Travels & Traditions: Siena, Italy - #607

BURT WOLF: During the 9th century, the hill town of Siena in central Italy became a major stopping point on the road between Paris and Rome. By the beginning of the 12th century it was a bustling city producing some of the best wool in Italy, developing a clothing industry and exploiting a small silver mine. 

By the end of the 12th century Siena was a commercial and financial center and her growing economic success began to challenge the city of Florence which was only 30 miles to the north. An emotional competition developed between the two cities which eventually led to the Battle of Montaperti in 1260.

Siena won the battle and entered a period of extraordinary power -- power which rested in the hands of a small group of influential families. One way the families showed their new-found wealth and influence was the construction of magnificent fortified palaces.

The city’s location on the road to Rome gave it a commercial advantage but it also made it a resting place for pilgrims. If you were on your way to the Vatican from virtually any part of Europe you made a stop at Siena.

During the 12th century, the city began building a series of outstanding churches, towers and public squares. And since most of the modern construction has taken place outside the old city, Siena’s character remains relatively unspoiled. Narrow winding streets and ancient buildings give Siena a distinct medieval feeling.


BURT WOLF: Hundreds of years ago, Siena was divided into sub-districts called contrade -- 17 of them still exist. They were not set up simply as geographic boundaries; they were self-governing political and social neighborhoods.

Each contrade has an emblem that represents one of the virtues attributed to Siena. The Giraffe for elegance. The Snail for prudence. The emblem with the Sea Creature and water is the Wave and it stands for joy.

Debra Barbagli is in charge of the women’s society for the contrade of the Goose.

DEBRA BARBAGLI ON CAMERA: Contrade is a kind of life and it’s a life full of people, with people that have the same feelings that you have. And if you need something, you know that in your Contrade you can find this help. 

BURT WOLF: The Noble contrade of the goose stands for wisdom and intelligence. It was awarded the title of noble because of the courage shown by its militia in the battles against Florence. Like the other contrade it has an administrative building, a museum which displays trophies of its past, a neighborhood band, a warehouse for the storage of weapons it used in great battles, a fountain and a community church.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Churches historically have been important for their community because of the importance of what happens inside the church. One of the central aspects of the liturgical celebration – The Mass - is the unity of the people attending and participating. And so the spiritual unity on Sunday if you will spills out into the community the other days of the week. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Recently, sociologists have become interested in the effects of the contrade on society. They appear to solidify the community and they have given Siena one of the lowest crime rates of any city in the world.

BURT WOLF: The goose is of particular importance because this was the contrade into which Siena’s own St. Catherine was born.


BURT WOLF: In the middle of the 1300s, Siena was devastated by the plague. Known as the Black Death it reduced Siena’s population from 50,000 to 10,000. It also ushered in a period of religious fervor that produced two celebrated saints, Bernardino and Catherine.

The Basilica di San Domenico was a convent of Dominican friars in the neighborhood where St. Catherine was born. This was the Basilica in which she had her first religious visions.

A series of frescos on the walls of the building tell the story of her life.

She was born in 1347, the twenty-third child in a lower middle class family. At the age of six she began to have visions of angels helping people. During her teen years the visions strengthened and her reputation began to spread throughout the city.

At the east end of the Basilica, on an elevated platform, there is a small chapel with the only portrait of St. Catherine painted during her lifetime. It was painted by her friend Andrea Vanni.

Catherine could not read or write but she dictated hundreds of letters. She wrote to kings and Popes and influenced the politics of Europe.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well 14th century Italy the politics you can describe in one word – brutal. At some point the Popes have enough. And they decide, we’re gonna move somewhere else. And in the 14th Century they move to France, Avignon. It’s sort of like moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. Because they still have all the problems politically in Italy, now they have the additional problem of the influence of the French King on the Papacy.

So toward the end of the 14th Century the Pope Gregory the XI had secretly decided that he was going to move the Papacy from Avignon back to Rome. It’s difficult because of course the French king did not want that move to happen. He meets with Catherine of Siena. And Catherine of Siena begins the meeting by saying, “Fulfill what you promised.” And this comes as a pretty big surprise to the Pope because he hasn’t told anyone what he’s promised. So he decides to get a move on and to move back to Rome.

BURT WOLF: In 1939, she was named Patron Saint of Italy, and a few years later, Patron Saint of all Europe.


BURT WOLF: St. Bernardino was born in 1380, the same year that St. Catherine died. In spite of the fact that he was born into a noble family, he spent his early adult years helping the sick. He was known as the “People’s Preacher” because his sermons were filled with realistic descriptions of life -- from what went on in the home of a bachelor to what was going on in women’s fashions.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: He was fed-up with the lawless and immoral behavior that he saw around him and started traveling throughout Italy preaching for a return to the decent and ethical life that he saw in the teachings of Christ. He usually spoke outdoors in big open spaces because the crowds that came to see him were so large they couldn’t fit into a church.

St. Bernardino spent a considerable amount of time calling the Sienese to task for their bad behavior. At one point St. Bernardino was confronted by a man in the playing card business who complained that because St. Bernardino was always preaching against gambling his playing card business was being ruined. St. Bernardino suggested that he stop printing playing cards and print cards with the symbol of Christ instead. And his business got much bigger.

BURT WOLF: Bernardino’s ability to communicate Christian ideas through simple language and symbols was recognized by Pope Pius XII, who made him the patron saint of advertising.


BURT WOLF: On the top of one of the three hills of Siena is a Basilica dedicated to St. Francis and it was in front of this church that St. Bernardino preached one of his famous sermons.

Maria Elena Torchio is an authority on the art and architecture of Siena.

MARIA ELENA TORCHIO ON CAMERA: The church was erected just with the intention to have many people inside. So it’s very interesting because there is only one nave and no pillars and no columns. It looks like a sort of indoor square. The most important frescos date back to the medieval time. Actually in the church are those ones painted by the two brothers, Pietro and Ambroseo Lorenzetti.

Pietro was asked to paint a very beautiful and dramatic crucifixion. While Ambroseo he was asked to paint something dating back to the period of St. Francis connected to the history of the Franciscan friars. So you find the martyrdom of some friars which happened in the northern part of Africa. 


BURT WOLF: It was during the 13th and 14th centuries that Siena’s most important public works were constructed including the Palazzo Pubblico which is considered to be one of the most elegant buildings in Italy and the inspiration for many of the other palaces in Siena.

It has been the seat of the city’s government for almost 700 years.

Siena was well aware that its love of wealth and power was often in conflict with it's’ love of the Virgin Mary. The Palazzo Pubblico is filled with art that addresses this problem.

A perfect example is The Portrait of our Lady in the Hall of the Great Council.

On the surface the subject appears to be entirely religious, but that is not the case.

There is a block of text in which Mary warns the government to act with humility and justice.

It says, “I will answer your prayers, but if the strong molest the weak, your prayers will go unheeded.” 

Down the hall is a giant fresco that dates to 1335 and makes the same point in a different way. It's titled "the Effects of Good and Bad Government".

There are two matching scenes. One is Siena under good government -- the other under bad government. Good government is represented by a wise old man dressed in the colors of Siena. Next to him are the cardinal virtues -- Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Prudence is always at the head of the line because it is the virtue that regulates all the others. Above are Faith, Hope and Charity. In the properly governed city, life is peaceful, work is progressing.

Bad government is marked by the dishonesty of public officials, pride, greed, mismanagement, and the power of special interests.


BURT WOLF: The center of Siena, both culturally and physically, is a plaza called The Campo. It is one of the most famous squares in the world and for centuries it has been the focal point of Siena’s political and social life. This was the site where official government proclamations were read.

Early on Siena became a sophisticated self-governing republic and divided itself into associations, each with its own political and economic interests. And the Campo was the spot where the associations came to battle things out.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Differences of opinion among the groups was often settled by an organized street fight in the Campo -- with about three hundred guys to a side. The rules called for fists-only but from time to time a dagger or a sword or a battle axe would slip in. At some point in history they were able to redirect most of the anger into a horse race.

BURT WOLF: The Campo is the site of that race and it’s called The Palio. It was first recorded in 1283 but probably goes back much earlier. The race is held twice each year on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. The edges of the plaza are covered with sand and the corners are protected with padding. Each of the ten horses in the race represents a neighborhood association, one of the Contrade. On the morning of the race there is an elaborate procession through the streets and around The Campo. The participants are dressed in 15th century costumes.

The race itself takes less than two minutes -- enough time for the riders to circle The Campo three times.

There are no rules of conduct for the race which takes on the character of a moving free for all.

Considerable amounts of money are bet on the outcome and the honor of each neighborhood is at stake.


BURT WOLF: Siena’s great Cathedral was planned as the largest cathedral in the world. What you see here today, however, is only a small section of the original design. The arrival of the Black Plague in 1348 put an end to the grand plan.

MARIA ELENA TORCHIO ON CAMERA: The church was begun at just after the end of the 12th century, and it was completed in the middle of the 14th century. It took about 200 years to do all this. It was made in bricks, and bricks were covered with a coating of marble stripes. The idea of using marble stripes came from far away, from the mid-Eastern world. It’s something you found in Turkey and Syria first of all but it's also very evident in Spain, in the southern part of Italy. It’s like a fashion they brought from there.

The relationship with the mid-Eastern world was really very important. They had trade all around the Mediterranean area. They had many families, from Siena they moved down to the mid-Eastern world just to go to Crusades in the Holy Lands. And coming back, they brought back artists’ objects, ideas. So they knew the use of marble stripes.

What is really very unique here in this cathedral is the floor, because it’s something that you find only here. And then the whole floor is covered in marble. It had to be like a picture book, to give messages to help people understanding something. We have to remember people were not able to read. And the floor is dedicated, not only to religious subjects; you find something from mythology, from the classical world, very profane subjects, just to help people understanding something.

The church itself is like a museum. In the centuries they went on adding more and more just to show the authority the importance and the power of the church. 

BURT WOLF: The church also houses the Piccolomini Library which is covered with a series of frescos that illustrate the life of Pope Pious II. The colors of the frescos in the library are original. Because votive candles were not used in the room and very few candles for light, the walls were never repainted. Today when a curator is restoring a work of art and wants to check on what colors were really like during the 1500s, they come here.


BURT WOLF: The city of Siena has dedicated itself to the Virgin Mary and there are hundreds of stories that tell of her intercession on behalf of the people. The most famous took place in 1260.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A messenger arrived from Florence with two demands. First, the Sienese must demolish their city walls. Second, they must return a group of Florentines who had gone to Siena to escape Florence’s repressive government. If those two demands were not met a 40,000-man Florentine army would come and crush Siena.

BURT WOLF: The odds were overwhelmingly against the Sienese but they still decided to resist. They went to their, as yet unfinished, cathedral which had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, placed the keys to the city on the altar and prayed for her help. The next day the Sienese won the battle and totally demolished the Florentines. Since then, every time the city has been in danger, the citizens of Siena have gone to the Virgin Mary for help.

Most recently it was during the Second World War. In 1944, American forces were bombing their way north. Town after town was being hit by allied planes. The German stronghold at Siena was targeted for a major bombing raid.

The residents of the city crowded into the Cathedral and once again asked the Virgin Mary for help. The next day the raid was canceled and the city was saved.


BURT WOLF: In the year 1314, Cardinal Riccardo Petroni ordered the construction of a monastery on the outskirts of Siena.

A well was dug. A tower was constructed. And the cloister built around them.

During the Renaissance a series of galleries were added along the sides of the courtyard.

Outside the central building the monks set up their vineyards.

Olive trees were planted.

Fruit and vegetable beds were installed.

Herbs were cultivated for both medicinal and gastronomic use.

And for hundreds of years these buildings and the land around them functioned as an important monastery.

But by the early years of the 20th century, the property fell into a dismal state of disrepair.

Then in 1969 it was taken over by Anna Grossi Recordate. Anna spent over five years restoring it and transforming it into a small hotel called Certosa Di Maggiano.

There are only 17 rooms and they correspond to what were once 17 monastic cells. But no monastery ever looked like this. Each room is decorated in a slightly different style.

The public rooms include a library where cocktails are served before dinner.

There is a large sitting room called “The Emperor’s Hall” because of the twelve 18th century paintings that portray twelve of the emperors of Rome.

Breakfasts are served in an area that once was the monastery’s kitchen and has been decorated with traditional Tuscan cooking equipment. When the weather is right, breakfast is also served on the nearby patio.

Dinners are served in a small elegant dining room or under the arches of the central cloister. The restaurants excellent food has made it famous.

In addition to the olive groves and the vineyards there is an occasional tennis court and a helicopter landing pad.


BURT WOLF: Whenever I describe a church I start with the date of its construction. The structure’s ability to last for hundreds of years is a sign of its capacity to counter the effects of time by keeping memory alive.

In fact, keeping memory alive is one of the primary tasks of a church and it does it on two levels.

On one level it reminds people of the collective experience of their religion. It reminds them that they are part of a group and the solidarity of that group can help them deal with the stress of life.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On a second level it can remind us of special moments -- moments when we go beyond what we know in our mind to what we feel in our hearts.

A well-designed church or synagogue or mosque can remind you of those moments. But it can also remind you that more of those moments may lie ahead in your life. And that the new ones might be even more significant than the ones you’ve already experienced. 

For Travels & Traditions I’m Burt Wolf.