Thursday, October 27, 2005

My Ascent of Mount Maggiore

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During our visit to Fornello, Brenda reminded me twice that the final day of our trip was Yom Kippur, the highest holiday in the Jewish Calendar. I wished she hadn't mentioned it so I could have let it pass unnoticed. I woke up Thursday morning feeling guilty—in part for the privilege of enjoying Italy during the time of year I would normally be staggering under my Fall quarter workload, and more specifically at the prospect of going on our scheduled gastronomic and wine tour of the Chianti region on this fast day. I hadnt attended a synagogue service in decades, but refraining from food for 24 hours and going into the woods alone on this holiday was one religious duty I had regularly observed. I decided to skip breakfast, excuse myself from the tour, and head for countryside. It took me a cranky uncaffeinated hour to negotiate buying a ticket from the Tabak shop and find the right bus stop, but by 11 a.m. I had reached Monteriggioni, where my Italian Alpine Club map indicated the beginning of an excursion leading to the top of Monte Maggiore.

I got off the bus and bounded up the steep pedestrian approach to the castle famously described by Dante

As, when the fog is vanishing away,
Little by little doth the sight refigure
Whate'er the mist that crowds the air conceals,

So, piercing through the dense and darksome air,
More and more near approaching tow'rd the verge,
My error fled, and fear came over me;

Because as on its circular parapets
Montereggione crowns itself with towers, 41
E'en thus the margin which surrounds the well

With one half of their bodies turreted
The horrible giants, whom Jove menaces
E'en now from out the heavens when he thunders. (Inferno Canto 31)

I wandered through the tiny village inside the fortress, sat for a moment in the empty chapel, and left 50 cents in the offering box. I paid a Euro to the lonely young man guarding the stairway that led to the top of the wall from which I could see the mountain towering in the mist. In the car park on the south side of the wall, I found a large sign with a maps and historical information about the trail ahead. Like the piazza between the Siena Duomo and the Ospedale, this too was part of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim itinerary from Compostela to Rome that put me on a venerable path of discomfort, wanderlust and spiritual aspiration. My route through the wilderness of "Montagnola" would take me to the summit and then on what a sign called "La Grande Traversata," down to the villages of Fungaia and Santa Columba on the other side, where I could catch another bus back to the city.

A dirt road led me into thick woods which occasionally opened up to fields, olive groves, and old villas and ended at an organic farm and meditation center named Ebbio, where several guests stood in the courtyard looking nervous and smoking cigarettes. Here the road gave way to a steep trail that tunnelled through forests of small trees, some thick with brush, others recently thinned and coppiced. I was serenaded by unfamiliar melodies that sounded as if they could only have been sung by birds called "larks." Exertion and solitude and the growing distance from the valley occasionaly visible through a break in the trees contributed to the pleasant buzz in my head created by the emptiness in my stomach. A small trail branched to the left which I thought might lead to the summit. I noticed a cluster of delicate pink cyclamen growing in the deep shade at my feet, fresh blooms in mid-autumn.

I followed the side trail uphill for several minutes, but rather than reaching a summit, it headed back downhill. Conscious that it was well past noon and that I hadnt seen any signs or trail markers for the last hour, I no longer could locate myself on the map with certainty. I returned to the patch of cyclamen and continued heading toward the westering sun, hoping soon to find a junction that would lead to the south and then east. The bird song had ceased and now in the distance I heard the whine of one, then two chainsaws. The trail came to a clearing at a junction of several tracks filled with deep mud, sign of the recent passage of skidders, the huge insect-like machines which drag timber out of the forest. Across a plateau miles ahead of me I could see land that had recently been cleared but no evidence of civilization or indications of where I could make my way out of this endless Montagnola. I walked faster and then half ran toward the ugly sounds of the chainsaws but seemed to get no closer and found new paths heading off in all directions. I felt stirrings of fear and confusion. I checked my watch and told myself that if I found no landmark within ten minutes I would have to admit defeat, turn around and retrace my steps. Twenty minutes later, with an unmistakeable taste of panic in my mouth, I did just that.

The walk back was long and boring. Having neither reached the summit nor accomplished "La Grande Traversata," once I knew my way, I took an alternative dirt road down to the valley that passed by a memorial to WW II partisans who hid in this wilderness but finally were captured and executed by the Nazis. I passed several men with guns and dogs who were out hunting, probably for larks. The road was steep, viewless and littered with trash. It emerged at Abbadia de Isola, which the historical signs told me was the site of an Abbey and military outpost for Siena that was rendered obsolete with the construction of Monteriggione back in the eleventh century. The buildings were standing, but restoration had not proceeded. Inside, on rutted dirt streets, I saw decrepit old people coming and going from apartments built into the decaying ruin.

A sign on the road through the village indicated that the last bus to Siena had departed hours ago. By now footsore and fatigued as well as hungry, I trudged toward a junction with the main highway. The prosperous American Elderhosteler had no choice but to hitchhike. I stuck out my thumb—probably not even the right gesture—and for fifteen minutes got nothing but puzzled stares from occasionally passing cars. Then in the distance I saw it—the Blue Bus. As it approached I could read "Siena Direct" in little yellow lights above the windshield. I don’t think I was at a real bus stop, but in my pocket I carried the return ticket I'd purchased for 90 cents that morning at the Tabak shop, so I stood in the road, and it stopped and opened its door. Back in the city and feeling triumphant, I stepped off at the Piazza Diavoli near our hotel. I was greeted by Tom, a member of our group, who was eager to fill me in on their day's excursion and to give me a slide show on the back of his little camera until the local bus he was waiting for pulled up and took him downtown.

I walked through the Hotel's entry arch and up the tree-lined promenade, a genial variation of the trail through the dark wood on Monte Maggiore. At the top, I enjoyed my last view of the towers of Siena in the waning light. Jan welcomed me with some bread and wine to break my fast. At our final meal together in the brightly lit dining room, I joined 35 Elderhostlers in toasting our caring hosts and bidding each other farewell.

Monday, October 24, 2005


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A member of our group asked Louise, our graceful guide in Cortona, whether she knew Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, the bestseller book and film story of an American woman who falls in love with Italy, buys an abandoned farmhouse and olive grove near that town and settles in for good. Louise answered, "Sort of…that is I hear about her from my plumber. He also works for her." Until Wednesday, the next to last day of the Elder Hostel program, this was as close as we'd come to a real local resident. So Jan and I were excited to use our only day off to accept our old friend Brenda's repeated invitation to visit her and her partner Don at their country home at Fornello in the hills above Florence.

We knew Brenda in the late sixties when I was a probationary instructor and she and Jan were graduate students at Columbia University. The two of them were in the same Dante seminar, and we crossed paths as visitors to Florence the summer of 1969, our last time in Italy. One hot evening the three of us attended a concert in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, and during intermission, Brenda struck up a conversation with a clarinet player in the orchestra, later married him, moved to Florence and has lived there ever since. The following year Jan and I emigrated to live at the end of the road in coastal British Columbia, where we remained for nine years. In the intervening time, we had heard a bit about Brenda through a mutual friend in California, and before this trip we reestablished contact by email.

The train ride from Siena to Florence on the Eurostar was brief and cushy. There we boarded a local branch line which passed through the less glamorous districts of the city, full of grafitti, litter, and drab apartment blocks but brightened by ever-present backyard and trackside vegetable gardens. The flat suburbs soon gave way to hills, small towns and picturesque views of the Arno, which we followed upstream. Brenda greeted us at the station in Sieci, near where the river took a sharp turn and descended over a small waterfall. She drove us up a narrow, winding road into the foothills of the Appenines, a green rural landscape dotted with farmhouses, fortresses, churches and tiny villages. First stop was a crenellated stone castle on a narrow ridgetop, Castello del Trebbio, which served as the headquarters for a winery and agritourismo. Brenda got a cannister normally used for gasoline out of the trunk, greeted a demented looking feather-hatted old man in the parking lot, and took us into the building where she filled her plastic five-liter container from a hose connected to a huge barrel. "Don bottles it at home," she told us, as she paid the proprietor what looked to be the cost of an equivalent amount of my home-town favorite, "Two-buck Chuck."

As we continued up the mountain, the views longer and more pristine, it was hard to believe that she could commute several times a week to teaching jobs in Florence and Bologna. Santa Brigida was just a few houses and a church hanging onto the mountainside along the roadway, and there we stopped in her little local market for bread, cheese, prosciutto and salad vegetables. It took a good twenty minutes before she and Jan emerged from what looked like a Romanesque stone balconied façade with some of the makings for lunch.

Another couple of miles, past a large villa that used to house the noble that owned all the land in this valley, and we turned up an impossibly steep driveway, passed an assemblage of plastic playground equipment belonging to the people who owned the main house, and stopped alongside a converted brick barn set on a terrace above a sloping olive orchard. This was the landscape described in Vergil's Eclogues. It was a familiar two thousand year old dream: the subject of my doctoral dissertation on Renaissance pastoral.

A transplanted Scotsman from near Edinburgh, Don came out from his study where he works as a translator from Italian to English—everything from marketing materials to fine books, one of which he showed me about the cultural history of the Vespa, and another a photo essay about the Tuscan landscape. He decanted some of the new wine into a pitcher, Brenda laid a colorful tablecloth over the plastic patio furniture, dressed up the antipasto and we sat down to begin a three hour midday meal. Don went into the kitchen and cooked up a fine pasta while the rest of us tried to reconstruct some colorful common experiences of the sixties . After lunch he returned to his work, and Brenda led us on a hike down the lane by a small country church, through a thick forest, past a sign about a newly discovered early medieval monastery, and out to an isolated house with a view of another great valley to the east that opened before us for the first time in the golden evening light

Yet here…you might repose with me,
On green leaves pillowed: apples ripe have I,
Soft chestnuts, and of curdled milk enough.
And, see, the farm-roof chimneys smoke afar,
And from the hills the shadows lengthening fall! (Eclog 1)

Like it was for Vergil's shepherds however, so this perfection was imperilled. As age creeps up, wages and pensions are frozen and the cost of living rises--especially gas for commuters and rents for possible recreational property now on the global real estate market. In the dark, on the way back down to the train station at Sieci, Brenda mentioned that they may soon be forced to move.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


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This is the word associated by our Elderhostel hosts, the Green Guide, travel websites, and real estate agents with the town of Pienza, which was on the itinerary for Tuesday October 11. In 1516, the English Humanist Sir Thomas More coined the term—stemming from eu-topia, "the good place" in Greek but also from ou-topia, or "no place"—to name an ideal city state, but also to lightly mock the notion of such an ideal. Pienza was created by our local hero with the funny name, Pope Pius Piccollomini, an Italian Humanist crowned poet-laureate and later head of the Catholic Church. Like More, he tried unsuccessfully to bring peace and justice into a world more amenable to agression and greed. PPP dedicated some of his considerable resources to turning his sleepy home town into a showpiece of social engineering and architectural perfection with the help of a great Renaissance builder known as Rossellino.

Like the other hilltowns we had visited, Pienza today is vehicle-free and immaculate. We left the bus in the car-park outside the wall and walked through floral window-box lined streets and discreetly signed shops offering specialties of the countryside into a small but indeed perfectly designed town square. It was all elegant and discreet high Renaissance style, which by now I was clearly differentiating from the cruder medieval and crasser Baroque forms. The city hall to the left, housing a tourist information center, was an airy miniature of Siena's. Before us was the Duomo's chaste but lucious travertine facade, backlit by the sun shining on the valley below. To the right stood an unostentatious but imposing structure recalling the Villa Antenori that had lured me in Florence. This was the Piccollomini Palace, through which we were conducted by a local guide whose Italian-accented English was even thicker and more savory than that of our native Elderhostel facilitators.

The place was inhabited by PPP's descendants until 1968 and then maintained in the condition they left it—sparely furnished with centuries-old portraits and tapestries accentuating 20 foot ceilings, wall frescoes, and the light pouring in through large stained glass windows ornamented with the family coat of arms signifying either accommodation between the cross and the crescent or the triumph of the latter over the former. Also in evidence were 20th century photographs showcasing the blood connections between this family and the royal Italian house of Bourbon along with the heroic expoits of pilots in Mussolini's air force. Out on the three story loggia we learned that the lovely though too misty view of the formal gardens and Val D'Orcia below was itself a UNESCO world heritage site.

Jan and I roamed slowly through the village, trading photo-ops with another couple under the street sign placed here to promote tourism in the nineteenth century, joining those window shopping for real estate, and buying Pinocchio puppets for our grandsons and some typical Tuscan ceramics I have faith were not produced in China.

After lunch the bus wound through the painterly countryside of La Crete and left us off in nearby Montalcino, home of the legendary Brunello, allegedly the crème de la crème of Italian wines. Seeking some exercise and adventure trekking through the steep streets of this larger town, we found ourselves suddenly marooned at the bottom of the hill, far from any restroom. The relief provided by facilities in the Enoteca we finally came upon eclipsed the pleasure of drinking a seven dollar glass of the house specialty.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


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Monday morning reunited us for the last time with Donatella, again in the piazza in front of the Duomo. There was no preparatory lecture for this excursion, and the façade of the building we entered –the Ospedale or Museum of the former Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala--was unimpressive, so the significance of the place took a while to dawn on me and has continued to grow until today, when I discovered a wonderful new website about it still under construction. Like Santa Maria Novella in Florence, this is a place I'd like to revisit equipped with more knowledge.

Donatella told us that the unimposing building we had entered was actually much larger than the Duomo, and at a volume of 350 million cubic meters, I suspect it's larger even than the abandoned Superduomo project. Some of its size became apparent after we descended from the large chapel and entry chambers on the ground floor to the levels below, each of which seemed to extend deeper and wider through labyrinthine vaults and arched chambers. Nowhere was there daylight, but vertical and horizontal shafts opened at every turn to what looked like an infinite regress of excavation and renovation. Only when I discovered this image of the rear view of the complex on the website did I have any sense of how such a building could ever have been constructed.

Until a few years ago when its functions were moved to a new location, Ospedale was in continous operation for ten centuries as a City Hospital and Welfare center--according to the Sienese the first such institution in Europe. Today it houses a cultural complex including restored chapels and antique medical facilities, a display of the original sculptures decorating the fountain in the Campo (including Jacopo Della Quercia's exquisite statue of the Virgin Mary), an archeological museum and ongoing archaelogical dig, a film museum, and a conference center, which during our visit was hosting an international convocation on Fair Trade.

Donatella ended the tour back up on the ground floor in the Sala del Pellegrinaio, or Hall of Pilgrimage, the intake wing of the ancient hospital where both residents of Siena and millions of pilgrims who fell ill on their journeys were tended by medical staff supported by the city and an independent foundation funded by The Bank and private bequests from those who had been helped. The walls of this great hall had originally been covered by frescoes on religious subjects, but in the fifteenth century they were replaced by an amazing sequence by Vecchietta and Domenico di Bartolo depicting the suffering of patients and the healing efforts of hospital staff and administration. The connections between the intrepid and the frail, between Hostel and Hospital, travel and pilgrimage, life and journey kept growing in my mind. Frequent signage around Tuscany linked our route with Canterbury England where Chaucer's fourteenth century company of pilgrims ended their voyage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, "the holy blissful martyr for to seek/ That them had helped when that they were sick." For this aging vulnerable traveller and client of present-day "health care delivery systems," it was not hard to imagine the solace that the frescoes would offer both poor and wealthy entrants to this building.

Discharged from the Ospedale, we planned to test Jan's sore knee and my irritated lungs with another attempt at hiking out of the city and up the neighboring hill of L'osservatoria. We bought procsciutto and pecorino at a deli and followed a winding street through the wall below the towering cathedral of St. Francis. At a traffic intersection I noticed a pool of crystal clear water covered by vaulted arches in a green gully below us. We descended to this unnamed fountain--which we later we learned was a medieval laundromat-- and ate lunch at its edge before continuing across railroad tracks and freeway to a footpath heading up the forested ridge opposite the city. After encountering chickens in an olive grove and a girl chasing butterflies, we found the old monastery and school for children adjoining a church that had been destroyed by bombs during WWII and later reconstructed. An acolyte told us where we could catch a bus back to the city, and at the stop we met the butterfly girl again, who turned out to be a grad student in lepidopterology. The bus made a circle tour of the suburbs, stopping en route at a huge hospital complex that I realized was the one monstrosity that marred the perfect landscape I had admired from the City Hall Tower. Jan pointed out that this must be where the Ospedale had been relocated and mentioned she had read that Siena is known today for its excellent healthcare and medical research facillities. At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of our departure a few days later, she got into a conversation with two jetlagged young men who had just arrived to work at that hospital on a vaccine against the avian flu currently threatening a world-wide pandemic.

Our day's pere- grinations concluded at the top of the grand allee in the Hotel Garden where we found our amiable table companions, Sydell and Aeko, sitting contentedly on a bench waiting for dinner. Sydell is from New York City and once taught math at the same school where Jan taught English. Aeko is from Berkeley. Twenty years our seniors, they met long ago at an Elderhostel and since then often travel together in exotic places.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sunday Saunters

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The Elderhostel program dedicated both morning and afternoon of Sunday to instruction about The Palio, a traditional horserace among contestants from Siena's 17 ancient neighborhoods. The weather had cleared, the topic itself didn’t interest us as much as others and after four heavily programmed days, Jan and I conspired to cut the morning classes and wander the city with the Michelin Green Guide as our instructor, hungry for exercise and some unpredictable adventures.

Fortified by an extra café—a shot of espresso costing 80 cents that not only wakes you up but works as a mood elevator gulped at one of the ubiquitous bars--our plan was to circle the city on top of its wall. When that proved impossible, we followed its base to the fortress built by the conquering Florentines to control Siena in the middle sixteenth century. Its presence explained the hated Medici coat of arms mounted on the City Hall that we had puzzled about earlier. Why that symbol of enemy domination hadnt later been removed, given the bitter rivalry between the two cities continuing to this day, remained a mystery.

We came upon swans and geese in a grotto in La Lizza park--deserted this early in the morning—some impressive old oaks, a charming merry-go-round that made us miss our grandchildren, and lovely prospects from the ramparts of the fort. As the city slowly filled with people in the late morning we entered the Cathedral of San Domenico. This is another huge temple of several stories built into a hillside only minutes away from the Duomo. There we joined large crowds of Italians who had come to see a reliquary containing the head of St. Catharine, the popular patron of Siena, and gory frescoes depicting various tortures and martyrdoms painted by an artist with the intriguing name of Sodoma. Our exchange of sardonic remarks was interrupted by an extraordinary harmony emerging from the far end of the nave. We followed it to a group of ordinary-looking working men standing in a semicircle, their eyes intent on the hands of their conductor, their faces transported by the sound of their own perfectly blended voices ranging from countertenor to bass. They sang two short hymns and then faded into the crowd of tourists and pilgrims.

We continued our saunter, looking for a bookstore to get a map of local footpaths to plan our day-off country excursion and got sidetracked into the vestibule of the Papal palace by more unusual music that came from a man taking advantage of the cavernous acoustics playing Persian sounding melodies on the flute and accompanying himself with a foot-pedalled harmonium.

After lunch we rejoined our group and were led to the Goose district--one of the neighborhoods or Contrada--by a professor who specializes in studying the institutions of the Palio. The last race took place back in August, but this was the night that the victors of the Tower district would be celebrating with a banquet hosting 4000 people, most of the planned festivities centering on ridiculing their opponents, especially the Goose. Our lecturer pointed out that the neighborhood was deserted. On this weekend the losers got out of town. Nevertheless he had secured permission for us to enter their chapel and museum, filled with frescoes and inlays and paintings juxtaposing the Goose totem with the Virgin Mary and with St. Catharine, who had been born in that district, and displaying all the "Palio" or flags of victory that the district had won over several centuries. Rival neighborhoods hated each other almost as much as Sienese hated Florentines, and intermarriage between them was still considered a serious transgression. Our lecturer told us that this neighborhood solidarity accounted for the fact that there was practically no crime in Siena—an embodiment of the maxim that "it takes a village."

His enthusiasm, expressed in a two hour harangue that followed the two hour lecture we missed in the morning, was less than infectious. We were eager to resume our independent exploration of the city by following our map to the Osservatore—a church in a rural setting on top of a neighboring hill, but as we descended a steep cobbled street Jan's knee suddenly gave out and we taxied back to the Hotel. She felt better with ice and a few Advils, but it looked as if our ambitious hiking plans might not materialize. I decided to keep exploring in the hour and a half still remaining before our late Italian dinner, and let the map mislead me through two beautiful ridges and valleys filled with vineyards, olive groves, old rural villas, and a palace within a mile of where we were staying. At one point the only way I could get off private property was by pushing through a thick hedge ten feet down to a dirt road. As I tumbled out there was a ten year old boy on his bicycle looking at me in disbelief. We tried to communicate, I by pointing to the map, he by chattering at full speed in Italian, but finally, he remained behind watching me trip off into the sunset.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Traces of Etruria

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After returning from San Gimignano and lunch at the Hotel Garden, we heard two lectures to prepare us for the next day's excursions—one on Etruscan civilization, the other on a fresco cycle by Piero Della Francesca. Next morning our bus met the lecturer, Louise, at an impressive archaeological dig: a tomb complex dating back to the sixth century B.C. revealing steps to an altar, an underground entryway, and under a large roofed canopy, pieces of the tomb's wall, some partially buried and others in various stages of reconstruction. Etruscan culture predated the Roman and was strongly influenced by the Greeks. On top of the large mound grew a grove of grand old oaks, which I believe were of the species Quercus pubescens or Downy oaks. Views of Cortona, the old Etruscan city on the mountain, were blocked by the weather, but our guide's engagement, erudition and grace made the visit satisfying nevertheless. A native of Cambridge, daughter of a professional musician, she lives right outside Cortona in a 600-tree olive orchard and works as a restorer of paintings.

The next stop was the archaeological museum inside the walls of Cortona, which had just opened a new beautifully-designed exhibit of local Etruscan artifacts housed in a venerable medieval building. Most memorable to me were terra cotta funerary urns topped by reclining figures that seemed to have been molded very quickly and expressively. After the museum tour we had an hour and a half to wander in the pouring rain which didn’t deter the Saturday morning market from proceeding full swing. I hiked up steep deserted streets lined with terraced vineyards and olive groves and found a stone footpath for pilgrims climbing toward the Cathedral of St. Margaret. Though grand prospects of the Val di Chiama below were hidden, I was enthralled with the moody twisting path lined by dark cypresses. I reached the top just in time to pay for a coffee in order to use the bathroom at the café adjoining the Cathedral, which was just closing its doors after mass. Perhaps it's age or perhaps it's Italy, but never before in my travels do I remember the quest for the toilet being as frequent or dramatic as it was here almost every day.

I rejoined our soggy group for a sumptuous lunch and lots of wine in the brightly lit cellar at Pizzeria Fufluns, after which we piled back into the bus for a snoozy ride to Arezzo, a good sized city about an hour distant.
There we viewed a fresco cycle illustrating a preposterous but lively Tale of the True Cross by Piero Della Francesca. We had more free time to wander in the rain, and Jan and I tried unsuccessfully to follow the signs to the house where Petrarch was born. Instead we found another huge Duomo at the top of the town where a wedding was about to begin, and an elegant city park located in the old fortress.

City of Towers

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In addition to taking care of all lodging, eating and travel arrangements, Elderhostel contracts with Trinity College to provide an intensive and thoughtfully designed educational program. The second of Rocky's Thursday lectures was an introduction to the fresco cycle in the Collegiate Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Gimignano displaying some remarkably expressive portraits of Judas and the other tormentors of Jesus painted by a shady figure named Barna. Friday morning we took a forty minute busride through the misty Tuscan countryside to this fully preserved walled medieval hilltop town, marked by the presence of fourteen stone towers that served as defensive retreats in feudal feuds between rival families and also as competitive displays of wealth—mine is taller than yours. The crowds of tourists, which I overheard one person say reminded them of Mont San Michel in Normandy, hardly distracted from the familiar beauty of the countryside. I had seen it before in the background of many Renaissance paintings. The church was opened especially for our tour, but we were given time only to view the Barna cycle and a small chapel dedicated to Santa Serafina vividly painted by Ghirlandaio. Picture taking was prohibited here as in most churches, and the web images I've linked to usually dont do justice to color and detail. Before we left I got to ascend the city hall tower and enjoy panoramic views of the town and countryside.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Allegory of Good Government

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The group met our guide Donatella in the courtyard of the Bank of Siena. A vibrant, stylish and witty woman, she's an art historian who works as a freelance tour guide and lives in the middle of the city in a tiny apartment.

My first impression of Siena was of another living museum, not like the impossible and decomposing artifact of Venice, overwhelmed by tourism and outside investment, but a treasured relic framed and preserved by wealthy benefactors. This was confirmed by Donatella's canny introduction to the aesthetics of the city in the setting of its economic underpinnings. The Bank of Siena's corporate headquarters in Salimbeni square embody examples of the city's three perfectly preserved styles of architecture: gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. The bank was instrumental in the rise of the city in the early Renaissance, and then as now a substantial proportion of its yearly profits are invested in city infrastructure and social services. The Bank's logo is the same black and white shield as Siena's, with the added motif of three cylinders signifying the three steep ridges upon which the city is built.

Clear weather accentuated dramatic effects of light and shadow in the narrow, turning and sloping streets. As in Florence and Venice, I felt intoxicated by the first exposure to this walk-through masterpiece of architecture, city planning, and sculpture, drinking in the changing sights and sounds like the first sips of a glass of Brunello wine for which this region is known. The climax arrived as we descended through a high arched opening in the walled street into the huge enclosure of the Campo, the famed square we had read about in our travel guides and in the book Natural Light in the Italian Piazza, by Sandra Lakeman, a colleague at Cal Poly.

This ancient space creates a remarkable sense of both freedom and enclosure intensified by what Donatella told us of its setting in time and space. It was one of the first secular public spaces in Europe, both complementing and competing with the square in front of the cathedral. In a time when rulers fear that such plazas would expose them to riots by the crowds it attracted, the design of the Campo expressed confidence in the support of the populace of a republican city-state. This civic spirit was further elaborated in frescoes we viewed in one of the many splendid rooms inside the Palazzo Publico known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. They portrayed abstract Aristotelian virtues and vices and concrete views of life inside and outside of the walls of well-governed and poorly governed city-states. Later in the day, we attended a lecture about the frescoes and the civic humanism they represent delivered by Rocky Ruggiero, a dynamic young Italian-American scholar. When Siena became a republic ruled by a council of nine rich merchants in the late thirteenth century, it billed itself as the model of the new secular state. The utopian and dystopian frescoes were meant to inspire the self-selected oligarchy of "the nine" who met in that chamber to do their jobs conscientiously. They reminded me of the contrasting images on the shield of Achilles in Book 22 of the Iliad.

The Palazzo Pubblico also contains a famous Maesta by Simone Martini, one of Siena's notable artists. The Maesta subject--the virgin Mary sitting crowned as a royal ruler surrounded by saints and heroes of the church with the baby Jesus on her lap--is common on altarpieces in Italy. Jesus is usually represented as crucified rather than as ruling, and God the Father is often absent. The great cathedrals we saw were all dedicated to her: Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria di Fiori in Venice, Salute in Florence and Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

After the morning tour and Rocky's afternoon lecture, the group went back to town by bus to visit an Enoteca--a wine bar--for an instructional tasting session. I'd been longing to get into the City Hall Tower, the Torre del Mangia, and the late afternoon light was getting more dramatic by the minute. The line to get in magically disappeared and I raced to the top and watched an indescribable pageant of changing light and shadow on a transcendant landscape.

Taking pictures helped me absorb and hang on to what seemed like a moment akin to Dante's ascent to Paradise. The time I was spending in churches or looking at sacred monuments was getting to me. All this art and architecture--this talent and effort that had gone into creating and preserving these monuments could almost bring me religion.

But only if I ignored that Florence and Venice and Siena were often at war with one another and each praying to the Virgin for defeat of their enemies, and that gratitude for her mercy was offered by the survivors of the plague, who, as Jan pointed out, must have been left with huge amounts of money after one third of the population died.

When the sun set I came down from the tower and found her and the rest of the group of elders also jubilant after finishing up their third glasses of homework in the Enoteca. I caught up quickly and rode home in the bus doubly intoxicated.

Next morning Rocky lectured on the Duomo in preparation for our afternoon tour. His combination of erudition, insight and wit enhanced our experience of the art. Duomo, he informed us, has nothing to do with Dome, but comes from Domus, the throne or seat of an archbishop. The churches' political and economic roles complemented their religious functions. Siena was a way station for most pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem and experienced a constant influx of medieval tourists. The Cathedral they stopped at was on the highest point of the city. The rivalry between Florence and Siena dominated the period of Siena's prosperity from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, though Florence won most military battles. After an upset victory in 1280 the Sienese decided to expand their cathedral to make it the largest in the world--larger than the immense Duomo being built in Florence--but the Black Plague of 1348 as well as construction problems forced them to abandon that ambition. They reverted to completing the Cathedral's original design, and the partial façade of their Tower of Babel comemorates their hybris.

The existing building, not as large as either the Florence Duomo or St. Peters in Rome is still gargantuan. Constructed in the popular Tuscan style of alternating green and white stripes of marble, the Cathedral houses an amazing collection of art treasures accessible to long lines of tourists for the entrance fee of 5 Euros--about 6 dollars. Rocky pointed out that Catholic religious art and architecture is rarely about restraint and balance, the formula being the more the holier. In the afternoon Donatella led us through it. The floor of the vast transept is covered with marble inlay scenes by every artist that counted over a period of 250 years, including Michaelangelo and Donatello, a chapel designed by Bernini containing two of his plastic and twisted marble figures, a stone pulpit with a frieze by Giovanni Pisano that reminded me of the Ara Pacis celebrating Augustus' reign in Rome, and the Piccolomini Library, a late fifteenth century chapel covered wall to ceiling with immense, colorful and detailed frescoes by Pinturicchio and his assistant Raphael celebrating the life of one of Siena's own, a humanist scholar, poet and diplomat, who became Pope Pius II.

Not an inch of this vast and complex space was left undecorated over the period of eight centuries it has collected tribute, including one wall bedecked with motorcycle helmets of those who escaped death in accidents. But an hour and a half of overstimulation and dense crowding was all Jan and I could take. As a chaser we went shopping at Upim, the local department store, and found, on sale, a sportjacket, pants, two shirts and a hat for me, a teaching wardrobe for the coming year.

Venice to Siena

photo gallery

Sunday night in Venice the rain picked up and the water level on the steps to the Rivo outside our room kept rising. I was tired after working on pictures and words from 2 to 5:30 A.M. After breakfast in the Poste Vecchi we put on as much raingear as we could muster and negotiated the by now familiar maze to the Vaporetto stop. We got off at the Academia, Venice's premier Art Museum, shoes, stockings and pants soaked. It was built by Napoleon after his conquest of the city also known as Serenessima in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon loved the place, had one of its Church's demolished to improve his view of the Grand Canal, voided the laws which restricted Jews to living in the ghetto, and built this museum to house many masterworks that he removed from cathedrals and churches. Among the ones we most enjoyed were some medieval altarpieces, portraits and landscapes by Bellini and Gorgione, and immense architectural canvasses by Veronese and Titian. I was disappointed by the dim lighting on this dark day outside, and also by the lack of any vibrant colors in works that clearly were intended to dazzle, but appeared dimmer than many of the restored frescoes we had seen in Florence.

After two tiring hours we left the museum in a downpour braved by a long line of people wating to get in. We got out of the rain for lunch at the familiar Antica Trattoria and dried out and had a siesta back in our room. It was great to be warm, dry, sleepy, and to take a small break from our steady diet of overstimulation. In the late afternoon we started out to take a vaporetto to a place we hadnt been before, but it got dark earlier than expected and we headed back to our home neighborhood, stopping on the way to pick up some peccorino--sheep's milk cheese--and prosciutto from our favorite deli. We also stopped at Cantina DaMori, one of the many wine bars that locals congregate in to escape Venice's rain, the claustrophobia, the sewer smell and the crowds of tourists, and drank a glass each of the housewine drawn from barrels by the barman who told us that this was his private stock from a small vineyard that had been in the family for many generations. It did the trick.

Tuesday was departure date. Had the weather been clear, it would have been difficult to leave, since we had not yet penetrated most of the city, nor any of its outlying islands. But passing the now familiar palazzos on the crowded vaporetto, I was glad to be heading for the railroad station and not sure that I'd want to return.

On the Eurostar train to Florence we chatted with three couples travelling together from Curritiba Brazil. We had read about this city as a successful utopian experiment in Amory Lovins' Natural Capitalism and seen a film about its remarkable successes in city planning, social services and especially transportation. These natives of the place had little positive to say about it. They complained that there was no subway.

We switched trains to Siena in the familiar hub of Florence's Santa Maria Novella station, known to locals as S.M.N. and arrived at our new destination in time to shower and meet the Elder Hostel group we had signed up for more than a year ago. The "Hotel Garden" was more luxurious than I had expected, a not unwelcome surprise. An old manor house, built in the seventeenth century, it was located on a large property twenty minutes walk from the old city on a hilltop with views in several directions, and surrounded by well kept formal gardens. There were frescoes on the ceiling and smiling concierges saying buona sera at every turn--the kind of place I remember wanting to stay at when we drove through Brittany eight years ago, but couldn't dream of affording. Now it was all part of the prepaid package deal.

An opening reception introduced us to our conscientious shepherds for the days ahead, Agnese and Giuseppi. Their welcoming remarks and disarming self-introductions were delivered in excellent but heavily accented English requiring such close listening that it almost seemed we were understanding a foreign language.

Our fellow hostellers hailed from all over the U.S., many of them ex-teachers, all animated, excited to be here and talk about themselves, seasoned travellers, and with a few exceptions, ten to twenty years older than us. I felt a little intimidated to be in this group, both because they seemed like a foreign breed and because it reinforced my sense that I was being transformed into one of them. The talk was all about hometowns--Anchorage, Lincoln, Asheville, New York--and former professions--architect, accountant, nursery school teacher. Nobody talked politics, but there was an air of hesitant curiousity. How many of these folks were Bush and War supporters? The ice was broken several days later, when it turned out that many loathed him, including quite a few life-long Republicans. We surmised that despite their red-state backgrounds, people who travelled and were interested in art were likely to be on our side.

Having arrived in a world of comfort and security, I went to sleep on time and didn't wake up until morning. My disease and insomnia disappeared, and I stopped writing in this journal. I remembered Thomas Mann's insistence that creativity was a byproduct of illness.