San Domenico church in the foreground, Siena Duomo and its bell tower in the background.
Today (May 1) was a national holiday in Italy, so we visited Siena along with several zillion other people. Really, it wasn’t so bad, except in the market. They have a street market every Wednesday in Siena, and it is huge. I thought it would be in the main center piazza (Campo) but it was outside of the center. It went on and on and on, sometimes so crowded that you could hardly walk.
The market was in full swing this morning, and the butcher stalls had lots of tempting goodies. This pig’s head was not one of them! The head is just for decor; our guide Anja says that they usually put an apple in its mouth. You can see behind the head the large pork roast, filled with all sorts of herbs and various stuffings.
We saw very few Americans there; it was for the locals. For me it was successful because I found a leather case for my computer. Janet found a jacket for Switzerland.
Our day was spent going up and down the hills of Siena, through the narrow streets, as Anja explained various things we were seeing. Up at the top of this street you can (if you click on the image to enlarge it) see the first of a series of short arches that serve to structurally support the buildings.
Why do they hang out their clothes to dry? Because they don’t have dryers. Why don’t they have dryers? Because electricity is too expensive. They don’t have air conditioners either.
Looking up the side of a building we can see another of those add-on bathrooms. These were installed before plumbing was invented; back then you wouldn’t stand underneath one of these.
Siena is divided into 17 districts, each with its own symbols and colors. The Palio horse race, run annually in June and August around the Piazza del Campo, is a competition between these districts. The Palio is the big thing here. There are horse images everywhere. This one was painted on the side of a building.
Anja is explaining about the Palio; when race time is near they bring the horses into the city and use stalls like this one to house them. She was a wonderful guide. This elegant knocker is attached to the entrance of a stall that is used to keep the horses before the Palio. I don’t understand why a horse door needs a knocker but it is nice-looking. Unfortunately, the horse was not at home when we called.
We are now in the rhinoceros district. Rhinoceri (I just made that word up) are not native to Siena but Anja told us a story about some Siennese from long ago who traveled to Africa and returned with stories about these huge pigs with tusks. So this district adopted that animal as their emblem.
Beautiful doors are everywhere – I just had to add this one to my collection.
Lunch was fried sage and zucchini flowers (again! Well, no problem 😋) followed by riboletta soup, then delicious beefsteak with salad and vegetables. Dessert was strawberries but I couldn’t eat it – I was too full.
The restaurant was decorated with huge pictures of horses. They are really into horses here.
After lunch we emerged into a thunderstorm, complete with thunder and lots of rain. Anja took us to the cathedral which is amazingly beautiful if a bit overwhelming. First we stopped off at this parking lot to hear its story from Anja.
In the 14th century Siena peaked, politically and financially. They decided to build a bigger and better cathedral next to the old one. But then the Black Plague struck, killing 80% of the city’s inhabitants. Out of money and other resources, the cathedral was never finished. The back wall, which was to be the facade, and a row of columns (on the left of this picture) are all that were built. The main center (nave) of the cathedral became this parking lot.
I was especially pleased with this winged cow, to the right. You don’t see those just anywhere. The presence of medieval versions of Statler and Waldorf (from the muppet show) add value as well.
To the left is the facade of the main cathedral. They were trying to out-do the folks in Florence when they built this one.
The facades are big and impressive, but the details are amazing and beautiful. Below is the arch over one of the doors. Other architectural details are in the next few pictures – I hope you enjoy their beauty as much as I do.
Out in front of the main cathedral is this rather strange statue, which Karen’s presence definitely improves (in my opinion).
Entering the cathedral, the visitor’s eye is drawn to a series of floor tiles intended to provide wisdom and understanding. These steps are intended to prepare the visitor to proceed up the nave and approach the presence of God at the altar.
This floor tile teaches the visitor about the importance of Siena in the scheme of things. It shows Siena in relation to the other Italian cities. Siena is in the center, of course. They share (with Rome) the origin story about Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf. You can see the other cities in Siena’s orbit, each with its own symbol. Pisa, for example, is in the lower left, represented with a rabbit. Rome (at the 2:00 position) has an elephant.
After completing the series of floor tile lessons (there are about four) the visitor is ready to walk up the nave and into the presence of God at the altar.
On the way to the altar is a chapel, on the right side, that is especially beautiful. It is dedicated to John the Baptist, but has about six sculptures in it. Two of them are by Bernini (a very famous Italian sculptor), including this one of Mary Magdalene.
Finally, we get to the dome. Looking up into the dome represents the way to God. The stars on the ceiling (visible in the nave picture, above) show us that we are looking up into heaven.
This pulpit was just recently revealed; it was covered for two years while it was being renovated. The panels along the top are decorated with scenes from the life of Jesus.
The pillars are supported by lions, each with a small animal in its mouth. The lions are not eating the animals; they are caring for them.
A side room in the cathedral houses the Piccolomini library. On display in this room are a series of illuminated manuscripts. They are are about three feet high, and obviously very heavy. The drawings on the pages are in very bright colors and gold. The pages contain the words and the music for the chants that were sung.
Above the manuscripts are a series of frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Pope Pius II. They were painted by Pinturicchio and his workshop, which included the young Raphael. They are the brightest, most colorful frescoes I’ve ever seen.
Ceiling of the Piccolomini library
After the cathedral visit we went over to the Piazza del Campo. This is the public square in the middle of Siena. Normally it would be packed with people, but we were there during a big rain storm so everyone was pressed to the sides.
For the Palio (horse race) this center area is packed with thousands of screaming people with the horses running around them.
If you want a seat on one of the surrounding balconies to watch the race in comfort (and with access to a bathroom) you can pay about 1000 euros.
Here you can see the track for the Palio, which surrounds the piazza. There are 10 horses in the race, and they go around three times. It takes about 90 seconds.
This is one of two tight corners on the Palio track. Horses often slip and slide when turning this corner, even though several inches of sand have been laid down for the race.
There’s always at least one jockey who falls off of his horse at this corner, but it doesn’t really matter; the horse is far more important than the jockey. If your horse crosses the finish line first, you win. It doesn’t matter if the rider is still on him or not.
On the way home we stopped off at this pizza kitchen to pick up some dinner. Normally they’re not open at 5:00 pm – Italians eat late – but our driver (Giovanni) called ahead and they agreed to make some pizza for us.
This is a true wood-fired oven; she stacks the wood on the left side and lights it on fire. The pizzas go on the right. And they cook pretty fast.