September 23, 2011
A last minute decision and opportunity to participate in the school’s field trip to Siena provided me with one of the best days abroad so far. We met Marta in front of the school at 8:30 am, all happily welcoming the first hint at a fall breeze since we had arrived in Italy. The rather small group of us walked to the bus station and piled on the bus with many other people all awaiting Siena’s medieval sights.
Siena is one of the many Tuscan hill towns so the ride only took about an hour and a half. The trip there was beautiful, as the day and the scenery outside began waking up as we trekked further south. The differences between Siena and Florence were apparent as soon as we pulled up to the stop. As I looked around, I noticed that the center of town was built on a hill, with narrow, tucked away streets, everything very compact. The area around the center though was lush with trees and blue skies, giving the condensed town a sense of openness.
We met our tour guide, a very nice petite Italian woman, who led us to many of the main sights of Siena. We stopped first at the Basilica of San Domenico. The church was gothic in appearance, made entirely of brick. As we all lowered our voices to a minimum and cautiously stepped inside, we could see a large open area. The inside was adorned with frescos, flags and most importantly, St. Catherine’s preserved head. We learned that St. Catherine devoted the better part of her life to bringing about peace between the Italian city-states. There didn’t seem to be anything that could prevent her from doing what she believed was right and therefore had significant influence on the town and Italian culture overall. We noticed many people gathering around to see her nearly 700-year-old head in the glass case, set back in a shrine like alter.
Another important stop was the Duomo. It was overwhelmingly large and looked very much like the one in Florence. When we walked in, the most challenging factor was deciding where to look. Every inch of the Duomo’s interior was covered in decorative art and sculptures. While weaving in and around people and roped off areas of the ornately decorated floor, all of our mouths hung agape in the sheer magnitude of historic art that surrounded us. The black and white striped columns that stood like red wood trees even had the ability to amaze us.
We also stopped to see one of the oldest banks in Italy that is in fact still active today, and some other points of interest along the way. We ended the tour in Piazza del Campo, and all headed for some much-needed Italian nutrients. After a lunch filled with pasta and laughter, all of the students on the trip with us decided to head home on an early bus. Marta, Hannah, Kathy and myself stayed and enjoyed the day in Siena.
Marta, who has been to Siena 42 times? (even though I think that is a lower figure than she told us), had never been to the Museo Civico, a large and prominent museum right in the heart of the Piazza del Campo. First of all, it is important to know that this piazza was established before the 13th century and has been the site for many of history’s most engaging and attended horse races (Palio di Siena) as well as being the remaining focal point of public life within the city. It is from this piazza that eleven narrow streets diffuse out into the city of Siena. Standing in the middle of the slope of bricks that is the center, you can turn 360 degrees and imagine the horses racing at full speed around the track-like diameter. Excited fans and citizens would stand where I was, or the fortunate ones from their windows or terraces, while the horses whizzed by. Now, all of these years later, people gather and fill the area where the horses once raced for outside dining, shopping, or just to enjoy a walk with friends. The area where the people used to gather seemed empty, with only a few walking through to get to the other side or resting before venturing on to another part of the city.
The Museo Civico was like a maze of rooms in which very old frescos and statues were in abundance. Marta acted as the most enthusiastic tour guide I’ve ever had, as she knew the history and story behind each of the paintings she would run up to with excitement. The three of us followed her with smiles and nods, as we eagerly listened to her passionate explanations of the Middle Ages artwork . One thing that she kept shedding light upon really hit me and made Siena that much more special. “No technology, all technique,” she kept saying in reference to the art that filled the walls and halls of this very important public building. All of the intricate and laborious art was done in a time where the artist would have only his hands and tools, which were very limited in comparison to all that we have available today. It was an interesting realization and made me think about the tremendous differences in the work that was created during that time as opposed to the art that is manifested now. The three of us felt very lucky to have stayed in Siena, gaining a lot of interesting knowledge, and of course we ended the day with gelato and a stop at a local sweet shop!