Siena and Arezzo

Saturday 15th May 2010, Siena, Tuscany
It rained continuously throughout the night and this morning it was still falling from leaden skies. It has continued to do so unabated all day and the temperature has hovered around a chilly 10 degrees. We shivered as we waited, wrapped in our waterproof jackets, at the entrance to the campsite for the local bus into Siena. On our Mediterranean islands we have been used to temperatures that hover around 30 degrees so it has come as a shock to realise that summer temperatures have not yet arrived in Tuscany. Was I really swimming in the sea three weeks ago?!

Struggling against the weather, the puddles, occasional vehicles, thousands of visitors and tour groups, all with umbrellas, we have not really done Siena full justice today but we have seen the main sites and spent a very full and enjoyable day in the city.

The bus dropped us at the central bus station in Piazza Gramsci, on the edge of the historic area of Siena. Immediately we were absorbed into the city, passing along streets of huge old brick houses, palaces and official buildings, each with their own embellishments – some coats of arms in terracotta or marble, others with decorated lintels, most with heavy shutters in brown or dark green set back against the ochre-coloured walls.

Sienna has as its emblem a wolf suckling two human babies. This is the same symbol seen in Rome. It represents the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus who were found and suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus is acknowledged as the founder of the city of Rome. Siena is reputed to have been founded by the sons of Remus and therefore has a wolf on its coat of arms. Statues of wolves are a common feature seen around the city - on fountains, as gargoyles, and on plinths.

We soon found ourselves on the huge Piazza del Campo facing, quite probably, the most splendid town hall in Europe, the Palazzo Pubblico, a gothic brick building, constructed between 1288 and 1309. Inside there is an open courtyard with municipal offices and the city museum leading off. Beside it towers the 88 metre high Torre del Mangia crowned with stone. From the top there are splendid views across the entire city. The semi-circular piazza , large enough to offer itself to annual pageants, has palaces and magnificent buildings on all sides, while in the centre is a marble renaissance fountain, the Fonte Gaia. Around the edge of the piazza the Palio, an annual horse race is run every September. It is a typically crazy Italian thing to do and is reputed to be highly dangerous.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

Piazza del Campo, Siena

Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia, Siena

Central courtyard, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Fonte Gaia with wolves, Piazza del Campo, Siena

The Chigi-Saracini palace on the main pedestrian stree Via di Citta, is the home of the academy of music with a chapel to Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. It has a pleasant courtyard with a well.

Entrance to the Chigi-Saracini Palace, Siena

Courtyard of the Chigi-Saracini Palace, Siena

The black and white banded tower of the Cathedral can be seen from all around the town and we soon found ourselves heading for the Cathedral square, another huge area with beautiful buildings on all sides. The Cathedral puts into perspective all those pretty little Pisan churches we saw in Corsica and Sardinia with their striped walls and campaniles. In Siena the entire massive building is striped. It didn't come as a complete surprise to us to learn that the architects commissioned to build it were Pisan! "It's all stripes for churches in Pisa nowadays, guv. Monochrome columns are just so passé!"

Cathedral, Siena

Started in 1065 it was completed in the fourteenth century. It is surrounded by the remains of an even larger building begun in 1339 but interrupted by the Black Death of 1348. The present building was intended to have been the transept of a far larger cathedral. The partially built walls and the area within now provide a rather splendid car park!

Inside, the most stunning features are the banded columns and the paving, inlaid with designs in different coloured marbles dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. The designs show biblical scenes, symbols of Siena and surrounding cities as well as sages and prophetesses such as Socrates and the sibyls.

Banded columns in the Cathedral, Siena

Interior of the Cathedral, Siena

Inlaid marble paving depicting one of the sibyls, Cathedral, Siena

Inlaid marble paving depicting one of the sibyls and a wolf and lion, Cathedral, Siena

Inlaid marble paving depicting the emblems of Siena and other Italian cities, Cathedral, Siena

Inlaid marble paving, Cathedral, Siena

There is a thirteenth century pulpit in marble depicting scenes from the Last Judgement supported by columns resting on lions.

Marble pulpit depicting the Last Judgement, Cathedral, Siena

Lioness with cubs supporting the 13th century marble pulpit, Cathedral, Siena

To one side is the Libreria Piccolomini built in 1495 by Francesco Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius III, to house the books of his uncle, Pope Pius II – the Papacy was a family-run business n those days with the Pope as the Godfather. The walls of the library are adorned with bright frescos depicting the life of Pius II who was originally Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. They were produced in 1509 by the painter Pinturricchio. Around the sides of the library are displayed numerous 15th century graduals from the library's collections. Leather-bound and hand painted and lettered on huge sheets of vellum, they were stunningly beautiful , the musical notation drawn as four line staves rather than five, which only came into general use in the 16th century.

Ceiling of the Libreria Piccolomini, Cathedral, Siena

Walls and ceiling decoration in the Libreria Piccolomini, Cathedral, Siena

Fresco decorating the wall of the Libreria Piccolomini, Cathedral, Siena

15th century gradual in the Libreria Piccolomini, Cathedral, Siena

After the splendours of the Cathedral, the other churches we looked inside were drab by comparison. They were all very good but rather like being offered a dry cracker after wedding cake!

During the afternoon we took shelter from the weather in the Pinacoteca in the 14th century Palazzo Buonsignori. Almost exclusively religious paintings, mainly by Sienese artists, they were arranged chronologically from the late 12th century onwards. It was fascinating to see the style developing from the primitive, iconic paintings in Byzantine style with their gold backgrounds, where the figures are flat, stylised and featureless, through to renaissance works with clearly defined facial features, patterns on clothing and background landscape starting to appear. All the artists though represented the infant Christ as a huge, ugly and contorted infant that only a mother could love. These early painters also seemed to have a very vague knowledge of female anatomy to judge from the position of the virgin's breasts as she fed her child. But we were astonished that a city little more than half the size of Exeter could have produced so many early painters of such merit.

It was still raining as we left the art gallery and Ian's shoes had given up on trying to keep his feet dry. After coffee and pizza we made our way to the bus station for the trip back to Modestine. The driver completely forgot to pull up at the campsite and roared on past, eager to finish his shift for the weekend. Realising we needed to get off he clutched his brow and reversed several hundred metres back along the road to the campsite entrance despite us saying we were happy to walk back. He was really very nice about it.

Near the campsite we discovered a footpath through the dripping woods leading to the nearby village of Sovicille. There we found a pleasant, clean and picturesque place of little streets clustered around a central square with the church of San Lorenzo to one side. Within the church was a very good fresco showing St, Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar and St. Agatha carrying her severed boobs on a dish. Even in tiny villages old frescos are still to be found! They are painted onto the walls while the plaster is still wet so that their colour never fades. So long as the plaster holds, so does their beauty.

Village of Sovicille, near Siena

Fresco in the village church, Sovicille, near Siena

The serenity was disturbed by a troop of ten year olds emerging from a door to the side of the altar accompanied by a harassed teacher. With much jostling and waving to us, they were eventually persuaded to kneel in front of the altar to recite their prayers, presumably in preparation for their confirmation ceremony tomorrow. There may be a few potential saints amongst them, but there were certainly a number of little devils too.

Sunday 16th May 2010, Arezzo, Tuscany
It was still raining when we woke this morning. We remember now that our trip to Padua all those years ago was in May and we had constant heavy rain the entire time we were in Italy. So we can expect a lot more over the coming days.

Today I avoided by some miracle, running over two dogs that bounced onto the four lane highway in pouring rain somewhere between Siena and Arezzo! Even more amazing is that the car overtaking me also managed to avoid them, mainly because the dogs froze in terror and we skidded round them. Unless they managed to find their way off the road immediately I don't give much for their chances of having survived the following vehicles.

I've also managed to scorch my underwear, an accident waiting to happen as during this constant wet weather I've been drying it off on the Remoska as it cooks our supper. Ian was using my hair dryer on his shoes after today's soaking and I simply forgot until the fragrance of singed elastic alerted us. You see how devoid of luxury we are? Little treats, like toilet seats and loo paper can really brighten our day! Hot water to wash dishes, a plug for the wash basin or something for drying hands are all rarities. Showers take ages to run through even tepid and are usually designed so they only flow when you are pushing the knob. Thus you have to devise a way to shower one handed and then get dry and dressed in a wet, confined space, frequently without hooks to hang things! It does though, make you appreciate the comforts of home when you get back, and somehow we survive and stay healthy.

All this is really procrastination. I'm putting off the moment of describing yet another stunning mediaeval town full of churches with frescoes of madonnas, saints and infant Jesus's. It's such a total contrast to our time in Sardinia when we sometimes had nothing of merit to report. Here our cultural diet is so rich I've got temporary indigestion.

Arezzo today has a population of some 80,000 inhabitants. It lies in a wide, green, fertile valley where olives, vines and arable crops are grown. The mediaeval town is set on a hillside, rising up in parallel streets linked by steep side roads.

I like to wander the streets soaking up the atmosphere. Ian prefers to follow the map in his Michelin guide to be sure of leaving no crucifix unturned. As Ian has the money and the maps, and also knows the way back to the car, he always wins so we started with the church of San Francesco, the walls covered in frescos in various states of decay. The windows had stained glass by Guillaume de Marcillat, 1467-1529. He trained and worked in France where he was also a Dominican monk. He was then commissioned by Pope Julius II to work with Michelangelo and Raphael in Rome. He later settled in Arezzo where several churches have examples of his work. The church also had an impressive painted crucifix hanging above the altar. It is cut out in the shape of a cross and the figure of Christ appears to be three dimensional though it is actually flat. St. Francis is at the base of the cross with the Virgin on the cross beam.

Church of Saint Francis, Arezzo

Climbing up through the wet streets with rainwater flowing down in a constant stream between the cobbles we reached the Cathedral. This too had its quota of frescos, paintings, marble fonts, tombs, stained glass and pavement decoration, though far more muted than the cathedral in Siena. There were many local families wandering around as well as tourists. The Church is very much part of family life in Italy.

Cathedral, Arezzo

Fresco of Mary Magdalene by Piero della Francesca dating from the 1450s, Cathedral, Arezzo

Arezzo's most famed inhabitant, Giorgio Vasari, born in the town in 1511, was a writer, poet, architect and painter of merit. He designed the Uffizi Palace in Florence but he is most famed for writing Lives of the most eminent architects, painters and sculptors. Closed today, his house in the town was entirely painted by him, many years ago. It is said to be stunningly beautiful. (Our house was entirely painted by us many years ago too but we've not been aware of anyone clamouring to look around it!) Vasari designed a loggia along one side of the Piazza Grande in the 16th century. Today it offered us a brief respite from the teeming rain as we sheltered beneath its arches.

House of Giorgio Vasari, Arezzo

Piazza Grande, Arezzo

Loggia designed by Giorgio Vasari in the Piazza Grande, Arezzo

The most stunning building in the town, we both agree, is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Pieve. Its galleried and arcaded apse backs on to the Piazza Grande while its façade, decorated with columns in Pisan style, is in a neighbouring street. The interior is quite plain, unadorned with frescoes but having some superbly carved capitals to the columns in the crypt. The tall campanile dates from 1330 and is pierced by about a hundred windows.

Apse of Santa Maria della Pieve seen from the Piazza Grande in the rain, Arezzo

Façade and campanile of Santa Maria della Pieve, Arezzo

Interior of Santa Maria della Pieve, Arezzo

Polyptych by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320, on the altar of Santa Maria della Pieve, Arezzo

Also of interest is the 13th century gothic church of St. Donatus standing in a leafy square. It has an asymmetrical façade with a nicely proportioned campanile. Inside we found another painted crucifix, by Cimabue, hanging above the altar.

Saint Donatus, Arezzo

Don't know what this is of but too nice to leave out, Arezzo

It was a long walk back to where we'd left Modestine on the edge of the town. The streets were rivers of water and cars threw out a heavy spray as they passed. We were pretty drenched by the time we rejoined Modestine and we decided to head for this nearby campsite to dry out. Everywhere here is water logged. Remembering our experience near Autun back in March when we needed four tough men and true to help push us off the grass, we have parked on the roadside beside the pitch. Thus we are not completely level so our cupboard doors fall open, the water in the saucepan slops over one side and tonight Ian will almost certainly be squashed as I roll down on top of him! Oh, the joys of camping!