Archive for February, 2012

The Siena Duomo

February 12th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel


There are so many things to show about Siena’s main duomo that it deserves a post of its own. Note that the city has a number of fantastic duomos, but we had time only for this one. The building dominates the skyline.

The facade is as complex as a coral reef. How do they keep it clean?

A while ago (1339) the builders started a major expansion; but the plague hit, Florence invaded, and the city fell on hard times. Like that weedy old car on blocks in the front yard, it never got done.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the completed portion remains, and commands excellent views of the Tuscan countryside rolling away into the distance.

Upon entering the duomo, the visitor is presented with an overwhelming sensory experience, the kind of thing that creates interference patterns on TV cameras.  Every surface crawls with designs.

Off to one side is this modest-looking doorway.  What could be inside?  It’s the Piccolomini library, an understated little project commemorating a Sienese pope. Note the dog in the painting overhead; there were quite a few dogs portrayed in the duomo.

Like I said, just a modest room dedicated to the memory of a humble servant of God. Did I mention that some of the stauary around the doorway was done by Michelangelo and his people?

The books in this library are illuminated manuscripts, lined up underneath of the gigantic panels representing scenes from the life of Pope Pius II.

Another dog. Oh yeah, there’s a pope in the painting too.  Well, actually, he’s not a pope yet in this picture, being a young man seeking his fortune. A very cocky lad with startling fashion tastes.

In the next picture, doesn’t it look the guy in the green robe is about to pin a “kick me” sign on blue robe’s back, and the audience is laughing about it?  The look on green robe’s face is priceless.  On the right, big beard is too disgusted to keep looking and averts his gaze.  Two seats away from big beard, on the other side of big beard’s red-hatted companion, sits blue hat, who looks a bit verklempt.  Someone’s been overdoing it with the Tuscan white beans, maybe?  At Blue hat’s right sits a man with a right arm attached to the wrong side of his body – or maybe that’s just an extra arm he keeps around, like a spare tire.  Something ain’t right there. Its owner seems to realize this too, and gazes at it in fascination.

The next picture answers the question: “What’s under those cardinal hats, anyway?”  Answer: a really bad haircut. Pink robe at lower left looks surprised; but maybe it’s his reaction not to the haircut, but the beehive on the pope’s head.

Your average illuminated manuscript.  Sorry about the reflections; I didn’t have a polarizer.

I can’t read Latin, so I can’t be certain, but I eventually concluded that this figure is looking up in horror at the garish ceiling.

Beautiful decorative  illuminations.

This manuscript specialized in less commonly known nativity stories.  Below: The Christ child pupates in a teepee.  The animals are furious. The angels, like embarrassed teenagers, stand stiffly with their arms crossed, like wallflower nerds at a prom. Joseph looks like a Hari Krishna, except for the haircut, which looks exactly like the pageboy haircut seen on the king of any deck of cards. Mary is stunned; this is not how things were supposed to work out!

And then, there’s this illustration, depicting the lesser-known encephalitic Christ child (also paradoxically and simultaneously suffering from micropenis and gigantism, the poor boy), and some kind of foot-fetishizing dirty old pedophile.  The Christ child sez: “Peace out, man.”

It’s interesting to note, in the next image, that bad toupees existed in the past.  Also, Mary is stoned out of her gourd.

“What did you put in your mouth?  Don’t lie to me, I saw you eat something!  You know you can’t eat your sweets until you’ve eaten your meat.”  The resentmentnon the kid’s face is one of the most perfectly executed things I saw in Italy.

Continuing the trend shown in human figures, and obviously painted by someone who had never actually seen a dolphin, is this excellent rendition of the rare, encephalitic, duck-billed, eared dolphin-snake. What I like about this is that despite the fact that the artist was really stretching here – painting things he’d only heard about – his skill is evident; the result is at least as compelling as if it were anatomically accurate (if for no other reason than freakishness).


Siena 2011

February 02nd, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel



Opening the shutters in our room  at the Hotel Porto Romana in Siena,this unremarkable sunrise was revealed:

Nothing to see here; go back to bed.

Later, the fog lifted, unveiling a glorious dei.

After a short walk, we entered the old city via the Hotel’s namesake, the gate named “Porto Romana.”

Immediately, the ancient streets captured our hearts. Buildings grow around the remains of previous structures the way old trees grow around a fencepost.  Over millenia, as the city grew, it overtook old fortifications and crept beyond them, incorporating them into houses and buildings. Cultures came and went; languages peaked like waves and then receded. Yet some things remained; a couple of words from a forgotten tongue; food invented by ancestors hundreds of years gone; religious celebrations warped beyond recognition and although now unquestioned, oddly out of line with current practices. As with the culture, generations of repairs and impromptu modifications shaped the city in an organic way; you can never tell what lies around a corner; regularity is not the norm.  This quality fills the traveler with curiosity and rewards the idle wanderer.

Passing an unremarkable open door, I glanced inside to see an aged library.  Alas, I am illiterate in Italy; yet the books and their specialized chamber attract me.  At one time, men wearing silk stockings and wigs must have had servants hold candles for them as they read the precious volumes.  I have no idea what is going on here, except that it seems to be featuring Garibaldi and the revolution.

What is this thing? The patron saint of the block?  A symbol of the section of the city (the city is split into nine distinct  regions)?

Midaevil ironwork abounds; torch holders and horse tethers are all over.  I’m guessing that this well-adorned spot was the equivalent of the CEO’s reserved parking space.

Stuff like this doesn’t last forever; it has to be preserved.  Kudos to the Sienese for valuing and preserving this for the rest of us to enjoy!

The narrow winding streets make cars difficult, although I did see the occasional huge SUV lumbering around.  Scooters are more practical; Italians love their scooters.

They really like them.

The city’s main plaza, the Piazza del Campo.  It isn’t just pretty to look at; it’s the central focus of public life.

Once of the major museums in the city is the old hospital – the Santa Maria della Scala.  You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I snuck a few anyway (and was scolded). Here is the chapel – despite its spectacular decoration, not a major attraction in town; just one of many such things.  The old hospital museum also holds a particularly magnificent slaughter of the innocents – the subject of an earlier post.

On market day we went to the open-air bazaar that is held near the enormous fortezza (fortress) at the outskirts of town.  From here you can look back and see Siena from afar.  You can buy almost anything there, although food, clothing, and flowers were the bulk of it.

Late that evening we went to one of the nicer restaurants in Siena, Antica Osteria da Divo.  The restaurant is built in a structure occupied since Etruscan times; as you dine, you are surrounded by walls that predate the Romans.  It’s impossible not to wonder what those walls have seen.  And yes, the food and service was great, a suitable accompaniment to a day of taking in great visual art and architecture.

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