills crowned with alleys of cypress trees, in between which rolling countryside extends in all directions, covered in all manners of hues and shades of green, like a solidified green sea. We reach the abbey already feeling kind of contemplative and serene from its magnificent surroundings. The building is enormous, a massive complex of red bricks on its own lush wooded hilltop. It’s still currently used as a benedictine monastery and we can see monks going about their business – from their white robes, they’re Olivetans, and I’m just reading that theirs is a practice more of spirituality than of strict organised religion, and that they try to make the world “a more compassionate place of child-like wonderment inviting peace and joy”, which sounds pretty nice to me.
Crossing a bona fide drawbridge over a moat (you gotta protect thy child-like wonderment dwellings), we descend between a alley of venerable cypresses towards the church itself where we learn that we have fifteen minutes to look at it before it closes. So we kind of march on to the main attraction, the Great Cloister, a covered gallery around a square courtyard entirely decorated by fifteenth century frescoes by Signorelli and Il Sodoma illustrating the life of Saint Benedict. Now, that may sound really boring, but High Renaissance art is the bomb, and the frescoes don’t disappoint: they’re full of life and cool details, and even Heather is having a fine time studying them.
From the depictions of men in tights (those leggings would make many a roller derby player jealous) in particularly camp postures, I can see why the painter had the nickname “Il Sodoma” – the Sodomite for being a homosexual. It seems that he wore the name with pride, and is to this day known by it rather than his real name which was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi. Reading his biography on Wikipedia tells me that “he dressed gaudily, like a mountebank, and his house was a Noah’s ark, owing to the strange miscellany of animals he kept there. He was a cracker of jokes, fond of music, and he sang poems composed by himself on indecorous subjects”, and that my friends, renders him eminently interesting and cool to me. By the way, if like me you didn’t know what a mountebank is, it is a “a boastful unscrupulous pretender” – so maybe those fancy leggings had something to do with that, who knows. Also, the guy painted a portrait of himself with badgers within the life of Saint Benedict – he’s therefore officially a legend in my eyes.
Having thoroughly enjoyed looking at the frescoes, we’re ushered out by a white-robed monk with a bell before I can have a look at the actual church or the library (nooo!) where Hev tells me she saw amazing marquetry (that’s pictures made with inlaid wood). We make our way back up to the drawbridge, but just as we reach the gate, we notice that there is a small restaurant with a shaded terrace that looks very attractive – it is lovely, and we enjoy great big sampler plates with pasta, cold meats, cheeses and all manners of vegetables. Meanwhile the baby is sat like an actual grown up child in a highchair, which unfortunately means that when she suffers a large bowel movement, we do not hear it nor feel it (sorry, I know, that’s gross), and there’s a fun clean up operation in store for me and for my mum on a bench outside the gates of the abbey, with Eliza unashamedly flashing her lady bits at a statue of St Benedict. All decked out in a new and clean outfit, it’s time for her to go back into the car seat and onward to Siena.
We approach Siena’s imposing city walls and enter through a succession of arched gates, it’s all very atmospheric. Inside the city walls we’re progressing between large buildings all decked out in metal brackets and rings, which used to be for torches and flags and to tie your horse to. This little detail really gives the city a feel of the past. We are heading for the main piazza, which is famous for hosting the palio, a bonkers horse race where competitors from the city’s different districts go round and round the square at breakneck speed. Of course, the palio isn’t taking place today, which is lucky as we’d be unable to go anywhere for the crowds that come to see it every year. We reach the square and I’m having the vaguest memory of it from all that time ago, of its sloping red paving and tall ochre buildings, and the imposing tower of the city hall at the bottom. My parents had relented and bought me the flag of one of the palio districts, which depicted a porcupine (this flag hangs in my room at their house to this day!) and I was running round and round the piazza with it, proud as anything.
Today the piazza is beautiful, not too ridiculously crowded, although there are plenty of people lazing about slouching on the sloping pavement, sat around the intricate baroque fountain and sat at all the terraces. In the background we can just about glimpse the striped black and white tower of the Duomo, the grand cathedral of Siena. That’s where we’re headed! As we near the building I’m amazed at its outside opulence, but there’s an unfinished high arched wall nearby – my dad tells me that this was to be the end bit of the main nave of the church, making the cathedral truly enormous, but the plague struck the city and killed half its inhabitants and the money ran out for the church and it was made smaller. The outer walls are striped black and white all over, with inlays of pink marble carrying white statues, humans and animals. The doors are surrounded by candy cane-like twisted pink and white columns, carved with foliage. And that’s only the back walls; when we turn the corner and see the front, I’m speechless, it’s magnificent. The façade is covered with marble statues over three giant doors, and at the top sits a golden mosaic glinting in the sun, of Jesus crowning Mary surrounded by angels.
Inside it’s even more gorgeous; the striped columns lend the place a really unique appearance, atop which sits a carved series of 171 portraits of popes looking down on us. The high vaulted ceiling is painted a deep blue with golden stars and there is a great big gold-embellished cupola. But what’s really grabbing me is the floor! Completely spectacular marble floors, inlaid in different colours to represent saints and emblems, battle scenes, biblical scenes including a particularly gruesome depiction of the massacre of the innocents featuring soldiers murdering babies and crying mothers, it’s so skilfully done and so sumptuous I can’t stop pointing bits out to Heather and my parents. We then step into the library, a side room richly decorated with a completely painted ceiling and frescoes all around the walls. Whilst this would be beautiful in itself, there are even more marvels to see: in display cabinets all around the room sit illuminated medieval massive music books! I love them. Zaza meanwhile has more earthly preoccupations and would like some milk immediately, under pain of continuous screeching, so Hev discreetly gets a boob out while standing facing a corner of the cavernous church, and voila! Food on the go.
We’ve got a combo ticket for the church that includes other buildings, so after this we enter the crypt (which contains objects that have been salvaged from other churches that were destroyed by a recent earthquake in central Italy), the baptismal font which has more beautiful ceilings, and then a museum which holds statues that were taken from the cathedral’s façade. By then we are suffering from art fatigue and overstimulation!
Fortunately so is my mum and we exit back towards the main square where we purchase outrageously overpriced ice-cream before slowly meandering back in the direction of the car. Because my father hates crowds, he directs us away from the tourist streets and into the back ways, where we stumble upon a drumming sound which is getting louder and louder. A short investigation leads us to a marching band of little boys beating the same rhythm over and over , to reach a little square where more boys are twirling flags representing one of the palio districts, the one with a giraffe (yep, there’s a district whose emblem is a porcupine and one whose emblem is a giraffe, and one who’s chosen a caterpillar, you gotta be original with your choice of heraldic beast sometimes, not everyone wants lions and unicorns). Zaza is not a fan of the drumming so we hastily retreat to find a café, where the world’s most inept waiter informs us that it’s totally normal for our beer to consist almost entirely of foam after pouring it into a straight glass from a great height.
This concludes very nicely our visit to Siena and we drive back to Sinalunga with images of glorious churches in our minds, and the rolling hills our constant companions on the road.