Friday, December 4, 2015

At Siena

The train was jammed on Sunday afternoon. Upon arriving at the central Rome station. Layne found out our packet of reserved tickets procured online were partially invalid. One had needed to be printed out, no cellphone image, but the others had not. It did not matter much, as she had to stand in two lines for nearly an hour while I stood stolidly. I watched the hustle. Immigrant men, mostly younger but one very grizzled, tried to chat up travelers who looked foreign like me or simply bewildered like more. I expected they wrangled tips, but I could not see cash exchanged. Some of them "helped" at the ticket machines, others pointed to the right platforms in the distance, and both yelled at an Italian pair, as if an older man and his son, who appeared to commandeer them. I leaned against the back of a chrome rail, tried to meditate on the transience of transit, and watched the numbers slowly climb on the electronic readout until Layne's was called. Two nuns had been before her, but she was seen first. But the nuns left, I noticed, having been served, while she still lingered.

On the stifling train, we settled into the first seats we could. Layne's suitcase being too heavy to hoist, we set it in the doorway nearby for the moment. An old woman glared at us from her pink iPad across from us. Then, we had to move. We learned in halting English that all seats were reserved. We tucked our bags as best as we could by the diner car and went a few cars' length down, to find our seats. I tried reading my Italian lessons on my Kindle, determined while in linguistic boundaries to struggle along. I made it through a short piece on the Balthus exhibit we'd just seen in the in-train magazine.

Past Bologna, with its post-war housing towers, until we changed for Siena and headed into the sunset on a much less congested train. Soon we got our taxi and landed at the Camporeggio, the steep steps that faced the Alma Domus. A converted convent next to the house of St Catherine of Siena, this austere hotel nonetheless was set out well enough (if a no-nonsense booklet prohibited food brought in, not that it had a microwave or mini-fridge let alone mini-bar anyway) A fantastic view. A vantage point many stopped at to look uphill at the greenish black-and-white Duomo cathedral's nave and steeple to the right, the peak of the Palazzo Publicca in the center, and what must have been a square block tower of the Salimbeni fortress edging over the brown, earth-colored houses with green shutters that made up the intact medieval core of this former republic, and still a "commune."

Siena occupies a slanted city center, as no ground (as the Duomo's builders found) is that flat for long. Il Campo itself tips in as if a modest ampitheater, while the slopes of the city core rise so steep above the miniature "valley" of Fontebranda, lower down the steps of the Camporeggio, that it's quite a hike, although a short climb, up to the ancient arched ways of the Via della Galluza or Via Fontebranda. Around there, as I learned later from Siena: The Gothic Dream, Catherine was born to a dyer and a washerwoman. Until recently, the arches below the Alma brought water to Siena. and from these humble beginnings, the girl who at sixteen vowed to join the Dominicans became a correspondent and counselor of the mighty, named in 1970 the first female Doctor of the Church.

For such a compact city, Siena boasts nearly twenty "condada," or local guilds who compete in the famous horse race at the Palazzo, the Palio. Our first night there, strolling the streets that can be confounding in their similarity and curvaceousness to the newcomer, we decided to eat at the first place that looked appealing. I never had risotto as delicious as I did at Il Taverno di Cecco. On the dark lane named after Cecco Angiolieri, haunt of a local poet who never made it into the Tuscan pantheon, I later learned from the book above that this was the lair of La Civetta, the Owl's guild.

The next day, fortified by the hotel's muesli and yogurt if not much more, I found while staring at my shoes awaiting Layne's emergence from a gourmet shop that my stalwart Croatian walking shoes were fraying on the other foot as well as the one that a kind redhead glued to hold back the danger back in Drogheda for free. I despaired, but we found a Bata store, and I purchased grey suede desert boots. I'd have liked the Italian green ones we saw in another window, but these were about 40% less. Although I learned after the fact they were made not even in the EU but Bangladesh, unlike others at Bata I'd peeked into, they held me up. A shoemaker the clerks directed us to glued my other shoe's crumbling rubber sides back for two euro, but I figured this attempt was as doomed as its sole mate.

But the panforte Layne bought on the Piazza Independenzia proved a true boost to my spirits. We saw the baptistry of St John the, uh, Baptist at the Duomo. We looked at a majestic painting of an ascendant Jesus, while angels' baby faces twisted under his weight below his feet, peeking up from the orange clouds. A crypt revealed fragments of frescoes, and the sanctuary itself took me in by the individual busts of hundreds of popes high over the nave. Like R. Crumb's many progenitors of the patriarchs in his illustrated Book of Genesis, the artist took pains to make each a real, distinctive face.

The ambitions of the artists commissioned to make the Duomo the cathedral without equal in the late Middle Ages nearly succeeded. But, only ten out of the fifty thousand inhabitants survived the Black Plague, so they had to scale back their plans to extend the nave in another direction. We climbed up, after touring the museum. inadvertently having entered the stairwell, the Facciamente. This is the remnant of what would have connected this retaining wall to the extant sanctuary in the distance. From it, we looked down on our Alma Domus' window and much more. Although not as tall as the Palazzo's soaring tower, given my feet were developing blisters, we concurred that this was enough.

Our dinner that night at a little place just around the corner from that domicile, named after the Il Compaccio for which the passageway was known, was more nouvelle cuisine, but we liked it. Our friendly server and we talked about our cats and dogs, and the meal was tasty and elegant, if far more affordable than at home. Our wine, a red Il Paggio from a Castelnuovo Berardenga vineyard nearby, tasted far more expensive than ten euro. For an hour, a night at least, we pretended we lived here.

The next day, we needed to do laundry. Having passed a place while we visited the Pinacotecha Nazionale, we returned. After the bargain price of a four euros brought us a surfeit of the most complete collection of gold-tinged altarpieces, frescoes, paintings, and sculpture from Siena ever, we needed a break from so many breastfed babies, pierced virgins, upside-down crucified, and grumpy saviors. By the way, one of the easiest jobs ever must be an Italian museum guard. Grab a plastic seat, pick up your paperback (those Einaudi editions are elegant) or cradle your tablet or smartphone. You're set, sitting for the next few hours, and barely casting a glance up. For the automatic video whirs and sense detectors emit klaxons any time you accidentally lean in (sorry Sheryl Sandberg).

Tasty pairs of panini and potato pizza by the slice accompanied us as we sat later on metal chairs ourselves a few yards away. We kept our eyes on the laundromat, as a decidedly sketchy character seemed its purported attendant. I needed to stretch, so I sauntered up a steep incline off V. S. Pietro.

It took me sharply up to the Via San Quirico, into a neighborhood nearly empty. Many dwellings seem deserted, for no windows allow evidence of life, but the heavy doors do open or are left so now and then to afford glances into dark interior passages. Behind them, immigrants lived, families played, and children, by their toys sometimes resting in entrances, thrived. What was it like to live in such an old place? The prices in a tellingly titled German-named real estate window selling it seemed retirement or second (third?) homes to European gentry were very steep, but these were for villas. I supposed the upkeep on such as these flats in the city, like the ones we stayed in at Rome and would in Florence next, was considerable. How did the Moroccans make it, selling selfie sticks to us?

After resting, we took another walk, this time to the Camollia district. We looked at the mummifed head of St. Catherine at the massive church of St. Dominic which looked down on the Alma Domus, another monument to that Order's might, we passed the Piazza Antonio Gramsci, and we entered the auto zone, for the heart of Siena is blocked off--although taxis, trucks, and a suspiciously high number of cars that are neither still shove you aside on its cobbled thoroughfares nonetheless. After I had to dash into a thousand-year-old church that was once home to Templars and still now the Knights of Malta's sway, I imagined the pilgrims who wore out their shoes on these same steps. We found a dusty place, a cozy relic of the 1970s hippie trail, but its pasta and house wine satisfied us.

That edifice from the Crusading era, and the fervor it represented, lingers in Siena's shadows. These may entice those of us who visit, but closer attention reveals a haunted and disturbing resonance. When I got back home, I checked out from the library a 1999 scholarly study of the preacher whose sermons were celebrated in his hometown. Inside, The Preacher's Demons includes one of the two pieces paired by an artist whom I admired for his odd geometry at the Pinacotecha, Sano di Pietro.

Although most of what he painted seemed conventional (more Madonnas), I admire the angles and composition of two depictions of St Bernardine of Siena, one at the Il Campo, the other in front of the Church of St. Francis. (Gloomy when I visited, brown stripes barely visible in the murk, paintings indiscernible, its vast convent now the economics and law part of the municipal university, a plaque commemorating a Midwestern professor who lectured there for years, after a thesis critiquing Marx. I passed a begging student on the way down the V. del Rossi, but he was gone on my return, so I gave my change to a shawled woman playing the accordion on the Banco de Sopra from whose tables, broken if the lenders proved unfaithful, our term bankruptcy originated. The world's oldest bank survives here despite scandal, and has always been a formidable patron of the arts in Siena, too.)

Off the Via Salicotto, a sign points to Sinogoga Ebraica. On a sign nearer Il Campo, the latter word was erased. Plaques outside the door commemorate two events. The first, those murdered in 1944. The second, the burning of the ghetto in 1799 by an "Ave Maria" riot. Franco Mormando of Harvard recounts the terror that Franciscan friar levelled upon his triple threat. His axis of evil revolved around the Jew, the witch, and the sodomite. We marvel today at the splendid sights at which he summoned the faithful, but who is there to notice the beggar, the busker, the alley to the little shul?

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