Medieval Monday

But first, more about our adventures on Sunday, when we saw two more treasures of Siena, attached to the Duomo. 

The current cathedral was built on top of a small 12th century Romanesque church. It was filled with dirt to support the huge Duomo, but was recently excavated – with new support technology bearing the weight instead. What was found was an amazing collection of frescoes that have been hidden for 700 years.

The Baptistery was another astonishing edifice. What makes it particularly important is the 1420 font adorned with bronze panels done by Quercia, Ghiberti and Donatello. Stunning.

All the clouds left overnight and we had a sunny day to do our final exploration of Siena.

We started early at the Pinacoteca, a palazzo that now houses a rich collection of Sienese art, from the Byzantine to the Gothic and then on to the Renaissance. The works of the 13th and 14th centuries were the most spectacular.

One series of Madonnas was extraordinary – all painted by the same artist, but in three different period styles.

And then it was on to a truly amazing museum – my favorite in the whole city. Santa Maria della Scala is directly across the piazza from the Duomo. Begun in the 12th century as a hospital, foundling home, and refuge for pilgrims, this institution went on to serve those in need for almost 800 years. They had a period of great prosperity in the 15th century, when Sienese painters went to town in their main hall. Stunning frescoes tell the story of their good deeds and show what was going on in the city in those days. Charity was definitely in then.

See the backpacker with his baby and his spoon in his hat? And look – the Duomo is just outside the front door.

The main hall is stunning, and there is even a photograph of it in use in the 19th century as a hospital.

But it’s what’s under the first floor that made this such an incredible museum.

Downstairs we were treated to a display of the original pieces of the Fountain of Joy in the center of the Campo. What is there now is a careful reproduction, and the exhibit shows just how difficult it was to work with such damaged and time-weathered marbles to recreate della Quercia’s 15th century vision, as shown at the top of this post in a contemporary painting of the Campo. There are the originals, the reconstructed the plaster casts, and the finished ‘new’ statues. Can’t imagine how they did it.

But there was more. Next came the Treasury of Santa Maria. And did they ever have treasures. Once the sale of reliquaries was banned, many were donated to the hospital. Legend has it that some of them were owned by Helen, Constantine’s mother. Many saints’ bits were enshrined in luxury, and many ‘incredible’ finds were located by the dedicated. A vial of the blood of Christ? (First picture.) One of the nails from the body of Christ on the Crucifix? (Last picture.) A piece of the True Cross itself? Yes, this is a treasure house. There is even the charter from 1359 granting the right to open the hospital. (Guess they were unofficial before then.) And we had the place all to ourselves…

Then there was the Archaelogical Museum section. Go down deep enough in these slightly creepy underground rooms and evidently you would have found many Etruscan treasures and funeral urns. The last two bronze heads look amazingly modern. The guy with the earrings would fit in anywhere today.

Our last museum venture was a visit to the Duomo Museum. On the ground floor are the original Gothic sculptures done by Pisano in the last 13th century for the cathedral. Reproductions have been made to preserve them, and we now have the chance to see them – and the original rose window – close up and in person, along with a Donatello Madonna and Child.

Upstairs is the 14th century masterpiece by Duccio that was originally part of the main altar. The Maestà, or Enthroned Virgin (1311) was revolutionary for its size and opulence. The 26 back panels face Mary from across the room, each one a little jewel.

(Spoiler alert: Most everything currently in the real Duomo seems to be a modern replica. But you could have fooled me.)

And for the final experience, we climbed up to the Panorama view. Didn’t go all the way to the top because 65 steps up, Don remembered he has vertigo. I keep him company on that level and just enjoyed the view of what feels like a thoroughly medieval city.

Tomorrow we are going farther afield in Tuscany, on a full-day tour of three special towns. Time, weather, traffic and the Internet cooperating, there may be a report tomorrow evening – or there may not be. Just thought we’d mention it. But for now, enjoy morning in Siena from our balcony:


Don’s Food Corner 

After some effort we found the restaurant I wanted to go to yesterday but, happily, I found out in advance that it was closed.

It turned out to be kind of a rough neighborhood place that didn’t have a set menu but instead had a few daily specials in each category. I liked it. Jo didn’t find the atmosphere particularly charming.

But since I carry the guidebook and can read a map, we stayed.

We started with a platter of pecorino cheese. As we’ve seen before, the cheese is simply cut into strips or wedges, sprinkled with a little pepper and covered with a little drizzle of honey. It’s simple. But the cheese was of excellent quality. It’s just nothing I would normally think to serve as a first course.

We moved onto pasta dishes. I had ravioli maremmani — ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach and coated in butter and fresh sage.  Homemade and excellent. Jo had spaghetti carbonnara.  It wasn’t as successful.  It was light on any type of cream or egg and very heavy on “bacon” (a.k.a. cured pork cheeks).  The result was a little too smokey and rather greasy.


Oh, well.  The bottle of very nice white wine from nearby San Gimignano smoothed the rough edges off the place.

2 thoughts on “Medieval Monday

  1. I can’t believe I missed so many wonderful treasures when I was in Siena 15 years ago. Must not have had the same guide book (or Don).

  2. It’s all about timing. The crypt and the hospital museum weren’t opened yet when you were last here. We are seeing this a lot – things that have just been newly discovered or recently opened.

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