Florence, Venice, Siena Fall 2005

Venice to Siena

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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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.

The Allegory of Good Government

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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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.

City of Towers

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

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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.

Traces of Etruria

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

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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.