Saturday, 31 August 2013

Siena - body parts and all

Siena, like other Tuscan towns, was first settled in the time of the Etruscans (c. 900–400 BC), The Etruscans were an advanced people who changed the face of central Italy through their use of irrigation and their custom of building their settlements in well-defended hill forts. A Roman town called Saena Julia was founded at the site in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Siena has stories to tell.

The Piazza del Campo (a UNESCO World Heritage site)  is the main square, full of tourists and cafes and monument facades. it's also the site for the palio which is often briefly televised or shown on French News. It can be brutal as there are almost no rules and in the recent past there were issues of unfairness to the horses. The idea is to win at all costs and you can do what you like to push off your competition. The winner represents one of the 17 sections (contrades) of the city and gets a lot of money from that sector. The contrade has the right to display it's flag in all its streets (not the rest of the city). The other sectors do not display flags. There is no official prize for the winner, just the glory, but as I said their sector rewards a win generously; half a million euros was mentioned by our tour guide.
The Palio di Siena is a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August. The event is attended by large crowds, and is widely televised. Seventeen Contrades (which are city neighbourhoods originally formed as battalions for the city's defence) vie for the trophy: a painted banner, or Palio bearing an image of the virgin or even a goose.

For each race a new Palio is commissioned by well-known artists and Palios won over many years can often be seen in the local Contrade museum. During each Palio period, the city is decked out in lamps and flags bearing the Contrade colours.

And then we get to the inevitable churches and this is where things get a bit bizarre.
Let's start with the basilica. The current church of San Domenico dates from 1226. From this church you have a good view of the Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena. About a block below the church is the "Santuario" which is a convent located on the sight of St. Catherine's home.

Forever linked to the veneration of Saint Catherine of Siena is the great Basilica of San Domenico. The head of the Saint, is kept on the altar in the Chapel of Saint Catherine, inside the Basilica of San Dominico. I guess it's in a casket because I didn't notice anything 'interesting'. I did see her finger which is on display in a glass jar. For goodness sake - I wasn't even convinced it was real - looked like a really bad mockup, low light levels, and so what if it is a finger.  Her body is buried in Rome. Back in those days, body parts were chopped up and distributed around churches to raise money from pilgrims/tourists. Some of these relics were not at all genuine. These days you are not allowed to sell viewings of body parts. All this sort of thing just irritates me. There are millions of good people in this world who have suffered and helped others every bit as much, probably more, than all these 'saints' but hey, it's all good publicity and revenue, right?

The Cathedral of Siena is a splendid example of its type and in good condition.I enjoyed the artworks in all dimensions, even the floor was a canvas. There are many references to Romulus and Reamus.

Adjoining the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library, housing precious illuminated choir books and frescoes painted by the Umbrian Bernardino di Betto, called Pinturicchio, probably based on designs by Raphael.

The visual impact of these very colourful frescoes is stunning. The frescoes tell the story of the life of Siena's favourite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II. He was the uncle of cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (then archbishop of Siena and the future pope Pius III), who commissioned this library in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle. Not many words per page though. The ceiling is covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. They were executed between 1502 and 1503 by Pinturicchio. 

In the centre of the library is a statue of the Three Graces, a Roman copy of a Greek statue.
So Siena is worth a visit. No photos inside the Basilica though. In the last photo on this page you can see the bulky basilica of St Catherine in the distance. it's completely different to the elegant Cathedral with its dome. Both are worth seeing for their artistic merit though the basilica is rather plain inside.

Next stop Florence.


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