The seductions of Siena

It was a rainy Sunday morning in Siena, but that seemed to only enhance the magic of this place.

We began our walk very nearby, at the Church of San Domenico. No photos allowed, but it would have seem sacrilegious even without the many signs to take pictures of Saint Catherine’s head and thumb – shown very separately. You’d think they’d let the poor woman rest in peace – in one piece.

Actually attached to our hotel is what was her home, which contains various chapels and her cell, with various personal possessions. There is the crucifix she was praying under when she received the stigmata, and a few other amazing artifacts that pilgrims and tourists have been marveling at since she died in 1380. Again, no photos inside.

But then we came to the wonderful Il Campo, often considered the best square in Italy. It certainly is one of the most attractive, even in the rain.

City Hall is the focus of Il Campo, with its 1340 tower. It speaks to medieval Siena’s pride as republic, independent from the papacy and other empires.

During the early Renaissance, the concept of secular government got its start in Siena’s City Hall, which is still its seat.There are fabulous frescoes and artworks throughout, though we have a particular favorite.

In the Sala della Pace are two frescoes facing each other showing the Effects of Good and Bad Government, by Lorenzetti. Those of you who – for a variety of reasons  – have spent time in our bedroom may recall the print over our bed which covers half of the “good” side. Little did we know that good government and its counterpart would play a large part in our lives when we bought our print here 35 years ago. So, the good:

And the bad:

Say no more.

We were also able to see the Duomo today, along with its crypt and baptistery.

The 13th, 14th and 15th centuries were very good to Siena. The greatest creative geniuses of 300 years converged to make this cathedral a brilliant work of art. Michaelangelo, Bernini, Donatello, Pisano – you name them. The effect is dazzling and completely over-stimulating.

One very special room in the church is the Piccolomini Library, which celebrates the life of Sienese Pope Pius II. The frescoes were done 550 years ago, have never been restored, and look like they were finished yesterday.

One of the many other treasures is the Chapel of the Madonna del Voto, with two Bernini sculptures.

More on the crypt and baptistery tomorrow. For now, just be amused by the number of she-wolves nursing two little boys one sees around Siena. The legend is that Siena was founded by two sons of Remus, nephews of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Supposedly after their father’s murder by Romulus, they fled Rome, taking with them the statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants, thus appropriating that symbol for the town. Additionally they rode white and black horses, giving rise to the coat of arms of Siena with a white band atop a dark band. Lots of holes in the story, but lots of wolves around to support it.

Don’s Food Corner

Every city in Italy seems to pick a day when the better restaurants are closed. Mostly it’s Monday. But some favor Tuesday, Wednesday and even Thursday. In Sienna, it’s Sunday.

When lunchtime hit, it was raining. We tracked down the one place on our list of possibilities within reasonable walking distance that was to be open on Sunday. We went to the door. They were open all right, but they claimed they were fully booked. (For the record, every table was  empty.) Discouraged, we hit the streets. We allowed ourselves to be hustled in a restaurant next nearby. The decor was modern and elegant. But it must have been a branch of a certain San Marino restaurant because they were playing gangsta rap. Jo claims it wasn’t gangsta rap. But it was loud and I couldn’t understand the lyrics, even though they were in English. Jo asked them to turn down the volume, which they did, a little.

The menu looked promising, however.  We started with the local summer salad specialty, panzanella. This is the salad traditionally made of stale bread and tossed with fresh basil, tomatoes, oil and vinegar. Although I know it as served with large cubes of stale bread, this restaurant apparently wanted to update that traditional approach and served the bread shredded and formed into a large timbale shape. But it was good. There’s a reason it’s a classic.

Jo followed up with cacio e pepe — cheese, which in this case seemed like pecorino romano, and lots of fresh ground pepper on thick spaghetti.  It was a very decent interpretation.

For me, since I’m still smarting from not getting my cured meat and cheese platter in Parma, I ordered one here. Nice selection of meats and a surprise of curls of lardo — cured pork fat that is a specialty of Sienna’s region of Tuscany. Supposedly the best lardo is cured in the marble quarries of Carrara. I’m not sure I was served the best, but it was great. The cheeses included a molded and hot serving of creamy pecorino as well as a stack of some type of Parmesan that had been drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnut pieces. The platter also included a chicken liver spread on top of a slice of bread and several slices of perfectly ripe pear which were also sprinkled with walnuts.

All in all, not bad for a shot-in-the-dark restaurant.  Except for the gangsta rap.



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