A Passionate Italian

Tuscany’s Fetching Medieval City, Siena Is Gearing Up For Big Excitement. The Palio, To Be Held On The City’s Famous Osyter Shell-Shaped Square On August 16, Is Not Only A Horse Race But A Gigantic Festival.

There’s lots to surprise you in Siena, a fortress city snug in its shell in a pastoral landscape dotted with vineyards and cypress trees. At first glance, a place of architectural uniformity, houses of priceless beauty, narrow labyrinthine streets, centuries-old palaces. But perhaps the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Siena is the Piazzo del Campo, one of Italy’s most beautiful squares, which is divided into nine segments like an oyster shell to represent the city’s nine administrative districts of the time. We start our tour with the palaces around the square, which acquired its present form at the end of the 13th century. CITY ON THREE HILLS The most famous of the palaces surrounding Piazzo del Campo and its centerpiece, the Fonte Gaia, a 15th century fountain fed by spring waters from the surrounding hills, is the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall). This palace, construction of which began in 1284, is an artistic marvel in its own right. The Gothic-style windows of the building, all of whose rooms are adorned wall to wall with paintings and frescoes, were later adapted for the other buildings that went up in the city. Also within the palace is the Museo Civio, which houses the works of local artists. Immediately above it rises the 102-meter Mangia Tower. When you climb its five hundred steps, your reward is a spectacular view of the city. There are so many things to see in Siena that fitting them all into a few days’ trip is out of the question. The 15th century Palazzo delle Papesse is known for its modern art exhibitions. A medieval structure, Santa Maria della Scala Hospital also offers tasteful wall ornamentation for aficionados of this style of painting. And the Siena Duomo, one of Italy’s largest cathedrals, is bursting with more detail than one can possibly take in on a single visit. Sculptures by Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo, frescoes, and intricate inlaid floors dominate its interior, an amalgam of the Gothic and the Romanesque. The Piccolomini Library inside the cathedral is covered in 16th century frescoes. Siena excites not only for its architectural beauty but also for the people’s passion for it. For the Sienese, who are attached to their city with deep affection, have their reasons going far back to the past. Competition among the cities of Tuscany starting with Florence thrust Siena into a protracted struggle that would drag on for centuries, in which even the statue of Venus that adorned the Piazza del Campo in the Middle Ages would not remain unscathed. When Siena was struck by a plague epidemic in 1348, the city’s notables attributed the affliction to the statue, which the common people proceeded to shatter to smithereens and eventually buried at the foot of the Florence city walls. Meanwhile the Battle of Montaperti, a historic victory against Florence, is one of two events to which the Sienese attach great importance. The other is the traditional horse race known as the Palio. PALIO TIME Attracting hundreds of thousands of people to Siena every year between July 2 and August 16, the Palio is a horse race run saddleless through the city’s most famous quarters. There are several reasons for its popularity. First are the festivals, ceremonies and preliminary heats, which run for four days. The average time of the race in contrast is only 75 seconds! The second is that the worst fate that can befall a quarter is not that its horse will be last but that it will come in second! And the third reason is that even husbands and wives, if they are from different quarters, usually live apart during Palio season. The raison d’être of the race, Siena’s quarters were founded in the Middle Ages to provide manpower and tax revenues to pay the mercenaries hired to defend the city. But over the centuries they ceased to be administrative districts, becoming mere units of settlement perpetuated by their closely knit communities. Religious ceremonies, weddings, victories and even festivals came to be celebrated differently in each quarter. Decided by a drawing of straws, only ten of the seventeen quarters can enter the race today. Every quarter has its own name, banner and horse. The horse that finishes first in the three tours run on the 330-meter track around the piazza is declared the winner, and the quarter that owns it celebrates their victory by flying banners to the strains of martial music. And every Sienese invites guests to the city for the occasion, to share in the fun… TUSCAN SALAD: PANZANELLA Sienese cuisine, whose specialties include classic Tuscan salad, a bread and tomato combo, and the thick, handmade pasta called pici, is closely bound to its traditions. A variety of olive oils and a torte known as panforte, made of fruit, nuts and honey, are favorites in the region.