Siena: City of Secrets

Siena: City of Secrets

by Jane Tylus

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Jane Tylus’s Siena is a compelling and intimate portrait of this most secretive of cities, often overlooked by travelers to Italy. Cultural history, intellectual memoir, travelogue, and guidebook, it takes the reader on a quest of discovery through the well- and not-so-well-traveled roads and alleys of a town both medieval and modern.
As Tylus leads us through the city, she shares her passion for Siena in novelistic prose, while never losing sight of the historical complexities that have made Siena one of the most fascinating and beautiful towns in Europe. Today, Siena can appear on the surface standoffish and old-fashioned, especially when compared to its larger, flashier cousins Rome and Florence. But first impressions wear away as we learn from Tylus that Siena was an innovator among the cities of Italy: the first to legislate the building and maintenance of its streets, the first to publicly fund its university, the first to institute a municipal bank, and even the first to ban automobile traffic from its city center.
We learn about Siena’s great artistic and architectural past, hidden behind centuries of painting and rebuilding, and about the distinctive characters of its different neighborhoods, exemplified in the Palio, the highly competitive horserace that takes place twice a year in the city’s main piazza and that serves as both a dividing and a uniting force for the Sienese. Throughout we are guided by the assured voice of a seasoned scholar with a gift for spinning a good story and an eye for the telling detail, whether we are traveling Siena’s modern highways, exploring its underground tunnels, tracking the city’s financial history, or celebrating giants of painting like Simone Martini or giants of the arena, Siena’s former Serie A soccer team.
A practical and engaging guide for tourists and armchair travelers alike, Siena is a testament to the powers of community and resilience in a place that is not quite as timeless and serene as it may at first appear.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226207964
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Jane Tylus is professor of Italian studies and comparative literature at New York University, where she is also faculty director of the Humanities Initiative. Her recent publications include Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Literature, and the Signs of Others, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and The Poetics of Masculinity in Early Modern Italy, coedited with Gerry Milligan.

Read an Excerpt


City of Secrets

By Jane Tylus

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20796-4



The day before I left Siena in the summer of 2012 there was an earthquake, though not in the city proper. The town of Castelnuovo Berardenga, some thirty kilometers away, was at the epicenter, and the tremors measured only 2.7 on the Richter scale. When they came at roughly 10:00 p.m., some friends and I had just left the subterranean quarters of the restaurant Il Divo, beneath the base of the Duomo, where the waitress showed us an early medieval wall and, farther below, what she claimed were Etruscan tombs. We went on to get ice cream with the rest of Siena and paused briefly in the Campo in this period between Palios. It was newly bereft of the terra—the dirt—packed down ten days earlier for the first race. Brought in from warehouses outside the city where it is mixed to a special blend, the earth is dumped along the Campo's perimeter and bulldozed to an even layer. Throughout the week before the Palio it is lovingly watered, as though the workers were hoping flowers might burst forth from the bricks beneath. But now only the white-and-black colors of Siena's flag, the balzana, waved in a night breeze from the top of the Palazzo Pubblico. It was a cool evening. No one noticed, or thought to notice, tremors coming from the Chianti region.

For more than two centuries, the city has been spared the destruction wrought by powerful earthquakes. Small ones come with surprising regularity. Two weeks earlier, at almost the identical hour, and with the same magnitude, tremors had struck not far from Castelnuovo. But May saw the tragic earthquakes of Emilia Romagna—Mirandola, Mantua, Bologna— and L'Aquila and Assisi are still in recent memory. It could happen here again as it did on May 26, 1798, when Siena was left in a "chaos of debris," as one contemporary observer put it. It was a miracle, he and others surely thought, that only four people died. The earthquake drove Pope Pius VI from the monastery of Sant'Agostino, where he'd been in hiding for several months from the Jacobin forces attacking Rome, forcing him northward to Florence. It tore off the facade of San Cristoforo, a now unassuming church on Banchi di Sopra that had served as Siena's first town hall. It crushed Fonte Oliva, the town's easternmost fountain, with its three defensive arches built in 1246. And it halved the belltower of the Dominicans' church on the other side of town, although thanks to quick-thinking friars the head of Saint Catherine, still venerated in a side chapel, was saved.

The response of Ferdinand III, grand duke of Tuscany, was reassuringly swift. Not only were subsidies made available to the poor and tents and temporary shelters erected outside Siena's walls for the newly homeless, but a far-reaching architectural plan was put in place. The irregularities of Siena's buildings—many of them hundreds of years old— would be corrected. Unstable towers came down, upper floors were demolished and porches pulled apart; windows were all made to similar scale and arches constructed across roads to stabilize leaning buildings. Thus the arch in the sloping Via della galluzza under which many a tourist poses for a picture is not medieval at all. It's modern, an early nineteenth-century support funded by Austrians.

The earthquake became the precipitating event for much of what is perceived today as the at times monotonous regularity of Siena's buildings, a regularity that contributes to a sensation shared by all visitors to Siena: how easy it is to get lost. Perhaps more than in most places, Siena's distinctive topography has contributed to its destiny as a town where, as my son once remarked, you almost always know where you're going, but you don't always know where you are. This is the feeling of Siena's streets, almost all of them. Especially once you have left the main artery on the city's easternmost ridge, you encounter a complex and intertwined series of passageways. You can't see in front of you because the streets curve, working their way around a hill or one of the city's old walls; you can't see behind you, so you succumb to a constant sense of suspense that pushes you on. Nor is there vertical visibility. The streets can seem like galleries or tunnels as the facades of palaces and shops arch over you, blocking your view, so you welcome the sudden break to see down a side alley or sometimes, as in Via Giovanni Duprè, to catch a stunning view of the countryside that slopes below you when you'd forgotten it was there at all. There are improbable exits and entrances. Houses begin centimeters from the path your feet take, and suddenly a door swings open into a kitchen or living room, then just as suddenly swings closed before you can get a look inside. The less-traveled roads offer the most surprises: the descent and then the climb behind the Spedale, the neighborhood of San Francesco, the narrow Via del Sole that opens into the gentle hill toward Santa Maria dei Servi, and you turn from the steps in front of the church to see a breathtaking vision of Siena to your north.

"Se siete camminatori," "If you're hikers," a Sienese woman from the Selva once told two elderly tourists, rather sternly, "you can take this route": one with ups and downs, precipitous rises and falls, streets that careen downward to commit suicide near Fontebranda (the lugubrious description used by the lugubrious writer Federigo Tozzi early in the previous century). And the contemporary artist Antonio Possenti has illustrated these slippery streets that land you in the valley of the fountain with its butchers and tanners.

That Fontebranda was one of the centers of Siena's economic and social life when Tozzi left its "noxious air" for Rome in 1916 is testament to another feature of Sienese geology. There is no river running through Siena, with reliable crossings that might punctuate your visit, no neighborhoods that might be easily discernible like the Oltrarno in Florence or Trastevere in Rome. Unlike these towns that originated and grew up around their rivers, Siena with its curving, misaligned streets does not bear the stamp of a Roman castrum, with a prominent grid of roads at right angles. But if the strange experience of Siena's streets is partly a product of nature, it's also due to Siena's curious history: the centuries of human efforts put into urbanizing such a difficult landscape and a passionate attachment to those efforts.

Siena's tenacious fidelity to its attempts to reconcile life with the hills and their lack of water is another reason for one's constant disorientation. "Inglobare," awkwardly translated as "inglobing," is heard frequently in reference to town planning and architecture, referring to the Sienese habit of literally encapsulating an old structure within a new one, incorporating the extraneous without canceling it from the face of the earth. Eight circuits of walls have enclosed the city over the past millennium, and the original ones can still be found, as in Il Divo. Most cities have torn down their old walls, as Florence did on the eve of becoming the capital of the new nation of Italy in 1865. But the Sienese are dogged about preserving the past rather than destroying it, except for the exceptional instance of the 1798 earthquake and its aftermath. Their archives, for example, are among the richest in Italy. They contain, among other documents, the earliest example of writing in an Italian vernacular; there are records from the eighth century of real-estate transactions and from the eleventh of trades at fairs. These administrative capabilities, arguably obsessions, try to control the controllable, which in this harsh landscape was not very much. Maintaining the old walls means maintaining another kind of archive, a record of the city's erratic formation and concessions to nature, testimony of the sheer difficulty of constructing a ring of walls over a jumble of hills.

Or as the Renaissance painter and mapmaker Francesco Vanni put it, strane colline, "strange hills." Three, to be precise. They rise slightly over three hundred meters, just high enough to capture the breezes that never reach the Florentine valley during its humid summers, ensuring few mosquitoes. Vanni was not using this term idly. In the years after Siena fell to Florence, Sienese had the choice of retreating into a pouting defense of their superiority or attempting to work out a modus operandi with their conquerors. Vanni, born in 1564, less than a decade after the defeat, did both. Florence had just been the subject of one of the first examples of axonometric perspective ever created: an urban plan based on an exact correspondence in scale between reality and design. The mapmaker was an Olivetan monk named Stefano Bonsignori, who had patiently drafted his detailed map of Florence for Francesco de' Medici, oldest son of Cosimo, the man who defeated Siena. His map first appeared in 1584 and was reprinted in Siena ten years later—prompting Vanni to petition the Medici to undertake a similar project for his own city.

The comparison is instructive. Bonsignori's map shows a rationally ordered city, modeled on the Roman grid and with all buildings neatly labeled and explained. In Bonsignori's "New Topography"—and it was indeed new—the Arno bisects the rectangular Roman castrum, inhabiting the dead center of the grid where Florence had its earliest walls, long ago dismantled. And within that grid, carefully delineated—accuratissime delineata, as Bonsignori promises—block after block of houses and courtyards stretch across the city, punctuated at regular intervals by recognizably Florentine structures: the Piazza della Signoria (with an off-scale statue of Cosimo de' Medici astride a horse, just as tall as the tower), the churches of San Lorenzo and Santa Croce, the Duomo dwarfing the Baptistery alongside it. It is a world of clarity and order and, one must imagine, to the viewer— particularly Francesco de' Medici—of deep satisfaction. Not a single person disrupts this exercise in architectural rationality that makes us Gullivers looming over miniature buildings, bridges, and farms, with one exception: Bonsignori himself. Holding an enormous quadrant, he sits poised above Florence in the hills southeast of the city, having found near San Miniato an appropriate perch from which to measure his town.

But for Siena, itself on hills, there could be no such perch. Thus Vanni appealed to Francesco's brother Ferdinando, who had taken over as grand duke when Francesco and his mistress/wife suddenly died in 1589, some say of poison though, as recent DNA tests suggest, it was probably malaria. Vanni deliberately compares his project with that of the monk Bonsignori, reminding Ferdinando that the mapmaker of Florence received two hundred scudi for his efforts, along with "vittles." But he is mainly interested in impressing Ferdinando with the difficulties of his enterprise. Whereas Bonsignori had a flat city to map, Vanni has a mountainous or at least a hilly one. The scholar Letizia Galli would have us imagine Vanni "constrained to climb up on a bewildering array of towers and other high points throughout the city to draw and measure houses, streets, churches and palaces, even to calculate the 570 braccia [arm's length, roughly a meter] of the Piazza del Campo."

Evidently Ferdinando was won over, or perhaps Vanni simply plunged ahead without the assurance of the grand duke's cash. His map, like Bonsignori's, gives us palaces, piazze, homes, and gardens. But in contrast to Florence's straight roads, the Sienese roads flow and curve, bending down and around to bottoms of hills where a gibbet awaits. The walls seem to come and go, disappearing into fields or ridges of trees; Siena's boundaries are more porous than Florence's, even as Vanni carefully marks out all eight exterior gates, barriers by night, entryways by day.

There are no inhabitants in Vanni's city either—and no representation of Vanni. But the map is crowded in a way Bonsignori's is not. Above Siena floats not a lone cartographer, but an entire choir of Sienese saints, beati, bishops, and hermits, with Mary at their center, beckoning down to Catherine on her left, San Bernardino on her right, and the city that called itself Sena Vetus Civitas Virginis—Siena, Ancient City of the Virgin—below. Beneath the saints, who occupy a full quarter of the map and thus present their own typography of Siena's sacred history, the city unfurls like a rose slowly opening its petals. Its one main artery loops down the center to end amid a swirl of lesser roads, its upper half bisected by other ribbons that form concentric circles around the Duomo or the Campo to vanish in the rural spaces beyond as countryside and orchards merge with the city.

Whereas the map of Florence is resolutely horizontal—one can easily take in all of the city by climbing above it—Vanni's map is emphatically vertical, with the campanile of the Duomo arching up toward Porta Tufi and the Porta in turn arching up to touch heaven, or at least the toe of S. Iohannes Mart., martyr for the church. Unlike Florence, flattened by a monk who holds a quadrant at a right angle to bind the city securely to terrestrial affairs, Siena rises improbably upward. Its three hills are all shifted to the southern side of the city. We become spectators at its northern base, gazing up from the (then battered) Porta Camollia near a gibbet and the oversized Medici fort, to San Domenico and San Francesco on opposing sides of the city, to the Duomo and the Campo—a dark smudge not quite in the map's center—and then to the several southern gates that lead us not so much outward toward Rome as up to the panoply of saintly people. Most of them are otherwise engaged, but a few—Saint Peter Martyr, Mary—cast an affectionate, perhaps anxious eye below. As it introduces a coherent street plan if not scientifically correct perspective, Vanni's map perpetuates the Sienese legacy that Florence could never claim. In providing a southern orientation, Vanni does not so much cater to his would-be Florentine patron, a Medici looking south from Florence, as suggest how Siena itself looks south: toward Rome.

Rome was in fact where Vanni and other painters of his generation—the first generation to be born into a Siena that was no longer free—spent their years in training, rather than in Florence, where Giorgio Vasari had recently painted Siena's defeat for the Palazzo Vecchio. But the geological legacy is even more suggestive. Rome is Siena's topographical twin, and Jerusalem is too. These are sacred cities, cities on a hill, or more precisely, hills—queste strane colline, as Vanni refers to them in his letter. The hills, and Siena's disposition to save everything built on them, turned the town into an essentially unmappable space. In the absence of a master planner, with the conglomeration of buildings and archways and walls and the "inglobing" of old walls and old streets, the town emerged as something appealingly random, a living organism that grew in endearing and unpredictable ways. But the hills also gave the Sienese a sense of purpose, allowing them to imagine a sacred dimension to their chosen site, removed from the ordinary and profane. They are closer to God, like a Babylonian ziggurat or the Tower of Babel (a fabulous painting of which, by an unknown Flemish artist, is in the Pinacoteca, Siena's main art museum, its peak disappearing into striated mists) or Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. You can find Mount Sinai in Siena too. The sixteenth-century artist Domenico Beccafumi, beloved by Faluschi, designed scenes from the life of Moses for the pavement of the cathedral, directly beneath the dome, featuring the mountain as both protagonist and looming backdrop as Moses descends to his faithless people.


Excerpted from Siena by Jane Tylus. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction / City of Secrets

1 Terra and Acqua
2 Pilgrims
3 Money
4 Neighborhoods
5 Saints


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