Some rain, more rain and some more more rain and the hail one afternoon in Siena. O sole mio, dov’e sei? Otherwise, lots of fun, good food, chianti, lots of art and medieval history 🙂 So besides the sun that I haven’t found, Tuscany is best known for its rolling hills, which are populated by golden vineyards and can often be found on postcards and prints of Italy. Other famous sights to see in Tuscany include its many medieval hilltop towns, its capital city of Florence (known as Firenze in Italian), and its rich red Chianti wines.

What’s more is that history buffs will soon fall in love with the region on account of the fact that it’s widely regarded to be the firstly inhabited by Etruscans, civilisation before Romans, who used a developed system of interrogation and changed the biosphere of Apennine Peninsula for good.

Pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena between Rome and France brought wealth and development during the medieval period. One family that benefitted from Florence’s growing wealth and power was the ruling Medici family. Its scion Lorenzo de’ Medici was one of the most famous of the Medici. The legacy of his influence is visible today in the prodigious expression of art and architecture in Florence. His famous descendant Catherine de’ Medici married King Henry II of France in 16th century.

The Black Death epidemic hit Tuscany starting in 14th century. It eventually killed 70% of the Tuscan population.

Florence

Florence was a centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of that era. Originally a Roman city, it became the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Florence Cathedral, formally the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is a 13 century gothic style churchm famous for the dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. Naturally, it was my first stop.

The dome remains the largest brick dome ever constructed and it is a total master piece. The exterior of the basilica is faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink, bordered by white. This makes it unique appearance.

The interior is vast and gives the empty impression. This is due to taking all of the paintings, tapistries and possible pieces of art to Galleria degli Uffizi and Galleria della Academia. I have visited both so some photos and explanation later in this post below. All the other remains are mostly Donatello‘s.

However, the great thing to admire, and that was not possible to be taken away is the painting of Dante Before the City of Florence by Domenico di Michelino. This painting is especially interesting because it shows us, apart from scenes of the Divine Comedy, a view on Florence in 15th century. The link between Dante and Florence is unbreakable and perplexed. Dante was born in Florence. He gave the art to the city and was celebrated for that, but later was exiled being charged for corruption and he never saw the city again.

He was instrumental in establishing the literature of Italy. His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven provided inspiration for the larger body of Western art and literature.

The inside of the Duomo is spectacular – decorated with a representation of The Last Judgment by Vasari and Zuccari. It was again, the famous Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who decided to have the ceiling of the dome painted.

I queued for a good hour to enter and got impressed more with the outside that the inside of the cathedral. So I leave you some more photos of the Baptistery, Bell tower and the Duomo itself. 🙂 Santa Reparata won.t be pleased, I know.

Time for lunch and some great Italian specialties: ragu and spaghetti oglio e pepe. Ragu was made of wild boar, which is apparently a typical animal that runs around the hills and forests of Tuscany and it is a must do for foodies. Top with the local pecorino cheese and you have it complete. 🙂

After a good meal, and still lots of rain, I have decided to find a shelter in nearby Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, or “Gallery of the Academy of Florence” – an art museum in Florence. It is best known as the home of Michelangelo’s sculpture David.

And many art works from the Cathedral, as early mentioned.

Lignum vitae by Pacino, 14th century – the ancient theme of the Tree of Life merged with the story of the life of Christ. The twelve “branches” or “fruits” and forty-eight chapters – in the center stands Christ crucified, in the realistic position with a few expressionistic hints such as the blood flowing down the trunk of the Tree. On each side, six branches from which hang fruits with Christ stories, symbolizing the virtues of Jesus. The last branch is paradise.
Cassone Adimari, with The Triumph of Love shown as taking place in Piazza del Duomo, by Giovanni di Giovanni

David is not that much of a perfection, as they like to say. I have noticed that his fists and feet are extremely big and a bit unproportional to his 5 metres body. I have searched a bit the possible answers and apparently this might be because the statue was originally supposed to be placed on the cathedral roofline, where the important parts of the sculpture may have been accentuated in order to be visible from below.

In the Gallery, I found particularly interesting the representation of the art before the renaissance times. The paintings were less dimensional, mostly 2D and flat. The renaissance art brings the third dimension and portraits the landscapes behind, which witnesses the appearance of the cities, landscapes of the time. Middle age art is focused on religious depictions. Renaissance is focused on venerisation of human body. Anthropology is starting to take its toll. Human suffering for eternal life is no longer important. Churche’s sin forgiveness is now obsolete and human turns towards the wordly satisfactions. Something that monk Girolamo Savonarola will criticise: both the popes for being libidinous and humans for being gluttonous.

Galleria houses as well the collection of musical instruments. The collection comprises about fifty instruments, dating from the late 17th to 19th centuries, formerly belonging to members of the Medici and Lorraine families. Among the most interesting instruments on display are a tenor viola by Antonio Stradivari, a violoncello which formed part of the same quintet of strings made in 1690 for Grand Prince Ferdinando, a violin of 1716 by Stradivari and a cello of 1650 by Niccolò Amati. The Museum also has two rare instruments by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano, and the oldest vertical piano in existence. The instruments are exhibited with paintings representing musicians at the Medici court. Jaw down.

Florence was home to the Medici, one of European history’s most important noble families. Lorenzo de’ Medici was considered a political and cultural mastermind of Italy in the late 15th century. (When Machiavelli is writing Il Principe, he dedicates the first pages to Lorenzo, trying to return his political stage at Medicis court, emboiding the Prince in Cesare Borgia, a crude, brutal and cunning prince of the Papal States.) Two members of the family were popes in the early 16th century: Leo X and Clement VII.  As previously mentioned, Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France and, after his death in 1559, reigned as regent in France. Marie de’ Medici married Henry IV of France and gave birth to the future King Louis XIII. The Medici reigned as Grand Dukes of Tuscany, starting with Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1569 and ending with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici in 1737. The will of was that Medicis’ enormous art collection and other treasures are given to the Tuscan state, on the condition they always remain in Florence. Some centuries later, Red Riding Hood walks around with her jaw down.

The plague swept Italy couple of times in the middle ages and social distancing was inevitable. Hence the tiny wine windows that allowed merchants to pass vino through a small hole in the wall to avoid direct contact with clients. In the recent exposure of Chinese virus covid19, these holes became popular again.

Cute, isn’t it? The history repeats itself over and over again.

About 150 holes (buce) exist inside Florence’s old city walls, while another 100-plus have been cataloged beyond the walls and throughout Tuscany, the region to which the windows are apparently unique.

In 1348 the Black Death swept across the Italian Peninsula, but the region of Tuscany suffered considerably as a result of the plague.  The three major cities of Florence, Pisa and Siena, prior to the plague, experienced a series of unfortunate events leading up to the cataclysmic Black Death that resulted in incredibly high mortality rates.  Tuscans were uncertain and frightened about their future, turning to religious imagery to provide some stability in this characteristically unstable time.

It is when the Bocaccio’s Decameron appears when 10 young people escape to countryside and tell 10 stories iper 10 following days making it deka, latin ten – which compiles the one hundred. (The admiration of numbers was a big thing in renaissance).

Time for a snack: an aperol spritz and espresso italiano and una Cecina toscana, also known as “hot hot” is a tasty, thin flatbread made from chickpea. Cecina, a traditional tuscan dish of the area of Pisa. Also visited some year ago 🙂

Further along, following more the Medici’s, I have arrived to Piazza della Signoria. It is the square that houses the Medici’s ruling court – Palazzo Vecchio. It is the main point of the origin and history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political focus of the city. The Loggia dei Lanzi consists of wide arches open to the street. The arches rest on clustered columns with Corinthian capitals. The wide arches appealed so much to the Florentines, that Michelangelo even proposed that they should be continued all around the Piazza della Signoria. It is effectively an open-air sculpture gallery of antique and Renaissance art including the Medici lions. Most of the statues are Donatello’s work of art.

In the centre of the Piazza della Signoria is the monument dedicated to Cosimo de Medici as the monument to a ruler’s power. The Cosimo statue stands in front of the north corner of the Palazzo della Signoria, adjacent to the Fountain of Neptune (16 century) that had been commissioned by Cosimo himself. Together this duo celebrates the land and sea ambitions of Cosimo. The base of the statue has reliefs with scenes from the life of Cosimo, including his coronation in Rome as Grand-Duke and his entrance into Siena as a ruler after his victory over that republic. Siena and Florence were rivals for centuries.

In front of the fountain of Neptune, a round marble plaque marks the exact spot where Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned.

In 1299, the commune and people of Florence decided to build a palace that would be worthy of the city’s importance, and that would be more secure and defensible in times of turbulence for the magistrates of the commune. Cosimo de Medici moved in and the rest is history. The palace gained new importance as the seat of united Italy’s provisional government from 1865–71, at a moment when Florence had become the temporary capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

Above the front entrance door, there is a notable ornamental marble frontispiece, dating from 1528. In the middle, flanked by two gilded lions, is the Monogram of Christ, surrounded by a glory, above the text (in Latin): “Rex Regum et Dominus Dominantium” (translation: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”. In front it the statue of Michelangelo’s David, now a duplicate of its original placement.

Now, entering the Palazzo Vecchio was something else! The frescoes on the walls are vedute of the cities of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy, painted in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari for the wedding celebration of Francesco I de’ Medici, the eldest son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, to Archduchess Johanna of Austria, sister of the Emperor Maximilian II. Amongst the cities depicted are Graz, Innsbruck, Linz, ViennaBratislava (Pozsony), Prague, Hall in Tirol, Freiburg im Breisgau and Konstanz.

Some of the most important painting were lost though in the times of political turbulence, including the Battle of Cascina by Michelangelo, and the Battle of Anghiari by Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps, these were the only Michalengelo’s paintings here in Florence as the young painter was invited to Rome to paint Sixtine Chapel, and remained there. Cosimo tried for years to bring him back to be able to compete with the glory of Rome, but unsuccessfully. However, when Michalengelo died, Cosimo sent guards to Rome to steal his body and buried him in Florence in Basilica of Santa Croce. So much history, isn’t it?

First and second floor was the home of Cosimo I and his wife Eleonora of Toledo so it contains their portraits and depictions from their lives.

For all the admirerers of Dante and his Divine Comedy in which he used the Tuscan Dialect that will later become Italian official language, after years of using latin, here the mask of Dante. It is not much clear how the mask arrived, but if you ever read Dan Brown’s Inferno with Tom Hanks – you will know the importance. 🙂

Machiavelli’s room was placed on the first floor though, opposite of the rooms of the guards and sevants and attendants.

Somewhere at the door, it was written Festina Lente – (translation: Hurry up slowly). By that time, I was on my knees since 5:30 that morning and my legs were starting to disappoint me. With the view on the city, I started to slowly make my day to an end.

One more view on the palace court and Salone di Cinquecento as the most imposing chamber of the palace.

On my way out, back to Piazza della Signoria, I have noticed the exhibition of the Italian football il calcio dedicated to the Italian winning of the world championship in 1982 against West Germany. Odd, I thought – having in mind Italy haven’t qualify the worldchampionship this year in Qatar, 2022 – again, followed by the big scandal and shame.

Nevertheless, the day was continuing, somehow. As the Galleria degli Uffizi was just next to the Piazza della Signoria, I followed the heart and bought the entrance ticket. The outside of the galery is amazing as well. There are archades with many statues of important italians on the pillars.

One of the most important Italian museums and the most visited, it is also one of the largest and best known in the world and holds a collection of priceless works, particularly from the period of the Italian Renaissance.

So the hallway (with the portrait of Macchiavelli) in the center looks like this:

From the imrtant paintings and sculptures there, and that are as well important to me, I am singling out:

Fortitude, Temperance, Faith, Charity, Hope, Justice, Prudence by Botticcelli and Polaiollo
Primavera by Botticelli
The Birth of Venus by Boticelli

 In 1993, the Sicilian Mafia carried out a car bomb explosion which damaged parts of the palace and killed five people.

Time for a small stop. Legs are killing by now, defeating me totally. How about a glass of chianti wine with the view on Ponte Vecchio?

Chianti wine is produced in the Chianti region of central Tuscany. It was historically associated with a squat bottle enclosed in a straw basket, called a fiasco.

Ponte Vecchio crosses the river Arno and it is believed to be built in Roman times. It is noted for the shops built along it; building shops on such bridges was once a common practice. Butchers, tanners, and farmers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers, and souvenir sellers.

Before I finally finish the day, did you know that Carlo Collodi was from Florence as well? There are many shops dedicated to him and his Pinocchio. 🙂

First night dinner was in a fabulous Buca di Poldo. It is a basement, with an Italian charm and two twin waiters that are an absolute scetch. One is extremely talkative, the other one is clumsy, to that level that he almost set up our table on fire, broke the basket with bread and spill the water. One of them wrongly charged us for the bill, in our favourite 🙂 So you have to forgive them when you learn their modus operandi.

We had Biastecca alla Fiorentina – typical fiorentine dish made of tuscane type of veal called chianina. It is never served of less than 1.1 kg so it kinda makes it a dish for two. Desert was Italian gelato with local truffles and some limoncello.

The next day was easy and relaxed. I have been discovering more of Florence and more of its beauty. Florence was the prefecture of the French département of Arno from 1808 to the fall of Napoleon in 1814. Of course this guy! The Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty was restored on the throne of Tuscany at the Congress of Vienna but finally deposed in 1859. Tuscany became a region of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

River Arno and the stoned bridge

Wandering more around, I have noticed children coming from school. The door of the school garden were widely open, as their parents were waiting for them. I couldn’t not notice the big statue of Hercule. What a blessing for these little kids. To be used to have such works of art at early stage.

When the time for the dinner came I was super hungry as most of the day I was wandering around and saving myself for the evening foodie affordings. Recommendations said Mercato centrale. It was open until midnight and it came in combination with many vintage clothes and souvenirs booths. Night life seemed exciting and it happens to be that most of the museums were still open and vivid until at least 22:00 if not longer.

Che cosa si mangia al Mercato Centrale di Firenze? Well, I had greatest spaghetti with truffles, spaghetti carbonara with truffles, antipasti and good old chianti classico.


Toscana country side and wine tasting

The very next day was reserved for visit to hills of Tuscany and its countryside and of course, some chianti tasting and antipasti.

The Tuscany region is filled with countless picturesque mountain towns, each with its own personal charm, though they share in common magnificent views of hills and valleys, vineyards and neat rows of cypress trees, dreamy villas, and medieval castles surrounded by ancient stone walls, and villas that are simply a dream. And the wine, oh, you can not talk about Tuscany without mentioning the region’s excellent wine that comes from there, and flows there like water.

Our first visit was to Casa Emma. It is a local agricultural house that produces their own wine, olive and truffle oil. The host introduced us to their guesses who are fertilizers and insect eaters, meaning the protectors of the vineyards. We had rose, chianti, chianti classico and supertuscan accompanied by antipasti: bread with olive oil, truffle oil and aceto balsamico.

A true chianti is based on san giovese grapes.

Fun fact, it is not chianti classico if the bottle doesn’t have trade mark or a black rooster, which is a symbol of Chianti region. Why? Bceuase once upon a time, Sienna and Florence were rivals and competing in territory. To ark finally their borders, they agreed to send each a knight as of early in the morning when the first rooster marks his coocooricoo. The place where they meet will be the border. But Fiorentines, being bad neighbors as it was proven in the history, kept their rooster for days without food and water. So naturally, when the day came, the rooster was already awake of hunger and started to sing first. The Fiorentine knight rode longer and gain more territory.

The next stop was Casa Montecchi and visit to the cellar. The guide explained the process and importance of the tuscan soil for the chianti production. In certain moment, it finally stopped raining, but the clouds were still dramatic.

To come back alive after all these tuscan charm, I had to get myself an espresso. I found some cute typical Italian coffee shop and drank two by standing – as the Italians would do.

Now, I have to say that normally I would push myself to go and explore more. But I went back to hotel just to rest for 5 minutes. My charming Italian hotel enchanted me and I slept until 18:00. Damn Chianti, damn!! Il vino e mobile.


Siena

Now Siena was something else. Same meaning but a bit of a different taste. Firstly set by the Etruscans, and later by Romans it was unimportant as there was no road that lead to the city. According to local legend, Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus and thus nephews of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Supposedly after their father’s murder by Romulus, they fled Rome, taking with them the statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants (Capitoline Wolf), thus appropriating that symbol for the town. Additionally they rode white and black horses so the coat of arms it half black and half white. As the marble of basilica.

Christianity arrived late to Siena, as the direct road was lacking and eventually it was taken by Charlemagne. Lombards rerouted much of their trade between the Lombards’ northern possessions and Rome along a more secure road through Siena. Siena prospered as a trading post, and the constant streams of pilgrims passing to and from Rome provided a valuable source of income in the centuries to come.

The oldest aristocratic families in Siena date their line to the Lombards’ surrender in 774 to Charlemagne. The city is historically linked to commercial and banking activities, having been a major banking center until the 13th and 14th centuries. Siena is also home to the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi bank, which has been operating continuously since 1472. Medici’s of course, were there to ensure their piece of cake.

The University of Siena founded in 1240 is one of the oldest in the world.

Me arriving there by bus got all this impression and had difficulties to buy the bus ticket. It is a total organised scam. There is no vending machine, but there is a bus boy who is going to verify that you were not able to buy a ticket from company A, that the driver can not sell you the ticket because he is the company B and the bus boy is a company C. But still, he is going to charge you the penalties. Shitty little Italian bureaucracy. So typical!

As I paid my ticket, I noticed the rain become a hail. There was nothing else to do but to hide in some ostaria and wait for the weather to pass by. The place for called La Chiacheria. The owner let me try the grappa from chianti classico and chose the wine for me. This time it was not chianti but Val d’Orcia – another wine region of Tuscany. From the prime piatti there was spaghetti aglio et olio. Secondi piatti: trippe (lampredotto) and la bistecca toscana.

Siena is up on the hill, but once you enter the old city, you are constantly going up and down. Strolling one of the streets and hitting the right passage, I finally found myself at  Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped town square. This is part of the site for the Palio horse race. The Palazzo Pubblico, itself a great work of architecture.

The twice-a-year horse-race, Palio di Siena, is held around the edges of the piazza. The piazza is also the finish of the annual road cycling race Strade Bianche.

Piazza del Campo unfurls before the Palazzo Pubblico with its tall Torre del Mangia. This a town hall palace of Siena with the history itself. The outside of the structure is an example of Italian medieval architecture with Gothic influences. In the middle of the facade you can see the christogram with the initials of the Jesus Christ.

The tower was designed to be taller than the tower in neighboring rival Florence; at the time it was the tallest structure in Italy.

The Siena Cathedral (Duomo), from the 12th century, is a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque–Gothic architecture. A proposed expansion of the eastern transept would have transformed the church into an ambitiously massive basilica, the largest then in the world. However, the scarcity of funds, in part due to war and the Black Death, truncated the project.

The façade of Siena Cathedral is one of the most fascinating in all of Italy and certainly one of the most impressive features in Siena.

In the interior the pictorial effect of the black and white marble stripes on the walls and columns strikes the eye. Black and white are the colours of the civic coat of arms of Siena. The horizontal molding around the nave and the presbytery contains 172 plaster busts of popes dating from the 15th and 16th centuries starting with St. Peter and ending with Lucius III.

The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist is situated in the left transept. At the back of this chapel, amidst the rich renaissance decorations, is the bronze statue of St. John the Baptist by Donatello. In the middle of the chapel is a 15th-century baptismal font. But most impressive in this chapel are the eight frescoes by Pinturicchio.

I have to say, this is my top 5 churches of the world. I was holding my breath while discovering pieces of Christian history and and art of Europe – the craddle of civilisation. Just like, for example, the panel from 1473: Stories from the Life of Judith and the Liberazione di Betulia by Urbano da Cortona.

Or, for example the Picolomini Librarry housing precious illuminated choir books and frescoes. The frescoes tell the story of the life of Siena’s favorite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II.

The small Chigi Chapel (or Cappella della Madonna del Voto) is situated in the right transept. It is the last, most luxurious sculptural addition to the Duomo, and was commissioned in 1659 by the Sienese Chigi pope Alexander VII. On the eve of the battle of Montaperti (in1260) against Florence, the city of Siena had dedicated itself to the Madonna. The victory of the Sienese, against all odds, over the much more numerous Florentines was ascribed to her miraculous protection. In dedication to that, I have listen my own small candle with a pray. 🙂

Getting out of the cathedral, and catching some moments to recapture what I have seen and strolling down the street. I found the Baptisery of Saint John. Which is still part of the Cathedral. Where does it end? Back in the time, one was not allowed to enter the city without being baptised first. So the baptiseries were usually external part of churches.

I need an espresso. It found some small barista place at the corner and sheltered myself from the rain. Still raining and raining.

Siena retains a ward-centric culture from medieval times. Each ward (contrada) is represented by an animal or mascot, and has its own boundary and distinct identity. There are 17 wards (contrada): Aquila, Bruco, Chiocciola, Civetta, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Leocorno, Lupa, Nicchio, Oca, Onda, Pantera, Selva, Tartuca, Torre, Valdimontone.

The very last stop was a place to discover an astonishing woman. Catherine of Siena. She was born here, in Siena, as a twin. Her sister died at birth, but Catherine survived and become an extraordinary woman who had the courage to tell the truth to popes and kings, she was able to have an enormous influence on politics in an age of strife, wars and plague, when women did not even learn to read. I have visited the Sanctuary of Santa Caterina, incorporating the old house of St. Catherine of Siena. It houses the miraculous Crucifix (late 12th century) from which the saint received her stigmata, and a 15th-century statue of St. Catherine.

When she was six, Jesus appeared to her in the attire of a Supreme Pontiff, with three crowns on his head and a red mantle, next to him St. Peter, St. John and St. Paul. At 7 she made a vow of virginity, and her days were not dedicated to children’s plays, but to prayer, penance and fasting: she reduced food and sleep, abolished meat and ate raw herbs and fruits. At age 12, while young Catherine wished to enter the Dominican order, her parents wanted her to marry, but she reacted strongly: she cut her hair, covered her head with a veil and shut herself up in the house.

She began an intense charitable activity for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, while Europe was devastated by pestilence, famine, wars. The issues on which Catherine turned her attention were the pacification of Italy, the need of a crusade, the return of the papacy to Rome and the reform of the Church. 

And that was the last stop. There was a plan to jump quickly to San Gimignano = the Manhattan of Middle Ages but the rain was so persistent that it didn’t make sense to do anything else but go back to the hotel and get packed for the plane back to Brussels.

2 Comments »

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