|Piazza del Campo|
And the Lonely Planet guide was right. There were some crowds of tourists (mainly schoolchildren) around the main sights during the day, but as soon as I wandered away from the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo, much of it was almost eerily quiet. Siena flourished during medieval times, both as a centre of culture and the home of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank, which was founded in 1472. After that, however, it lost much of its political power and importance, and as a result, there has been very little development in the centre since, leaving it well preserved and harmoniously medieval.
|The Campo from the tower. Each section of the paving represents one of the contrade.|
Thirdly, like so many Italian towns, Siena is famous for its works of art. Being more or less completely ignorant about art history, I knew this was likely to give rise to a familiar feeling of guilt as I contemplating visiting various churches and museums but secretly just wanted to find the best gelateria and a nice view of the city. So this is the strategy I adopted:
|The tower staircase. |
Not for the claustrophobic!
After that, it was time to tackle the artwork, and having decided that I wasn't going to look at very much of it, I made an effort to appreciate what I did see. Armed with a few travel guides (on my Kindle - the travelling bookworm's best friend), I read about, observed and enjoyed as much as I could. I skipped the first three rooms, because even the art-aholic who wrote the Lonely Planet guide didn't seem to think they were that exciting and went straight to the beautifully coloured celebration of the Risorgimento (Italian unification). Next up was Pope Alexander III's conflict with Barbarossa, which, with the guidebook to explain the history behind the pictures, was also interesting and accessible to ignoramuses like me - a bit like reading a 15th century cartoon strip.*
The other two rooms that I liked were the Sala Mappamondo and the Sala dei Nove, where the great works of art contain messages to the councillors of Siena who made important decisions there. One, Martini's Maesta. reminds them to treat the poor fairly if they want to depend on assistance from the virgin Mary, while the other depicts the consequences of good and bad government.
So that was how I survived my encounter with Art in Siena. There were so many other things I could have seen, and I do regret not going inside the Duomo, which sounds magnificent (I went to the lovely San Gimignano instead), but I am convinced that often when you go to famous museums and churches, they are horribly croweded because of all the people who feel they have to go there but aren't actually appreciating what they see at all, and I'm happy that at least I wasn't one of those people.
*Being ignorant, I had to check if there was a connection with the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, but it turns out that that Alex was a 19th century Emperor of Russia. Oh well.