City of bells

Siena is a cacophony, which can be nice for a day or two, but it could really get on your nerves in the long term. Every morning, what can only be described as a cacophony of bells from several different churches start ringing at 7 am, and again at 8 am, continuing each time for about a minute. In the evening, they ring around 6 pm and 7 pm. For a small city which had 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 1300s, this city has a lot of churches. Outside our window, there are church bells on top of a parish that is literally next door. If you lean outside far enough, you can see San Domenico di Caterina, a large, elegant brick building to our right which is very typically Romanesque and does not have a lot of large windows, and then dominating our view from the apartment is the black and white striped masterpiece that is Il Duomo, Siena Cathedral.

To give a little background (though we’ll really dig into the history soon), Siena is about an hour and a half by train south of Florence in Tuscany. It used to be its own republic and a mighty city-state that once defeated Florence in war, but subsequently, became much more impoverished. As a result, Siena never had the funds to pull down their medieval buildings, and to this day, most of the city looks very similar to when it was built, sometime probably between 1100 and 1555 (the time of the Republic).

The first afternoon we arrived, we trekked nearly half an hour from the train station into the city, climbing the hillside to the city through a series of escalators and ramps, and then into the guts of a small medieval city with very narrow passageways that are lucky enough to fit one car and steep enough to merit stairs in a few places instead of smooth or scored stone pavement. Our Airbnb has an excellent view of Il Duomo as well as the surrounding hillside, and off in the distance, blue-purple hills punctured by the dark green poplars that are the hallmark of the Italian countryside. Outside our window are a few lovely restaurants who are capitalizing on the great view, and entertain folks deep into the night. Every day, there are also sparrows. They have colonized this city, perching in all sorts of small holes built into these buildings where they raise their young. They swoop about all day, but especially plentifully during dusk, scooping up insects and bugs. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had such a mosquito-free time, in comparison to our time in Venice!

For our first morning, we ventured out to do laundry at a laundromat nearby, and were held up for a good 10 minutes by the Palio preparations. The Palio is an epic horse race which is held in Siena twice during the year, and the first just happens to be next week. Different contradas which are city neighborhoods or wards which have different flags and mascots compete in the Palio, a high-spirited bareback horserace which sounds epic but also incredibly cruel, as these sorts of traditions go. It is always preceded by a pageant of each contrada, featuring young Sienese men dressed in their colors and waving flags as well as drumming. We ran into the dress rehearsal, as it were, for the Onda (Wave) contrada, which is the ward of the city that traditionally belongs to the carpenters. Their colors are sky blue and white, and their mascot a dolphin. We saw at least 30 or 40 young boys and men parade through, dressed in striped hose and blue tunics which had white patterns on it, drumming or holding Onda flags. Their supporters, mostly mothers and sisters and wives, applauded nearby and followed, wearing scarves with the pattern of the Onda on it. Their slogan ran along the border of the scarf: “La colore del Cielo, la forza del mare” (The color of Heaven, the strength of the sea). From what we could tell, they were parading about for most of the day, and their route ran along the place where we were headed to do our laundry, so we were able to see that our first morning before anything else.

The first church we saw that morning was the Basilica of San Francesco. While our clothes were drying at the laundromat, we just skipped over to this basilica which seemed quite close. The most fascinating thing about this was the story of the Eucharistic miracle or the miracle of the preserved hosts. According to the story, in 1730, 223 consecrated hosts (meaning communion wafers that had been formally blessed and now were transformed into the body of the Christ) were stolen along with the silver urn they had been contained in by thieves. Though much lamented, the basilica did not have much hope of recovering them. Much to their surprise, three days later at a nearby church, the hosts were discovered – the thieves had simply shoved them into an alms box where there was much money. The hosts were carefully cleaned, counted, and brought back to the Basilica of San Franceso. For hygenic reasons (mostly), the hosts were not consumed but saved. Since then, it has been curiously found that the hosts have not degraded, as bread-like wafers usually would when exposed to air. For the past two and a half centuries (according to the story), they have been tested multiple times and found that they are still fresh and incorrupt, according to the panels of experts who were brought in several times. In 1980, Pope John Paul II visited Siena and witnessed the hosts himself, and proclaimed, “This is the Presence!” These hosts are now brought out once a year on holy holidays to be adored. I love how the smallest churches in this country all have interesting stories like this!

After a quick lunch, we went to see our next church, San Domenico di Caterina, which is the church of Saint Catherine of Siena. I’d only heard of her briefly before as a mystic and a very influential woman. St. Catherine was born in Siena in the early 1300s, and had mystical visions of Jesus as a child. When she was sixteen, she was promised in marriage to her sister’s widower, but refused, and instead joined the Dominican Order as a laywoman. She attended church at San Domenico, the very church which sits close to our apartment, and became very famous for her early mystical visions, one in which she married Christ. Despite her youth, she became influential with her letters and writing and visited Rome. She was most influential in persuading Pope Gregory to leave Avignon and return to Rome, ending the “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy in France. She died at age 33 in Rome, and a devout follower from Siena secretly took her head back to the city. (My favorite part of the story is when the follower and his compatriots were questioned at the gates of the Vatican by soldiers, they prayed to St. Catherine, and to the soldiers, the bag containing her head seemed to be full of rose petals instead. Thus, they were able to bring her head back to the city.) It sits today in a reliquary inside San Domenico, and while the Church may call the head intact or incorrupt (meaning it’s not a skull), it’s not exactly the freshest looking either. It would probably give children nightmares. That being said, it was a very interesting visit into the life of someone who is considered today Siena’s patron saint, and also one of the most influential women in the history of the church.

Today, we spent a whole day on the fascinating sights of the Siena Cathedral. This structure which dominates the Siena skyline and is raised up on a hill, is built in black and white marble, which are Siena’s colors. More myth here: Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus. Remus, some may recall, is the younger twin of Romulus, the founder of Rome. When Romulus killed Remus and founded Rome, Remus’s sons fled the city and brought the statue of the she-wolf (who originally raised Romulus and Remus) to Siena, and that here has become the symbol of the city as well. Senius fled on his white horse, and Aschius on his black horse, leading to the colors black and white for the crest of the city. The cathedral’s huge façade is accompanied by a very tall tower also in black and white marble, and a large grey-blue dome rests at its center. It is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, and I liked that story even better.

While the Siena Cathedral has long been associated with the Virgin Mary, its dedication to the Assumption of Mary comes from her protection of the city during the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which Siena defeated Florence. The Sienese may sing the praises of Mary having given them divine favor and protection, but long story short, it was mostly because of a defector from the Florentine army who chopped off the hand* of the standard bearer. This happened when the Florentines were staging a strategic retreat, and so led to chaos and along with several other factors, ended up with Florence’s defeat. More than 10,000 people died in this conflict, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the medieval age. Two of the flagpoles from this conflict actually rest inside Siena Cathedral, and Steve and I were able to see them when we visited. They’re just sixty-foot tall poles which do look like very old wood, resting on two of the major support pillars inside the dome, with no signs of explanation inside. (* Though the “hand” is what was mentioned in the story, there’s no way anybody, much less the shorter people we had back in the middle ages, could have held those incredibly tall and heavy poles with anything less than two hands!) Incidentally, as a good Florentine, Dante knew well the story of the battle, and wrote about the traitor who defected, placing him in the Ninth Circle of Hell. That’s one of the reasons we know as much about the Battle of Montaperti as we do today, which is pretty fascinating!

Okay, back to the architecture. Siena Cathedral is well-known for its gorgeous floor, which contains more than a dozen huge inlaid marble scenes which depict various interesting scenarios. They include things like portrayals of different sibyls or fortunetellers next to sayings from the Bible, some stories from the Old Testament like the story of Moses, and many more interesting things. In order to preserve the art, the floor is only unveiled for several months during the year. Next to the Cathedral is the Piccolomini Library, a small library which had some beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Steve and I really enjoyed looking at those, which were sumptuously decorated. Each page was as tall as the length of my arm. The frescoes in the library were also done by someone based on paintings by Raphael, which were interesting. After seeing the cathedral and the library, we got lunch to fortify ourselves for the next few visits. At 2 pm, we had an appointment to see the Porte del Cielo, which is a tour that goes up to the top of the cathedral. Along with about twenty-something people, we climbed about three or four stories to the level around the dome of the cathedral, and were able to see through some of the stained-glass windows which go around the Dome and depict the Twelve Apostles. The tour also took us into this portico which rested directly under the rose window of the front of the cathedral. I liked especially when we walked outside behind some statues which decorate the front façade of the cathedral, and we were able to see how the copper wings of some angels were attached to the back of the marble statue. After the Porte del Cielo, we walked over to the Panorama del Faccione, which was another climb. We had to wait a loooong time, probably 20-30 minutes, before we were allowed on top of the Faccione, which had quite a lovely panoramic view as promised, but was also incredibly unsteady. We were basically on top of this wall that was like three meters wide and maybe about 25 meters long. It was the planned extension of the Siena Cathedral that never got finished.

To explain, most cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with its short arms running east and west to allow its rose windows to get the rays of the sun at sunrise and sunset. The long arms are oriented north and south in order to allow most of the windows that run along it on both sides to be illuminated during the course of the day. When the Sienese built this cathedral, they planned the current one to be smaller and running west to east, from back to front, so that these long arms may serve as the short arms of a longer cross in the future. The wall we were on was originally constructed for the north side of the bigger cathedral, and below us were arches, where they had left room for the glass windows that they planned to be there. However, this was never completed mainly due to the Black Death in 1348 which devastated the city. Siena Cathedral is among the bigger ones I’ve seen for sure, but had it been completed, it would have been even more massive. Up there, we had amazing views of the city all around us, and also of the Italian countryside, stretching into the distance.

Finally, we circled our way back down and checked out the crypts as well as the baptistery, which were both separate parts of the cathedral. Altogether, we paid 20 euros each for the access to the cathedral and the Porte del Cielo tour (as well as all the other destinations within the cathedral I noted), and it was well worth it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.